THE MAN BEHIND THE WIRE: Old Offaly spirit beginning to resurface again

Old Offaly spirit beginning to resurface again

Anton Sullivan against Wicklow PIC: Sportsfile

PERHAPS the most encouraging thing about Offaly's recent form in football and hurling is a rekindling of elements of the traditional spirit and fight that the county was once famed for.

Both the footballers and hurlers have been showing some of the characteristics of the Offaly teams of old and that is a very welcome development. Those type of traits are almost unquantifiable but they were very much a feature of Offaly teams of the past - they won so many games against the odds and with late comebacks.

It is way to early to say with any certainty that Offaly have turned a corner in either code but there have been very definite strides forward with both footballers and hurlers on the cusp of promotion in the National Leagues.

The footballers have done everything that could have been hoped of them. They have won their three games in Division 3 South of the National Football League and took full advantage of the opportunity that the Covid enforced restructured campaign presented to them.

It saw the leagues split into two groups and Offaly were placed in the south section. That was definitely the easier of the two groups – the north had Derry, Fermanagh, Longford and Cavan and Offaly would have found it a lot more difficult to come out of that.

Lady luck smiled kindly on them. The timing of the league was also to their advantage. It is summer football now and as manager John Maughan said after Saturday's fine win over Tipperary, this suits Offaly a lot better than the grind of the winter. While Offaly are developing impressively in the physicality and fitness stakes, they are a comparatively light team and are a lot better on harder ground and in favourable weather conditions.

However, luck can only bring you so far and Offaly had to perform to take advantage of the breaks they got. They have certainly done that, beating Wicklow, Limerick and Tipperary. Their form does come with a caution – Wicklow and Limerick were just up out of Division 4 while Tipperary have had injuries and have been unable to capture the form that saw them win the Munster title last year. The games against Limerick and Tipperary, however, were real banana skins. Both were in the balance well inside the closing quarter, both were the type of games that Offaly have grown accustomed to blowing in the past but on these occasions, they were able to dig out the result.

No matter what you want to say about the opposition, that factor alone represents progress for Offaly football. Previous manager Pat Flanagan often talked about the fear factor in Offaly and how they would begin to do the wrong thing, make poor decisions in the white heat of battle when the pressure was at its most intense. The Clara man wasn't able to change it but he began to address it, to bring it to the forefront of players' consciousness.

It was a topic addressed by predecessors and successors of Flanagan but now there is evidence that it is changing. Offaly may have stuttered over the line against Limerick but they got there. Against Tipperary last Saturday, they stormed home in the closing quarter. The enduring brilliance of Niall McNamee may have been a big factor in that but it was a collective effort and it was Offaly's biggest win in some years.

Now they have a golden chance of promotion against Fermanagh and again, they have got the bounce of the ball with a home draw. That is worth at least a couple of points to them. Offaly have been closer to Division 4 than Division 3 in recent years but now a golden opportunity has presented itself to get up. They may not get as good a chance again – Fermanagh will be very difficult to beat and may even be slight favourites but things have lined up very nicely for Offaly.

Similarily, the hurlers have also done very well. They have won their three games to date in Division 2A of the National Hurling League, beating Meath, Kerry and Carlow. The manner of their wins has been very encouraging as they won all these games very handsomely. Again, they may have got a break with Kerry fielding an understrength team but these are the type of chances that can change the stars for a group.

The three of them were also from a higher championship grade, the Joe McDonagh Cup, than Offaly but they have shown that they are more than ready to compete at that higher level and try to return to top tier hurling.

They welcome another Joe McDonagh Cup team in Down to Tullamore on Sunday next and a win here will put them up – they are away to Wicklow in their last game and it is almost inconceivable that they can lose that, though that fate has happened Offaly hurling teams in the long distant past.

Manager Michael Fennelly played down expectations of the league at the start of the year, pointing out that there were four Joe McDonagh Cup teams in the division. However, their form has been compelling, the nature of their victories giving hope for the future.

It is a shame that Offaly didn't win the Christy Ring Cup last year. They got caught by Down in the semi-final in Newry and it is impossible to escape the feeling that a year has been lost. However, it may work out in Offaly's long term progress and a mainly young team have a chance to develop with less pressure and away from the spotlight.

Football and hurling are very different games than when Offaly were at their pomp in the past. They will never be played the same way again and there is no point in romanticising about long ball in football and ground play in hurling. Neither will work in the modern game and against the really top teams, you simply won't survive with these games.

It is clear that Offaly are beginning to adapt to the modern game while retaining some of the basic ethos of the county. The footballers play a possession game but are not afraid to mix it with quick, fast and accurate long ball. The hurlers have developed their game from last year. They are not playing as negatively and they are also getting the ball forward quicker, while trying to ensure that it isn't given away softly to the opposition.

The game plans in both codes will evolve for Offaly and they will have to adapt against different opposition. However, Offaly are also beginning to type into that old traditional spirit. The players in both codes are displaying great honesty, they look hungry and they look like they want to be there. They are willing to go to the depths of themselves during games and that is not something we could say about every Offaly team and player in the recent past. They look like they are enjoying themselves and they are playing with a semblance of freedom.

It is at a low level in both codes and you can be absolutely certain that Offaly footballers and hurlers will receive bitter, harsh lessons in the coming months and years again. Days when peopl;e will wonder if it was all a mirage.

However, there are significant baby steps forward being taken and that gives Offaly something solid to build on. A feel good factor is beginning to come back into the county at all levels in football and hurling. It is a process going on at club level and with underage development squads. At minor and U-21 level, Offaly have promising managers in place who are all singing from the same hymn sheet. They may have different ideas and ways of playing the game but Ken Furlong (minor football), Leo O'Connor (minor hurling), Declan Kelly (U-20 football) and Gary Cahill (U-20 football) are all working hard at changing the attitude of the players, of demanding the commitment that is required. If a player can't give that commitment, fair enough, but he won't be carried as players have been in the past.

There is a sense of things happening, movement taking place and that sense alone is worth its weight in gold to Offaly at the moment.

It all comes during a period when the Offaly GAA County Board have got themselves embroiled in a furious row with Tullamore GAA Club over the lease terms of O'Connor Park. A lot has been written about that in the past couple of weeks but it is a row that is very unhelpful at the moment and both sides have to call a halt to it.

The County Board must show leadership and get it sorted. Tullamore must show that they are part of the County Board and all that entails – not an isolated, stand alone unit.

The attitude of some in both camps is not healthy. In the County Board, there is talk of termination and handing the keys back. Some Tullamore members and supporters are expressing the view that they should take the keys back and then lock the gates. The whole thing would be actually funny if it wasn't so tragic, so sad and with the potential to cause untold damage to both sides.

It won't be bothering Michael Fennelly, John Maughan or any of their players in the slightest. They will be immune to all this but on a wider, deeper level, it is creating more friction, more distrust. Both Tullamore and to a lesser extent, the County Board are getting plenty of criticism out there and neither needs it at the moment.

Things are going too well on the playing fields to have a row like this taking up time and energy of people who have a lot more productive stuff to be doing.

It was interesting to listen to Birr GAA chairman John Irwin speak on Tuesday after Offaly's National Hurling League game against Down was switched from Birr to Tullamore. It was changed by the County Board after a request by the Offaly team management. It may be partly for Covid reasons but you can be sure that there is more to it than that. The reality is that most managers and players will choose to play in O'Connor Park than Birr – it is a better stadium under every criteria.

Yet Birr deserve huge respect for the work they have done and the investment they have made in returning St Brendan's Park to a fit state for some intercounty games and big club fixtures. Birr is in the hurling heartland of the county. The balance of power may be changing with players from Ballinamere and Durrow, and Clodiagh Gaels now pivotal on the Offaly senior hurling team. The influence of players from those clubs and maybe Tullamore, if they can get their hurling act together, may grow further in the coming years. However, the south is the hurling heartland, it is where the game thrived for so long and it is the game of choice for the majority of people there.

Those supporters must be respected and giving Birr some inter-county fixtures and club senior quarter and semi-finals etc is a fair gesture. Birr have earned that right but John Irwin didn't lash out when Sunday's fixture was taken off their hands.

He had to be disappointed but he accepted that it was a decision for Offaly GAA. He pledged that Birr will continue to make their ground available when requested and he stressed that the key thing in all this was that Offaly beat Down on Sunday.

“We are developing our ground and we have invested in our grounds to present an option for the County Board to play games right across the county. We want to promote our games right across the county and that is our aim,” he said.

Tullamore could do with taking a leaf out of that book, to acknowledge their county duty and it requires movement by them for the O'Connor Park row to be solved. Insisting that the status quo remains is not a fair solution and a middle ground has to be found somewhere.

It is not in anyone's interest to have a termination of the lease and all that entails – that is a story for another day. At the moment, it is in no man's land. The County Board have written to Tullamore asking them to consider selling out the lease or reducing the fee. Tullamore have said they won't do either of those things. If the answer remains the same, then termination becomes a live possibility.

That would be a disaster and both camps must show true leadership to avoid that. It could well be that it will all resolve peacefully in the coming weeks. Both sides are engaged in a game of bluff at the moment. It is a very dangerous game to play, a version of Russian Roulette with a loaded gun, but is is possible that an 11th hour compromise will be reached. In fact, that is likely but it needs to happen soon and the quicker this issue is put to bed, the better for all concerned.

Then the focus can return to the real issue, the promotion and development of football and hurling – and at the moment, there is plenty to be very optimistic about in both codes.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers are:

1 – How many Offaly men have refereed All-Ireland senior finals?

Answer – 9 (Sean Robbins, Jimmy Flaherty, Pat O'Connell, Matt Spain, John Dowling, Mick Spain, Gerry Kirwan, Pat Horan and Brian Gavin).

2 -Offaly scored one goal in both the draw and replay of the 1947 Leinster minor football final. Who scored them?

Answer – Tommy Ennis (Tullamore) and Johnny Kinahan (Clara).

3 – Who were Offaly's two hurling All-Stars in 1999?

Answer – Brian Whelahan and John Troy.

This week's questions are:

1 - When Offaly played the All-Ireland senior football semi-final in 1997, it was their seventh match. Name the only Offaly man to score in all of the previous six matches?

2 – What was the link between the Offalty senior football championship teams of 1994 and 2006?

3 – How many championship matches did Offaly play to win the 1998 All-Ireland senior hurling title?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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