Birr factor can bring Offaly in from cold
CHAMPIONSHIP 2002/Interview: Fr Tom Fogarty tells Ian O'Riordan that club success could change Offaly's fortunes
Fr Tom Fogarty is not without some confidence despite the multitudinous tasks that come with his first championship match as Offaly hurling manager. In Thurles on Sunday opponents Kilkenny are labelled solely as winners - and for almost endless reasons.
This season Offaly were hit with more retirements than most other hurling counties combined. New talent has been emerging in a trickle, and one of their key players still around, Johnny Dooley, has been struck down with a knee injury.
Then there was the league form. While Kilkenny were progressing to the title, beating Limerick in the semi-final and Cork in the final, Offaly were struggling for survival, beating Meath by just two points in a relegation play-off.
"There's no doubt it's going to be a real test for this Offaly team," says Fogarty. "Everyone has written us off, though we have no doubts about what lies in store on Sunday. We know we are going to have to play exceptionally well to have any chance of beating Kilkenny
"But I'd be very pleased as well with the way things have gone since the end of the league. Our last real test was Wexford in the league, and that was a very good result for us.
"That was the first time as well that we were at full strength for a league game, though it happened to be our last league game."
The win over Wexford in early April (albeit by one point) did hint at another possible bloom in Offaly hurling. The Birr players returned fresh from their All-Ireland club victory and their impact was substantial. Though Wexford chased them down hard, Offaly didn't look too far off a decent championship side.
"There were about nine players who started that day against Wexford that we didn't have for about two thirds of the league. We currently have 10 Birr players on the panel and we only had them back with us the night before the Tipperary game (the week before), which was a bit late.
"But they were all there for the Wexford game and I think the difference was clear. We then found ourselves playing Meath in the play-off, which was a bit strange because we had four points and they had none.
"Still, we've trained very well since then and everyone seems to be playing very well too. The only down side is the problem with Johnny Dooley. He is a major loss in every sense and I suppose now more than ever we could use his strength and experience."
Dooley's knee ligament trouble could further shake the Offaly foundations, which have already been hit by the vacancies left by Kevin Kinahan, Joe Dooley, Johnny Pilkington and John Troy. But Fogarty doesn't exactly find himself short of numbers.
John Paul O'Meara and Stephen Browne are two of the new players from the Birr squad to make an impression on the panel, while Brian Carroll and Damien Murray are fresh faces in attack who have already been proving their worth.
Recent challenges against the likes of Clare, Limerick, and Galway have also helped tune Offaly's panel, and one possible thing in their favour is the venue. "None of our players would be unfamiliar with Thurles," says Fogarty. "Birr just won their club title there and I definitely know my way around there too."