The fixture list for the opening round of the Allianz Hurling League is proof enough of the progress Offaly have made in the past two seasons.
While a visit to Pearse Stadium to play Henry Shefflin’s Galway is a formidable assignment, it will evoke plentiful memories of Offaly’s glittering past.
In recent years Offaly hurling has made a painful kind of peace with the fact that the past is just that. And while Limerick have inevitably attracted most of the bright lights, Offaly have been a quiet study in diligence.
They were a model of industry in the league last year, taking five wins from five on the back of a significantly stingy defensive total – they conceded just 5-68 over the season. They built on that by winning the Christy Ring Cup. The reward is a series of spring league games against the counties who were, not so long ago, their regular opponents.
The presence of Shefflin and Michael Fennelly on the sideline in Salthill on Sunday streaks the occasion with the vital colours of Ballyhale and Kilkenny. But the connections between the counties run deep.
Former Galway hurler Tony Óg Regan has joined the Offaly backroom team as team psychologist. Portumna's Johnny Kelly's terrific coaching pedigree started with his home club but he has also had conspicuous successes on the club scene in Offaly and Tipperary. He is familiar with the terrain and culture of all three counties. When Fennelly approached him to join his management team as coach in 2019, he felt that the Faithful was ready to turn a corner.
"We were both involved with the clubs then," Kelly says. "Michael was with Ballyhale as a player and I was coaching Borris Ileigh [the clubs met in the 2020 All-Ireland final]. My sense of Offaly at that time was the same as everyone else. I am not too far away from the Offaly border here and there was a sense of disappointment and disillusionment about where they were going or had ended up.
“But the biggest thing was the sense of hurt. They knew they needed to try and address things. And there was a real feeling that they had started to get the house in order and wanted to look to the future and to build something. That appealed to Michael, firstly, obviously and then when he approached me I said yeah: I threw my lot in to give it a go and see if we could help out.”
When Fennelly was first announced as Offaly manager, it was one of those appointments that just sounded right. He was, one the face of it, a novice manager. But he had spent his entire life immersed in a culture of hurling excellence. Offaly had made a succession of managerial appointments, including gilded sons but the slide out of the MacCarthy Cup and into the third-tier Christy Ring competition appeared irreversible.
The decision by Michael Duignan to swap a successful role as a television and radio pundit to become the chairman of Offaly GAA helped to energise the mood in the county at a critical time. Having the imagination to appoint John Maughan as manager of the senior football team was another bright move. The Mayo man's revitalisation of the football team has helped Offaly stay true to the egalitarian approach to both Gaelic games.
Duignan’s stated belief that Offaly can once again compete for All-Ireland titles in both sports may seem unrealistic to outside observers. But it’s a wonderful aspiration.
Last year, their U-20 football team swept to the All-Ireland title as though to remind the country that Offaly teams have this habit of blooming. It was the first All-Ireland at any grade since the senior hurling team featuring Duignan salvaged a turbulent summer to claim the 1998 MacCarthy Cup.
The nature of that win deepened the legend that Offaly are different; that they could just turn it on like a light switch. But the grandeur of Offaly’s GAA pedigree was irrelevant to both squads. For the hurlers, it was about setting a baseline.
In a wide-ranging interview in last week’s Sunday Business Post, Duignan spoke mainly about the financial imperative. His first task, in becoming chairman, was to make sure that all involved with Offaly GAA stopped the rot. The next step was to get the books in order and improve Offaly’s finances.
Some €685,000 was spent on the senior hurling and football teams in 2021, a modest outlay in comparison to most elite counties. A new sponsorship deal marks the end of the iconic Carrolls Offaly jerseys and heralds a new five-year partnership with Glenisk, the Tullamore based organic dairy company.
A vision of Offaly teams competing for Leinster and All-Ireland senior hurling titles may be Duignan's long-term aim. But night after night, the current management team has been taking small, significant steps under Fennelly.
When Kelly was managing Coolderry to Offaly senior titles, he could see first-hand the calibre of players at senior level. St Rynagh's performance against Ballyhale in this year's Leinster championship further brightened the mood within the county. Although the long-term injury suffered by Oisín Kelly, one of their most effective forwards last year, is a setback, the graph of consistent performance is clear.
“Michael is the main driver,” Kelly says. “It is about promoting a good culture and structure around all aspects of team preparation. That took some time to bed in. It was about small steps. There needed to be a greater realisation among players to see where they stood in the pecking order. And to then look at the teams around us at the same level.
"There's a lot of really good management teams involved with counties on the same level – Westmeath, Antrim, Kerry for instance. We are in that realm and it is a learning environment. We are not getting ahead of ourselves and we are looking at it in depth and carefully. It is like any project, you must work through it diligently until you see consistent progress."
The progression from Division Two to the first tier is dramatic and double -edged. Home games against Cork and Clare mark a welcome return to top-flight games in the county. But with a visit to All-Ireland champions Limerick also on their schedule, it promises to be a season of steep learning.
Offaly came through the Christy Ring handsomely, eclipsing Derry by 21 points in the final.
Afterwards, Fennelly correctly observed that the GAA was paying little more than lip service to the second- and third-tier competitions. After a playing career on a team that was at the epicentre of the sport, Fennelly understood better than most the importance of visibility for the next generation of hurlers. And it matters that someone with Fennelly’s experience and voice is stepping up to bat for Offaly – and the other counties striving to improve.
“Yeah, he has achieved everything as a player,” says Kelly. “And there are no two ways about it: he is an excellent manager. I have got to see first hand over the past two years how committed, firstly, he is to the Offaly project. He is very hands-on with the coaching side of things, constantly enquiring is there a better way to do things. He has a great understanding of strength and conditioning and the medical side of things.
“He really is an all-rounder in terms of management. And his calmness in the dressing room has been so important. We took some hits in the first year we were involved but we took it on the chin and assessed if we were on the right path. He has been a driving influence.
"But I have to say that from Michael Duignan down through the county board and down to Christy Todd and Eugene with the Faithful Fields, there is a real sense of everyone on the one page now over there. That is critically important because we will have difficult days when we are facing powerful teams and those are the days when we will lean heavily on everyone's guidance."
They face the first of those powerful teams this afternoon. The Offaly crowd will head to the seaside with raincoats and fingers crossed. A win would be special and perhaps too much to ask; for now, it’s enough to be back.