The dust had not even settled on Waterford and Clare's pulsating Allianz Hurling League final in Thurles when another significant result came through on the shipping news. Westmeath had beaten the Offaly hurlers in the preliminary round of the Leinster championship and had done so by double scores.
Hurling is strange. Custodians of the game are in a constant state of anxiety about the need to grow it yet the leading counties of the game are considered inviolable.
Offaly have, in their own laconic, mischievous way, come to be considered as part of hurling aristocracy; four-time McCarthy Cup winners and always capable of pulling a macabre joke at Kilkenny’s expense. Shocks can happen in Gaelic football but the unspoken laws of hurling dictate that a county of Offaly’s stock “shouldn’t” lose to Westmeath.
For several years, the doctor’s report on Offaly hurling had not been good. And throughout this year’s league they had been posting perplexing results. In the middle of March, Offaly were capable of putting up 2-22 and securing a valuable away win against Wexford.
Then, a week later, they coughed up 2-18 on the road against Kerry and lost by a point. Kerry are another county that Offaly “shouldn’t” lose against. At 3pm today they face a must-win match against Carlow or face elimination from the championship. They may not even be a Liam MacCarthy grade county team next summer. Westmeath’s achievement was all but forgotten in the consternation over Offaly’s defeat.
The Faithful County has been the acknowledged sick man of Leinster in recent seasons but the disparity in the scoreline was the starkest illustration of their fall from grace.
Offaly appeared in their last All-Ireland senior final in 2000 – the day when
secured his first senior title as Kilkenny manager. Since then, the neighbours have entered into a best-of-times, worst-of-times narrative. The gods played a bleak card on Offaly by pairing them against the Cats in the league quarter-finals on April 3rd. It ended 6-20 to 0-14, confirming Offaly exist in a different hurling realm now.
Daithí Regan, one of Offaly's 1994 All-Ireland winning vintage, has been outspoken in his criticism in recent years but he simply sounded resigned on his usual radio slot on Off the Ball this week.
"I was lambasted three years ago for suggesting within three years Offaly would be a Christy Ring side. My comments three years ago weren't outlandish then and they are not outlandish now," he said, identifying "the inadequacies at primary school through to our principal secondary schools – and I refer to Birr Community School and Banagher Secondary School, when back in the 1980s both were winning All-Ireland finals and beating the likes of St Kieran's College and North Mon."
Regan’s remarks were at once scolding and wistful and they echoed the general sentiment about Offaly – remember when they were great? How did it come to this?
At the meeting to elect officers for the Offaly County Board for this season, 14 of the 15 officers were returned without any opposing nomination. The only new officer was Kenny Franks, who is the Offaly PRO. Everyone else was simply returned.
Franks says he spent enough years in a state of disenchantment about where Offaly hurling was going. Finally, he figured he was better off getting involved. Franks accepts this is not a good period for Offaly hurling but will argue that there are bright signs, identifying the success of Coolderry and Kilcormac at club level and a recent overhaul of underage development structures. The county board has become the whipping boy for the demise of the senior hurling team. Franks will argue that there are people doing their level best to arrest the declining standards.
“At county level, the team hasn’t really been competitive for the past few years,” he acknowledges. “There are probably a lot of guys not on the panel this year for various reasons but that is their choice. We have a panel that is fully committed but I suppose a county like Offaly needs every resource. But it is up to the clubs too.
Look at the Crossmaglen model. Look at all the players who came out of Birr . . . fantastic players who have all coached the game. It’s up to the club to build a model around St Brendan’s so the school can be a feeder school for the senior team in the years to come.”
In a way, the Offaly hurling story isn't about this year's team or what happens this afternoon in Tullamore. There is uniform sympathy for Eamonn Kelly, described by Regan as " a damn good coach, very innovative". Kelly acknowledged how hurt of the Offaly fans in his comments after the Westmeath defeat. "Status and tradition in the game is fine and fantastic teams won All-Irelands in the '80s and '90s but that came on the back of winning minor and Under-21 All-Irelands" he pointed out. "The success hasn't been there at that level in recent years although they are doing fantastic work at the minute."
“Structures” has become a GAA buzz word, all but replacing “the conveyer belt” as a catchphrase for a county which streamlines and replicates its coaching procedures for young players at club and county level to produce consistent results. Offaly GAA, in particular its hurling, cultivated a reputation based on mercurial brilliance rather than deliberate policy.
Eamon O'Connor is the current minor coach and is one of those putting in the work Kelly alluded to at the weekend. And O'Connor says he is not despairing for future of Offaly hurling. "I'm not. Offaly hurling, agreed, has been in a bad place for a while. But huge been efforts made. Alan Mulhall did brilliant work within the underage structures in Offaly before he took up a position with the Leinster Council.
“We got involved in 2014 with the under-15 development squad. The Leinster Council brought in the regional colleges –as in Carlow IT to work with Carlow and Laois and Athlone with ourselves and Westmeath. The modern game has changed so much.
“My overall view on it is that we have never been short hurlers in Offaly. We just haven’t been strong enough or fast enough. Kilkenny, Clare, Tipp, Cork: they all started strength and conditioning programmes eight and nine years ago. The point was made when Clare won the All-Ireland was that the majority of their players came out of a development squad structure. But the difference was that they didn’t wait to be handed everything. They got stuck in and made it work.”
Offaly, in other words, are playing catch-up. When the county began to fall behind is more difficult to pinpoint. When you think about Offaly hurling, you don't think about the word "structures". You think about John Troy, bullet-headed and blond, and that chopped-down back flick and goal against Antrim or stealing the ball off Brian Corcoran's stick; you think about Johnny Pilkington or Martin Hanamy or Brian Whelahan moonlighting as a forward against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final of '98 because flu prevented him from his usual role as the best wing back in the game. It was almost inevitable that he scored the winning goal that day.
The '98 season added substance to the idea that Offaly GAA teams had their own way of doing things. The short version: Offaly get a 3-10 to 1-11 trimming by Kilkenny in the Leinster final, provoking manager Babs Keating to complain his players were like "sheep running around in a heap". The Offaly players buck, Keating walks.
Michael Bond, a schoolteacher with a brisk manner, takes over. The Offaly lads rouse themselves, knuckle down and go on the rampage against Antrim and Clare before turning the screw on Kilkenny in that year's final. The most interesting part of Keating's comments got lost in the soundbite of his quote: "It's a vein running through this Offaly team of individualism."
He was on to something there. Offaly teams at their best seemed like a gathering of highly differing vocalists who somehow made a wonderful choir. But 1998, in particular, was enough to make anyone believe that Offaly hurlers could turn it on whenever they fancied. Maybe the county took that for gospel.
For a small county, Offaly achieved something extraordinary in the early 80s. The county won the MacCarthy Cup in 1981 and the Sam Maguire in 1982. The population of Offaly was just 58,000 in 1981. To produce the best teams in hurling and football in a two-year period from such a small playing base is a miraculous feat.
It seems safe to assume that it cannot happen again. In hurling alone, Offaly’s punch has been occasional but ferocious. The four All-Irelands of 1981,’85,’94 and ’98 came on the back of just nine Leinster championships (’98 was won through the back door).
The county has no under-21 hurling titles and just three minor titles. (1986, ’87, ’89). Scan those minor teams and most of the senior side that would win the McCarthy Cups in the 1990s are present and correct. Between 1981-1998 was a rich, heady time for Offaly hurling and remains sufficiently recent and vivid for subsequent teams to be judged against. The county is still trying to thrive in both hurling and football despite its relatively small population. In hurling, the acceptance that because gems like the Troys and the Pilkingtons fell from the stars in the 1980s doesn’t mean they will keep on doing so.
“People were right; Carlow were beating us, Westmeath were beating us, Laois were beating us,” O’Connor says of Offaly underage teams.
“And no disrespect to those counties: they came up and did the work and quite right that they were beating us. Don’t get me wrong. I will never put down Offaly hurling. There is a lot of negativity and rightly so. But there has been work going on for the past couple of years. Our schools have started again. For the first time in a long time we had a combined A schools team entered in Leinster. Ger Scales, a PE teacher in Kilcormac and myself were involved.
“We played Borris and St Kieran’s. Now, they beat us well. It was the pace at which St Kieran’s did everything that stood out. But it did expose our players to that level of hurling. And the Offaly group are a great bunch and are working hard. For the past two and a half years we have followed the programme set out by Athlone IT. The game of hurling hasn’t changed: the fitness levels have. And the young lads have responded for that.”
O’Connor feels the Offaly board is constantly “getting a slating which they don’t deserve”. As Franks points out, he is volunteering his time and gives 16-20 hours a week to the Offaly county board. They are working to promote games, to build the website, to raise funds – the county board has to pay 100,000 per year to service the debt to O’Connor Park.
“What we are trying to do is build back up the profile and confidence in the county board because it always gets blamed for everything,” he says.
It won’t be an overnight transition. If Offaly win today, it will take the pressure of the team: a further win against Kerry would earn them a home Leinster quarter-final against Laois.
But in terms of again reaching that place in which Offaly hurling teams are majestic and all-conquering: it is going to be a slow process just to find that road. And it is going to involve structures. If they can retain some of the intrinsic magic and the individualism, then so much the better. At their best Offaly had this ability to turn it on and off like a light switch. And it made their teams intriguing and likeable. But the day was always going to come when they discovered the bulb was gone.