OPINION: Offaly hurlers can shake off the shame of last summer
Last year, morale was low in Offaly hurling. The sight of two seepers against eventual All-Ireland winners Galway in the Leinster semi-final was embarrassing, especially when the final score read 1-11 to 0-33. Seven of Offaly's paltry final tally came from placed balls as Galway rolled over us with consummate ease.
Similar tactics were employed against Waterford in the qualifiers and once more Offaly were outclassed on a 1-35 to 0-14 scoreline. To equate it to a training match for Waterford would do a disservice to the reserves in the Deise ranks. Offaly reached its lowest ebb. 'Nothing's coming through,' 'We're done,' 'Bunched,' 'Irrelevant.' The outlook was bleak and rightly so.
Kevin Martin arrived as a legend, a two-time All-Ireland winner with the respect of the county. It was an unenviable job, one that could easily tarnish the Tullamore man's reputation. It could have easily been a case of the new general leading the troops into No Man's Land because Offaly hurling had gone beyond the doldrums.
However, Martin started to deliver soundings of resistance and the firing squad were stood down. Experts started listening; supporters started echoing the war cry. The manager has said the Faithful are looking to challenge in the new Leinster Championship rather than simply survive.
The key to this is that Martin believes it, and while he is talking a big talk, he's not 'all talk.' His singular ambition to bring Offaly back to the top table is the very thing that inspired confidence from supporters and players before a ball was even pucked upon his appointment.
He's shown he means it too - it was all well and good going in against a weakened Dublin team and beating them by 13 points in the first round of the Allianz Hurling League, but the temptation to show caution could have been there when they emerged to play eventual league champions Kilkenny at the quarter-final stage. But Martin and his men stood and traded with the heavyweights, went man to man, and rightly earned the plaudits after a two-point defeat.
Championship hurling is a different animal and yet the talk has continued. Martin has said this week that his team are "going out to beat Galway," an outlook that will draw sly derision from the experts. Whether Kevin truly believes it or not, and I think he does, it's a matter of semantics.
Just like Kevin Ryan saying we were aiming to "avoid a slaughtering" ahead of the Waterford qualifier game last year had a demoralising effect on supporters and players, Martin's brash optimism and fearlessness serves to transform attitudes, and as a result, performance.
It's not the same as saying, "we're going to have a clip" or "we'll have a cut off them," because those soundbites suggest that defeat is likely but we'll go down swinging regardless. Saying things like "we're going out to win," or "we're aiming for the top," is inspiring, and while it leads to bar stool talk from excited aul lads reminiscing about the summer of '98 or '94, it also stirs a swell of confidence in the dressing room.
The doubling effect of this mindset from the boss is an expectant, fervourous hum from the stands and an equal ferocious effort from the players. Those two things, which were absent last season, feed off one another. People loped into O'Moore Park and O'Connor Park last year for those two bruising encounters against Galway and Waterford. We'd prepared like a win was out of the question, and there were groans and a general air of discontent around the grounds. Accordingly, the team limped to two heavy defeats.
Realising that the support and performance are connected and that both are, in the first instance, psychological, a manager can amend his rhetoric accordingly. Kevin has shown himself to be a master at that and it changes the ingredients he has at his disposal. Where Kevin Ryan had largely the same personnel, he lacked that belief, but Kevin Martin has brewed up a very Offaly concoction of it. It summons the spirit of '94 or '98, a defiant tenacity rumbled in the belly of an underdog.
Offaly will be second favourites in all four of their Leinster Championship games, but they won't go into them with that propensity for failure. It's not so much that Martin uses the underdog tag as dressing room wall fodder, but he refuses to even acknowledge the odds and the outcomes they insinuate.
No one analysing Offaly has been in Kilcormac at training; they haven't fully factored in the huddled optimism emerging in Offaly hurling, or the possibility that Kevin Martin's recent interviews are more than just spiel.
Of course, Galway, the current All-Ireland champions, are the most likely winners of our tussle on Saturday evening, but isn't it better to go there believing we will win and in the knowledge that the team has been trained as such?
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