Character plays a part as Offaly look to clinch first under-20 hurling title

Sunday’s final sees the Faithful taking on favourites Cork, but selector Johnny Pilkington has been impressed by his side’s application and determination

These are new and yet familiar times for Offaly hurling and Johnny Pilkington is separating the characters from the character. He knows what he’s talking about.

On Sunday in Thurles, Offaly will contest the All-Ireland Under-20 hurling final, still buoyed after a first Leinster title in 23 years. Just getting here is deemed encouraging: they last contested the Under-20 final in 1992 and lost with Pilkington on that team.

Two years later Offaly won the senior All-Ireland. Pilkington was on that team too.

They’re also backboned by the Offaly minor team which last year won a first Leinster title in 22 years, and were denied the All-Ireland title by a last-minute goal from Tipperary. Still, it was Offaly’s first final since 1989, the progress unquestionably marked.


That’s where certain similarities end: Pilkington, a current selector with the Under-20 team alongside manager Leo O’Connor, as he was with the minor team last year, is keen to separate generations too.

“Two years ago, I didn’t know any of these lads, didn’t know anything about them,” he says. “Like all panels they’re a good bunch, and good craic. But these lads are just very interested in hurling.

“What I mean is, when we talk about characters in the olden days, our time or whenever, you’re probably talking more about the social aspect, the off-the-field kind of thing.

“Whereas these lads, first and foremost most of them were only 17 last year, so I mean the social thing doesn’t really come into anyway. As we go along over the next few years, there will be more of that social element, out working or wherever.

“But at the moment they’re all just focused on their hurling, all dedicated. I was at a golf outing with a few of them last year, and they wouldn’t even go for a Chinese afterwards, their diet and nutrition is as important to them now as anything else.”

Indeed on Monday evening, six days before the final, the Offaly players were in the gym, completing a short but specific weight-training session. That would have been unheard of during Pilkington’s time, only in talking about Offaly’s progress this season, and indeed last year at minor, he repeatedly uses the word “physicality”. It’s been the proven difference.

“They were an exceptional under-17 bunch, a big, hardy set of lads if not anything else,” he says, “and I think they knew themselves, last year, they had a shot at the Leinster title.

“Six or seven of those are now playing on the under-20s, most of the rest on the panel. I also think what helped was we [Offaly] won the Combined Colleges, in Leinster, after playing two Wexford schools, then St Kieran’s in the Leinster final. That brought a bit of extra confidence. The only worry was would they have the physicality, yet, for under-20, because it is a step up.”

That answer soon came; after the Group stages, Offaly beat Galway in the quarter-final, undaunted by their physicality, then beat Dublin, matching their pace. After that came the final victory over Wexford, who had taken out Kilkenny.

For Pilkington, the two-time All-Ireland winner and 1990 All Star, there was no reason to back down on size.

“There are a few naturally big lads in there anyway. Like Dan Ravenhill, who would be 6ft 2in. And a few more with just natural strength. There are lighter lads too, Brecon Kavanagh, Adam Screeney, Colin Spain, but of course they all would be doing weights. And you can only assume every county is the same, doing weight training right throughout.”

“Like we had a weight session only last Monday. Now a light one, only 20 minutes in the gym, plyo-metrics, some lifting, just trying to be consistent, maybe out on that extra kg.

“Because regardless of what happens on Sunday, a lot of these lads will be drafted into the Offaly senior panel next year.”

It’s a long way from anything Offaly would have relied on during his time: “We did a certain amount of it. After my Leaving Cert, I went to UCG, and at the time we were playing Fitzgibbon, that was my first real introduction to circuit training, as we called it them. Some weight training, and things like that.

“At minor, we definitely didn’t do a whole lot. Then at senior, you’d start off in January with some strong running, and a bit of weight work as well. And you’d do that for January, February, March and April. And that would be it, it was all ball work after that.”

Cork, as everyone in Offaly knows, will be formidable, winning more under-20 titles that any other county.

“Of course you have to say their Munster final was impressive, but this chance mightn’t come again, that’s what we’re telling them. Just because you beat Wexford, Dublin and Galway this year, you’ve no right to beat them next year. But we’re all hopeful some of these lads will go to play senior for Offaly, bring the thing on.”

Sunday – All-Ireland Under-20HC final: Cork v Offaly, FBD Semple Stadium, 3pm (Live on TG4)