Reports of the "shackles being off" for both teams for Offaly's replayed Leinster Senior Football quarter-final with Westmeath will fall on deaf ears in Pat Flanagan's dressing room, and for very good reason too.
They were the words of Westmeath captain Ger Egan during the week in a local media interview, but whether or not Westmeath are prepared to be more attacking, the same can't be said of Offaly. Someone on Twitter nailed it after the drawn game when they said, "Westmeath came to Tullamore and parked the bus, and Offaly, in retaliation, pulled in behind them."
It may have been tongue in cheek, but there was merit to the throwaway comment. Westmeath probably won't be as cautious in TEG Cusack Park as they were in Tullamore last week, but Offaly will have to curb any longing to tear the shackles off.
Westmeath have better forwards than we have, and that informs our gameplan more than any other facet of the game. Paul Sharry, Ger Egan, Kieran Martin and John Heslin are all dangers. Teams with one danger man can be nullified to a large extent, but any one of these four could haunt us if we give them a run on us. That's why we must pack our defence, whether supporters like it or not.
It's the very reason we played with so many men behind the ball last weekend, and the same reason we'll continue in that vein on Saturday afternoon. What was inexplicable about last week's game was Westmeath's inept strategy, and the fact that they seemed equally hellbent on playing with so many men in defence.
In effect, we cancelled one another out and as a result, produced one of the worst matches of the championship so far. That's probably an unfair reflection on both teams, but for whatever reason on the day, they both set up to stop the other, rather than going out to win the game.
Let's be fair about it; the wind helped nobody and being forced to work the ball closer to goal to counteract the swirling breeze made for an ugly contest. That aside, Offaly probably shocked many people with their defensive display. Westmeath have been a free-scoring outfit, albeit in Division 4, but they've also reached the last two Leinster finals, something that seems far beyond the reach of Offaly.
So, keeping the Lake men to ten points was a bit of an achievement, but with a defensive effort where the likes of Cian Donohoe is allowed to shine, the attacking part of our game suffers, and suffers badly. Niall McNamee cut a lonely figure in Bord na Móna O'Connor Park, and even when the likes of David Hanlon broke out with the ball, he had very few targets to aim at inside.
That allowed us to criticise players like Hanlon, and take the heat off the forwards, and perhaps none of them were to blame for our blunt attack. They were all victims of the system that is so heavily criticised in the GAA, and yet is effective and necessary for a team like Offaly to remain competitive.
Even against a team perceived to be at our level like Westmeath, if we go out and play ball with them, they'll more than likely run us off the pitch. Going toe to toe with them in that way would open up swathes of space behind for the likes of Sharry, Egan and Heslin to operate in.
Such a move by Flanagan, which is unlikely given his track record, would perhaps please the supporters who left O'Connor Park bemoaning the lack of attacking play last week, but it would only do so in principle. The idea of an expansive style of football is lovely, but it is a pipe dream for teams like Offaly at the minute.
To win in a system like the one we'll operate again on Saturday, you need fast counter-attacking play, and you also need your opposition to over commit to attack, something Westmeath certainly didn't do in the first game. Failing that, you need a target man inside, a forward who can almost single-handedly keep a scoreboard on the move.
We've had Niall McNamee for the last 15 or 16 years, and although he was tasting real competitive football for the first time since the end of Rhode's club run last year on Saturday, it is fair to suggest he is not the force of old. It's unfair on other players to suggest one player can make a team but that has largely been the case with McNamee for us. It's the same with Shane Dooley in hurling - without him we'd be playing Christy Ring and that's the fact of it.
The positive for Offaly is we have good young forwards coming through, most notably Cian Johnson, but they are still too young to make that step up to senior grade. We have players like Panda Allen and Sean Doyle who are dangerous, but they seemed to be sacrificed last week.
They give a bit of pace to the team, and both should play a bigger role in the replay, but our balance of defence over attack must remain largely the same. The sheer intensity of the defensive display last week was shown through the two red cards, indiscipline that probably cost us the game in Tullamore.
Cards are inevitable given the intense tackling, something referees govern differently depending on the game. No one wants a stop-start game, and Offaly certainly don't want to be conceding frees for the likes of Sharry to slot over. That means our tackling has to be clean and far enough from goal to avoid kickable frees. That's easier said than done as every GAA manager will know.
When you put these issues on paper, it makes our task look far tougher, and if we do win on Saturday, you can guarantee it won't be pretty. Personally, I don't care if it's pretty - better to win ugly than to lose in a blaze of glory in a glorified shoot-out.
Offaly football was in decline for a long time, but that's levelled off now and Flanagan is regularly bringing in younger players. He has to be recognised for that, but the man is not a risk taker, and nor should he be given the players at his disposal. Offaly will set up similarly to last weekend this Saturday, and all we can do is hope that without the factor of the wind, our counterattacking play will improve and Westmeath will over commit, allowing us more room for manoeuvre coming out from the back.
Given the talk of shackles being off, that may well be the case, and we can take advantage of that, provided we keep the indiscipline close to goal to a minimum and defend as well as last week. The fear is Westmeath's unshackling will be enough for them to outgun Offaly.
If they use the same set-up they brought to Tullamore on Saturday, which is unlikely, we have a chance in a similarly dire affair, but in Mullingar, they'll be hard to beat. It may be a case of the old GAA cliché becoming relevant - we left it behind us the last day.
Verdict: Westmeath to edge it
Keep up to date with www.offalyexpress.ie for team news and analysis as Offaly prepare for the replay with Westmeath. The game throws in on Saturday, June 17 at 2pm in TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar.
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