LONG READ: Offaly's second string make their mark

LONG READ: Offaly's second string make their mark

Ben Conneely with the Division 2A cup

OFFALY'S improvement in hurling has been remarkable to observe this year but it comes, even if comes with a cautionary warning – the level of opposition has been far removed from what will be provided by the real top tier counties and it remains to be seen how Offaly will cope in that environment.

That will be the acid test for Offaly and they will get a clear idea of exactly where they are in the National Hurling League next year when they compete in Division 1.

Offaly manager Michael Fennelly was right when he spoke on Sunday about the enormity of the jump to Division 1 hurling from Division 2A. Stating that the extent of the jump doesn't make sense, Fennelly believes that an old style Division 1B would have suited Offaly's needs best – where they would play a couple of top level teams but not be truly thrown in among the wolves.

Now Division 1 is divided into two six team groups of equal strength and it means that Offaly could be playing a few of the real top tier counties next season.

In one sense this is good as it will show Offaly exactly where they need to be and they will learn from it. If they were able to compete to any sort of a decent level, it would have a great impact on confidence and really bring Offaly on.

However, if they get really bad beatings, then it could be very damaging. Westmeath had a horrific experience this year, losing their five games to Galway, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and Cork with a scoring difference of -106 points.

As Fennelly stated on Sunday, Offaly have operated at a lower level than Westmeath in recent years and the jump could be too much for them.

“For me, that jump is too high. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Look at Westmeath, they are at a level higher than us at the moment in terms of league and Joe McDonagh and they have been trounced, thirty odd points a game. To me that is not good for a team. You need to be playing teams who are above you but not two or three steps above you,” he said.

It is pace and intensity that will catch Offaly out in the higher grade and it will take them a while to get up to that level, if it is achievable. However, Offaly have very clearly moved in the right direction in the league.

Their performances have surpassed expectations. They played four Joe McDonagh Cup teams in Meath, Kerry, Carlow and Down and recorded very comprehensive and impressive wins over them all.

Before the league, the expectation was that Offaly would lose at least one game and find themselves in a dogfight in others. Yet they have really walked out of the division, winning their games by a combined total of 91 points.

The extent of their victories over counties they have struggled against in the past represents huge progress. Offaly had lost to Carlow, Kerry and Down in crunch games in the past couple of years but it was a very different story this year.

The biggest single difference has been the improvement in their touch. Offaly hurling has been blighted by foostering and fumbling for many years now. Games where the first touch was just not good enough or consistent enough and the quality of their passing and striking often let them down. It could be good at times but the consistency was not there and it was the major factor in Offaly plummeting down to the third tier.

This has moved to a different level this year. The players have been much sharper, much more clinical, more efficient. Their body language has been much better and they look to be enjoying themselves.

Collectively, Offaly have played very well and individually, many players have made huge strides forward. Liam Langton and Oisin Kelly are two that spring to mind. They were capable of spells of brilliance in recent years.

Langton had great skill, could do delightful things and get audacious scores. However, he could also frustrate, taking on shots that he shouldn't and his influence could decline when things didn't go their way. This year, however, he has been vastly improved. The skill and flair is still there but he is standing up to be counted in games and is revelling in the responsibility of playing centre half forward. The Killeigh man is becoming a leader and his energy levels have been great.

Oisin Kelly has also progressed to another level this year. One of Offaly's most exciting hurling, his explosiviness and power can create a buzz of anticipation. He has great pace and his willingness to take on opponents and run at goal is a great asset to Offaly. Consistency has been Kelly's biggest problem. The Belmont man could have great spells in games rather than great games – there were often long periods when he was on the periphery of the action but he has transitioned this year. He is becoming a leader and while he still has road to travel and work do to, he is heading in a very exciting direction.

Eoghan Cahill's brilliance in the attack has also been crucial. The Birr man was in goals a couple of years ago and there was a debate about whether he should be pushed forward to the attack. There were concerns that pace could be an issue but this has not been the case at all. He has been brilliant at creating and converting chances and is now Offaly's main score getter.

The Durrow trio of Ciaran Burke, Ross Ravenhill and Brian Duignan are all making significant progress this year as they establish themselves while midfielder Leon Fox is another who is improving and is beginning to emerge as a leader.

It is an exciting time for Offaly hurling and it was also good to see the second string team show their ability in last Sunday's win over Wicklow. It was a non event in ways as Wicklow were very poor but the players were hungry and they wanted to do well.

Some of them made strong claims for involvement in the Christy Ring Cup. Jordan Quinn, Aidan Treacy, John Murphy, Shane Dooley and Luke O'Connor did particularly well while there were plenty of others who enhanced their prospects.

There will be pitfalls ahead and Division 1 next season could be a sobering experience but Offaly are on the right road at last.

Merit in playing National Football League Division 3 final

OFFALY have sent out a clear message about their priority this year by agreeing to play Derry in the National Football League Division 3 final next Saturday.

By agreeing to play it the week before their Leinster Senior Football Championship opener against Louth, Offaly have said very loudly that championship is not the be all and end all for them this year.

They will of course be very focused on beating Louth. A defeat there would undermine some of the progress that has been made this year but only to a small extent. By winning promotion to Division 2 of the National Football League, the year is already a success for John Maughan and Offaly.

With Dublin in the Leinster senior championship, Offaly's prospects of a provincial title are virtually nil. Of course you never know in football and there are never absolutes in sport but no one can make a compelling or coherent case for Offaly winning their first title since 1997.

Management are also admitting as much by playing this league final. With it on a week before the championship opener, they had the option of not playing it but the attraction of a Croke Park fixture proved impossible to resist.

They have taken the stance that a game in Croke Park will bring on the team further and there is real merit in that line of thinking. There is a risk associated with it and they could blow up against Louth. They won't be able to do real physical gruelling this week and there will be a similar recovery process after the Derry game.

However, football is all about games, and it should be about enjoyment, experiences and development, both physically and mentally.

Playing in Croke Park will be a great experience for the players who haven't done so and a league title would add to what has been an excellent year to date.

It is important though that the players be given the opportunity to express themselves here. Play to a system but don't be too rigid about it. Allow them to take chances, to try audacious things. They need to be competitive but in the broader scheme of things, the result doesn't matter. They can afford to let the shackles off, to have fun and see what it brings. And let the Louth game take of itself in the following week.

Great to see supporters at games

IT was great to see some supporters at last weekend's National Football and Hurling League games. 200 supporters were allowed in to see Offaly beat Fermanagh in the National Football League Division 3 semi-final on Saturday and to witness the hurlers annihilate Wicklow in their last Division 2A match on Saturday.

It was only a handful of people and the vast majority were deprived but it was a welcome step back towards normality.

People have been crying out for games and their excitement in O'Connor Park and Baltinglass was palpable.

It also made a big difference to the games and created a decent bit of atmosphere – it was nice to be able to hear the shouts of spectators rather than what players were saying on the field.

The Offaly GAA County Board were also very fair in having a draw for tickets for supporters for Saturday's game in Tullamore. 100 supporters won the right to buy tickets and it was good to give everyone an opportunity to go – even if there is merit in the argument that it should be limited to club members.

It was also interesting, and somewhat bemusing, to watch a campaign of sorts on social media about the “rights” of a few supporters to get tickets. The supporters in question are real loyal, dedicated followers of Offaly but no one person should be elevated above anyone else. Offaly has hundreds of supporters that never miss a match, there are also former county players who have given their life to the association in a variety of capacities, people who have put in several years in adminstrative and management roles at club and county levels, who would have loved to see the match.

A draw is the only fair way of distributing tickets when there are limits and the luck of the draw should be the sole determinant of who gets them.

Hopefully, more spectators will be allowed at games in the coming weeks and this will cease to be an issue. A limited number of tickets went on sale on Ticket Master on Tuesday for the final and that was also a fair decision as it allows supporters to try and get their own.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers are:

`1 – Offaly's match out of the senior football wilderness began in Newbridge in 1960. Name the club that had no representative on the starting fifteen for the first time in sixty years?

Answer: Rhode.

2 – When Offaly played Carlow in the first round of the Leinster SFC in 1960, three major substitutes helped them turn a seven point deficit into victory. Name them?

Answer: Mick Casey, Paddy McCormack and Tommy Greene.

3 – Who scored Offaly's very late goal to defeat Carlow in 1960?

Answer: Charlie Wrenn.

This week's questions are:

1 – When Offaly beat Dublin 1-16 to 1-7 in the 1982 Leinster senior football final, who played centre half back?

2 – Offaly's starting fifteen in the 1972 All-Ireland senior football final replay has a link with the Offaly team that beat Fermanagh in last Saturday's National Football League semi-final. Name them?

3 – Two men that started the 1980 Leinster senior hurling final had sons who played in the All-Ireland senior hurling qualifier against Cork in 2012. Name the sons?

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

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