Offaly players celebrate a great win over Dublin.
IT is only in the coming years that the exact significance of last Thursday's Leinster U-20 Football Championship final win over Dublin will be revealed.
No grandiose statements or announcements can be made on the back of one win. It could well prove to be a flash in the pan, or it could be something way deeper, much more profound than that.
Time will tell but it is a win that has the potential to alter the trajectory of the GAA in Offaly. It may have been coming for some time. Offaly have improved at underage level in football and hurling in recent years.
Getting to the two Leinster minor finals in 2020 was a big step in the right direction. Those finals were only played a few weeks ago with the footballers agonisingly close as they lost to Meath by a point while the hurlers were well beaten by Kilkenny.
A huge body of work has taken place at all levels in Offaly GAA in recent years. It has began at club level and continued on into the county scene. Most clubs have got their act together at underage level and there has been a lot of work in the county arena. Full time Games Promotion Officers have put the structures in place, voluntary coaches and workers have embraced this and there has been a gradual turning of the corner.
In underage football and hurling, Offaly have started to get competive again. Bad days were always possible in both codes and still are but Offaly have begun to beat the counties at the same level or lower than them and compete against the big ones in the province.
Slowly but surely, there has been a cultural change in Offaly GAA and it is taking place at the most important level of all: with the younger players who now hit minor ranks knowing what is needed to play at that level. They know the training that is necessary, the physicality that is needed, the lifestyle they must live. Not everyone will do everything by the book and some will slip through the net but the vast majority will come through the system.
There is still plenty of work to be done, a long road ahead. Football seems to be a little bit further down the road than hurling. The Leinster U-20 football final was the first time in a long time that Offaly were the physical match for a Dublin team, that they were stronger and faster than them. People have been rightly using Dublin as the target that every other football team has to reach in the province. People have been raving about the work they have been doing from the youngest ages, yet here was an Offaly team not only matching them but over powering them in the second half as they stormed to a 0-15 to 3-3 win.
That was the most pleasing part of a truly special evening for Offaly GAA. The hurlers are also moving in the right direction, improvements are taking place. Minor hurling manager Leo O'Connor did speak after last week's Leinster semi-final defeat by Kilkenny about the work that still needs to be done in terms of physicality.
That was a strange sort of a game. Offaly were beaten 3-23 to 1-16 but were only a score behind heading into the last five minutes. A famous victory was in sight but Kilkenny blew them out of the water late on. While Offaly can be very proud of the way they played and battled, there is no denying that Kilkenny were the better team and would have had the game in the bag much earlier had they been more clinical in front of goals. It still represented progress for Offaly and it was great to see a team in contention against Kilkenny so late in the game.
O'Connor, however, rightly spoke about the difference in physicality between Offaly and Kilkenny. The Limerick man said:
“The lads fought hard. You can't be nothing but proud of them and everything they did. They tried hard and they hooked and they blocked against a very very physically stronger Kilkenny team. That is the one thing we have to take away from all of this. It is how physical the inter-county game is, even at minor.
“It is all ifs and buts but I hope for the lads this was really a learning process for them. They now know in the last two years between 2020 and 2021 the physicality of inter-county. I was even listening to the comments during the water break and they were saying how to swarm them in the tackle. That is inter-county hurling. It's on the process of going up to senior. That is how senior county teams are doing it, they are swarming teams in the tackle. They turnover ball.
“The process is started already. The work gone in the past two or three years has been phenomenal so it is a matter now of stepping up and pushing on another gear. You have to identify what have other counties done. What have Cork done? Offaly are beginning to come back at U-20 level as well. Last night's game (v Dublin) could have been won. Small things again. It is just the physicality, the work and the effort that goes into it. Inter-county players are going to have to be developed. Number one they are going to have to be identified and number two they are going to have to do the necessary strength and conditioning work.
“I mention strength and conditioning a lot. That is one side of it but then you have to have pace to travel as well. Inter-county hurlers are some athletes now that are playing it. Look at Limerick and they did that to a senior team. That is the way it is.”
It appears that a lot of this type of work has already taken place with the footballers, or at least it looked that way against Dublin when even Offaly's smaller players showed commendable power and fitness.
Last week's win could change everything for Offaly GAA. The county won the Leinster junior football title in 2001 but it was their first mainstream provincial title since 2000 when U-21 and minor hurling were won. It was their first Leinster U-21 football title since 1995, the first big football championship title since the 1997 senior.
It was a very emotional occasion for Offaly GAA people. With Covid-19 restrictions, there was only a couple of hundred or so Offaly supporters in O'Moore Park but they created a crescendo of noise as the winning post loomed into sight late on. The joy and happiness on people's face after Offaly's win is hard to articulate.
U-20 will always pale into significance beside senior but this win meant so much to Offaly. It provided tangible evidence that Offaly is making progress. They had begun to compete with most counties in Leinster football but this was different. It was getting across the line in a provincial final against the province's marquee team – Dublin may have been average on the day but beating them so well was new territory for Offaly in the modern era.
It was a real old fashioned Offaly performance. Football is a very different game now than when Offaly were the best county in Leinster and Ireland in the past but the spirit and determination they showed were also the hallmarks of many of those successful teams. This team, the way they are playing football and the commitment they are showing is touching the heartstrings of Offaly GAA people all over the world.
The excitement of people in Portlaoise and watching it on television was incredible. It showed what the GAA means to Offaly. There was a special atmosphere in the county on Friday and over the weekend.
Tullamore was once again permeating with football talk on Friday as the splendid summer sun blasted down and buskers played music in O'Connor Square. The win was the main topic of conversation.
Offaly exiles in other counties and abroad have talked about what it meant to them. Parents were able to give their young children a glimpse of what they experienced in their young adulthood as Offaly enjoyed great success.
It is only one title but it changes the goalposts for Offaly GAA. The repercussions can be felt at all level and Offaly now have something tangible to build on. It has to whet the appetite of young people to be the best they can and bring success to the county. They now know what it means to Offaly. It encourages people at the coalface in clubs and county to keep going, confidence that they are doing the right thing.
Incidentally, it was amusing to observe the comments of some people from other counties on social media after Thursday's win. Some of them attributed it to the new look County Board under the chairmanship of Michael Duignan. Their comments were not accurateand did a disservice to the predecessors of Michael Duignan and his colleagues. Michael Duignan and others have helped raise the bar for Offaly GAA. Their passion and ambition is creating a big spin off and like Dublin a few years ago, it is once again becoming fashionable to be an Offaly GAA player.
The new regime is a factor in what is going on at the moment but the former officers also played their part. The culture change that blasted to the top in Portlaoise had begun a few years ago, those players developed and progressed before the new officers were elected and the various county managements were put in place by the previous officers.
Yet Michael Duignan et-al look like they are the right people in the right place to build on what is going on and bring it to a much higher level. They have ambitious plans and they are a crucial piece of the jigsaw. They are a big part of the reason that it is once again fashionable to call yourself an Offaly GAA person and they will be wasting to time in trying to drive things forward.
People had been despairing about the chances of ever seeing Offaly win a provincial title again. Now it has happened and it can be the start of much greater things as this proud county bids to regain former glories.
Offaly players named on minor teams of the year
FURTHER evidence of Offaly's well-being is provided by the fact that two players from the county have been selected on the 2020 minor teams of the year.
Birr's Lochann Quinn has been named as wing forward on the minor hurling team of the year. Quinn was in sensational scoring form, from play and frees, as Offaly reached the Leinster minor hurling final in 2020.
Cathal Ryan has been named at wing back on the 2020 minor football team of the year. Daingean man Ryan had a great year as Offaly ran Meath agonisingly close in the 2020 Leinster minor football final. He played at centre half back and was a sub on the Offaly side that had a great win over Dublin in the Leinster U-20 Football Championship final last week.
This week's questions are:
1 – How many of the Offaly team that lost the 1989 All-Ireland minor football final started in the 1998 National Football League final?
2 – When did Matt Connor score his first senior championship goal for Offaly?
3 – Who was the first Offaly man to play in a Railway Cup hurling final?
Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.
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