Hoping against hope not to see the Faithful departed
Offaly must win key clash with Dublin or they face relegation to the McDonagh Cup
Current Offaly manager Kevin Martin in action against Kilkenny’s DJ Carey during the 2000 All-Ireland final – Offaly’s last appearance on hurling’s biggest stage. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
It didn’t take Nostradamus to work out that Sunday’s Leinster hurling meeting of Dublin and Offaly at Parnell Park would be arguably the most important fixture of the new, round-robin provincial championships.
The losers will, according to the new rules, find themselves relegated from the senior provincial championship next year. There has been a great deal of speculation that the GAA will reconsider the situation and perhaps allow the second-tier McDonagh Cup winners to go up and make Leinster a six-county competition next year.
This has been driven by growing unhappiness in the province that their rules of engagement are different to those in Munster where if Kerry – the only second-tier county in the province – were to win the McDonagh Cup, they would have to come through a play-off against the fifth-placed MacCarthy Cup side. In Leinster, relegation is automatic.
The rules are different for a reason, however, and no-one would consider it reasonable that Kerry should take the place of, say, Waterford, consigning the latter to next year’s McDonagh Cup.
It’s probably also true that last year Offaly, who are hotly favoured to take the drop, were seen as a lot closer in standard to the McDonagh rather than the MacCarthy Cup and the prospect of losing them in return for Westmeath or Antrim didn’t appear to be that big an issue.
An improvement in their fortunes this year, including beating Dublin substantially in the league and finishing ahead of them in the Division 1B table, plus feisty passages of play in the championship against Galway and Kilkenny have prompted a rethink as to what is best for the county in the long run and to what extent they would be damaged by relegation next year.
The sense of pervading gloom derives from Offaly’s fading form in the championship, vividly seen in last week’s 24-point walloping by Wexford, and the fact that the luck of the draw sees them become the first county to play a fourth, successive match as well as having to travel to Dublin’s fortress Parnell Park – where the home side almost beat Kilkenny in round one.
There have been structural problems for the midland county piling up in the 20 years since their last All-Ireland win. A small population and an infrastructure whose cracks were papered over by the success of the county seniors have led inexorably to decline.
Last year’s resignation en masse of the hurling review/implementation committee on the grounds of “lack of support and progress from the Offaly County Board” was followed by chair Liam Hogan’s comments that the state of hurling in the county was “deplorable”.
Former All-Ireland winner Kevin Martin took over the senior team, players came on board and matters have improved to an extent. But their two best players, forwards Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin, are now over 30 and the county’s underage track record is of having to go back over a decade for the last championship win at minor or U-21 over a MacCarthy Cup county.
It’s 10 years since the seniors recorded a similar win, in the qualifiers against Limerick.
Another member of the review committee said that whereas people weren’t expecting All-Irelands, there was no reason why they couldn’t improve.
“You look at a county like Carlow, maximising its impact in both codes. The 1990s team played a certain type of hurling and we haven’t really adjusted that approach to move with the times.”
There have been efforts to get things right. Faithful Fields, the county’s centre of excellence is up and running and is an impressive facility and various plans have been made. But in the words of another All-Ireland winner, Johnny Pilkington, “there’s no problem with development plans but serious problems with following them”.
Sunday’s match offers a glimmer of opportunity for survival at the top level but Dublin have performed more impressively to date and came close to beating both Kilkenny and Wexford in their matches.
There is an amount of goodwill for Offaly in the hurling world and a desire to see them restore some of their past eminence but will that be sufficient to deliver them from relegation if they lose?
Croke Park sources say that the current championship structures, in the first of a three-year trial period, will be reviewed but that there are no plans to hold the special congress required to make changes to the experiment.
“Central Council meets at the end of the month and that will probably give us an indication if there is any concerted unhappiness with the structure and if any tweaks are being sought,” said one official.
Leinster Council is compromised because the McDonagh Cup counties are opposed to any introduction of a play-off as opposed to automatic promotion – they include Meath, Westmeath, Carlow and Laois.
It may be that relegation won’t be the end of the world for Offaly. Winners of the McDonagh Cup are allowed to contest the elite All-Ireland as well as get promoted but for a county desperate to stake its claim as a MacCarthy Cup presence, such a fate would be extremely disappointing.