Faithful being tested as glory years fade into memory
Offaly, a county with a proud recent tradition in both hurling and football, now finds itself mired in the doldrums
Offaly players and fans celebrate after the dramatic All-Ireland hurling final victory over Limerick in 1994. Photo: James Meehan/Inpho
Whither Offaly? For three decades, the county managed to punch above its weight in both hurling and football with irrepressible bursts of perfection which appeared locked into the mysteries and personality of the place and its people.
From their first All-Ireland title in the senior football final of 1971, Offaly had an inimitable knack for cobbling together charismatic teams who were never overly fussed about losing games and who didn’t lose the run of life when they won either.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was difficult to class Offaly as a definitive hurling or football county as they were always capable of thriving in each sport. And easy-going though the attitude may have been, Offaly teams had a flair for the dramatic.
Famous television footage starring Offaly is hardly scarce: Séamus Darby’s immortal goal in the closing minutes of the 1982 All-Ireland football final against a Kerry team for whom the five-in-a-row seemed like manifest destiny; the crazy two -goal comeback in the last five minutes of the 1994 All-Ireland hurling final against an unfortunate Limerick team; the relentless madness of 1998, when Babs Keating quit and the Faithful supporters staged a sit-down protest after time was called early in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Clare and finally Brian Whelahan’s super heroic turn in the September showpiece when, too ill to play in defence, he popped up at full forward to score the crucial goal against Kilkenny.
Whenever Offaly won, they tended to win memorably. Offaly was the first county to earn an All-Star in every position in both hurling and football. The small population didn’t seem like a hindrance. They just had it, striking one back for the smaller counties. And that is why the grim outcome of this year’s league, which leaves Offaly’s hurlers fighting to avoid Division Two A and Offaly footballers in Division Four ought to be a worry not just for GAA people in the county but for the association in general.
“Things are at a low ebb and that would be reflected in the mood within the county,” admits Pádraig Boland, the Offaly county chairman. “There is a realisation that we slipped a lot and because we achieved so much, it probably feels worse.
“When the GAA talks about Offaly having a hurling tradition and you look at incentives and initiatives given to counties on the periphery on the scene, you sometimes think: hang on . . . . we won nothing before 1980.
“We have issues of depopulation that are pronounced in the hurling strongholds of south Offaly. However we would expect to keep pace with the dual counties around us and even by those standards, we seem to have slipped.”
Liam Currams won an All-Ireland senior medal with the hurlers in 1981 and with the football team in 1982 and remains the one Offaly player to hold All-Star awards in both games. He has not lived in his native county for 30 years but regularly makes the trip from his home in Donegal to see family and to watch the games there. Watching the downturn in the county’s fortunes pains him.
“It is awful sad to see, yeah. I feel more for the footballers because I do think the hurlers have this uncanny knack of beating teams – even if Kilkenny in the first round is a very tall order. We punched above our weight over the years; there is no question about that.
“But as to what has gone wrong? I don’t know. The hurlers are still in there with a shout. The football tradition dated back to the ’61 All-Ireland against Down and then in 1971 and 1972 they beat Galway and Kerry. I was 11 when Martin Furlong brought the cup into the national school in Kilcormac and ten years later I was on an All-Ireland-winning team with Offaly. I think it all starts with the clubs.”
The peculiar thing is that there has been very little outcry about the gradual eclipse of Offaly as a GAA force. As Michael Duignan, another dual player and an All-Star member of the All-Ireland hurling sides of 1994 and 1998 puts it: “We came almost from nowhere and built up a huge profile within the GAA and suddenly nearly became a traditional county.”
Nearly: that is the point. Offaly seemed to exist on the fringes of the establishment. Duignan lives in Offaly: as well as his summer role as a hurling analyst with RTÉ, he is chairman of a small club outside Tullamore. The issues facing Offaly hurling are manifold. The lack of money is not the least of them. A €2 million euro debt hangs over O’Connor Park in Tullamore.
Offaly is one of the few counties not to have developed a dedicated training facility for its county squads. As Pádraig Boland admits, “In the winter, we are reliant on the good grace of our clubs.”
Emigration and depopulation has hit Offaly hard. And it is beginning to dawn on Offaly GAA people that the old laissez faire approach to hurling and football isn’t enough anymore.
“We all probably sort of believed that the spirit that was always so evident in Offaly would help us to turn things around,” Duignan says.
“We do need to put structures in place to bring development squads up to speed and match the professional approach of other counties. I think we can turn it around if we get a plan in place because there are a lot of good people in the county.”
Offaly have not been Leinster hurling champions since 1995 (winning their 1998 All-Ireland through the back door) and have not won the Leinster football championship since Tommy Lyons was in charge in 1997.
The roll call of managers who have passed through both dressing rooms since then underlines the fact that the problem is not limited to tactics or inspirational team talks.
Brian Whelahan, the everyday god of Offaly hurling, is in charge of the senior hurling team now. John Troy, the Lusmagh stylist, stands at his side. Emmet McDonnell, the senior football manager, has said that the grim league season has not demoralised his side.
Joe Errity, another pure hurler with a heavily decorated mantelpiece, is in charge of the Offaly minor hurlers. Long-serving senior footballer Pascal Kelleghan is in charge of a minor football side generally considered to be promising. The stars of yesteryear are giving back.
But it could be argued that Offaly is a victim of its own versatility: that it has become impossible for a county of its size to field genuinely competitive teams in both sports.
“That’s a thorny question,” says Michael Sheridan, Clara club chairman, when asked whether Offaly can sustain its reputation in both games.
“I think a lot of our troubles go back to coaching. We have gone away from the Offaly hurling and football style and lost what we were good at. We are possibly trying to copy successful counties. We have to go back to basics and concentrate of football more than fitness.
“Football, for instance, is a simple game and we need to keep it simple. There is no discussion at county board level now on football or hurling. Everything is gone to committee level now. It seems like you are running down a manager if you say something. I do feel we have to come back to a more open discussion. I do think they are trying to address it at underage level and Pat Cleary, for instance, is doing tremendous work coaching hurling. But I feel in general we need more emphasis on the ‘Offaly way’ of playing both games.”
The trick now is to somehow channel Offaly’s stylistic and temperamental individuality through a cohesive frame work.
Duignan emphasises the importance of coaching in schools. Boland stresses that the county board is working in tandem with the Leinster Council to look at the problems. In his day job, Boland is a youth officer and has sees proof of the fact that the era of Offaly youngsters automatically gravitating towards Gaelic fields are over.
“We have to focus on our underage teams, to start again, really,” he says.
“Times have changed,” Liam Currams says. When he trained with the county teams in the early 1980s, Demot Healy gave maybe 15 minutes to physical training before concentrating on high intensity ball work and ground hurling. “It was about skill, skill, skill,” says Currams who trained with the football team every other week. “That was the complete opposite: the training was brutally hard.”
He wasn’t really conscious of the time that he was in the midst of a sensational period for Offaly GAA or of how great the odds were on a county of Offaly’s size claiming All-Irelands in successive years. “I was just playing. Success was a by-product. It really wasn’t until many years later that I began to appreciate how difficult that was.”
Currams is involved in coaching football now in Donegal and believes that in general, the theory of GAA coaching has become too reliant on drills.
“You put youngsters into match situations and they aren’t able to express themselves. Go to a Kilkenny hurling session. Brian Cody just has them playing.”
Michael Sheridan says that the mood across the county is “very pessimistic”. However, people are agreed upon two things. Blame is pointless. And something is missing. Trying to identify precisely what that is is the difficulty. Public meetings are planned for the weeks ahead to give people an opportunity to air their views.
“We need to just accept where we are and then use that background that we have in All-Ireland wins. Being small is not a good enough excuse,” Duignan states.
“I feel we have the material here. I am loathe to say we can come back and win All-Irelands. . . I have a huge issue with funding. I think we will end up with three or four very strong counties in hurling and football that no other county can deal with. But in Offaly we should be a long way ahead of where we are. We have to make it attractive for young players to want to get on Offaly squads and go play in Croke Park.”
Right now, the chance would be a fine thing. Notionally, a Kilkenny-Offaly hurling afternoon in the championship still sounds like a classic match-up because, as Duignan points out, the Faithful County became part of the summer picture and they fulfilled a role that delighted neutrals: maverick, skill laden and unpredictable. It wasn’t just that Offaly won: it was that they won on their own terms.
In 1998, Johnny Pilkington seemed to capture the moseying Offaly approach when he offered his perspective on the championship to this newspaper: “The whole idea of it is actually ridiculous. Training in the muck and dirt. A big chunk of life gone for a little chunk of metal while an association is making millions.”
That was just a few days before Pilkington and Offaly won the All-Ireland against Kilkenny. The Cats manager Kevin Fennelly might have spoken for Ireland in general in the Offaly dressing room after that match: “Can’t hate ye for it. Just have to admire ye.”
Now, Daithí Regan’s bleak forecast of a year ago, when he warned Offaly would soon be hurling in the Christy Ring cup sounds less alarmist than it did then. And exiting Division Four in football is easier said than done. It has been a sobering few years for a county with such a glittering All-Ireland record. They are beginning to shout stop in Offaly and admit that flair and a happy-go-lucky spirit just won’t cut it anymore.
“It is probably a long road for us,” says Pádraig Boland. “That is hard to take for some people in Offaly GAA to face. But we have to face it.”