Whelahan looking for 'a ray of light' from Leinster club final
Kilcormac-Killoughey win over Cuala would prove a big boost for Offaly hurling
Kilcormac-Killoughey’s Cillian Kiely leaves the pitch after being sent off during the Leinster championship victory over Mount Leinster Rangers. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
This weekend Offaly champions Kilcormac-Killoughey contest a third Leinster club final in six seasons. The club won the province five years ago and were unlucky to lose out in the All-Ireland final later in the season. A year earlier their predecessors, Coolderry, also reached St Patrick’s Day and were beaten by Loughgiel.
Despite this presence at the top of the club game, Offaly’s fortunes have remained firmly rooted at a lower level on the inter-county front.
This wasn’t always the case and the rise of Birr in the 1990s coincided with the emergence of the Offaly team that won two All-Irelands during that decade.
Brian Whelahan has been centrally involved in Offaly hurling from winning All-Irelands at minor, senior and club championship levels as well as managing the county in more recent times. He played on all of the Birr teams that won four All-Irelands in 1995, ’98, 2002 and ’03.
“There’s always been a strong tradition of club hurling and championship in the county,” he says, “going back to the great St Rynagh’s team of the1970s [on which his father, Pad Joe played], who won the first Leinster championship and competed in three All-Ireland finals in 10 years or so. Birr followed that up but originally it was at a time when Offaly weren’t competing at All-Ireland level.
“Since the very start of the club championships there’s been a strong tradition in Offaly and a belief that if a club wins a county championship there’s a possibility of going farther. Why doesn’t that transfer to the county scene? Obviously there’s a big step up but it’s hard to identify specific reasons. There’s a lot of issues they’re trying to work through at the moment to try to overcome.”
Whelahan points out that there has been a vicious circle within the county. The starting point is failure to develop sufficient talent at underage level with a consequent fall-off in capability at the top level, followed by apathy amongst players.
“One influence is that we haven’t been competing as well as we should at underage inter-county through the development squads. That’s been feeding into the gap between ourselves and the top teams and maybe even the second-tier teams.
“It just has lingered there and over the passage of time, something I thought might never happen, was that some players failed to declare themselves for the county because they felt that they wouldn’t give the time. It happens not just in Offaly. Players say to themselves, ‘why am we going to give over eight months of our lives to get knocked out in the first round”.
“This year a lot of guys have committed for Offaly and guys who haven’t been involved for a couple of years have made themselves available again.”
Surprisingly for a side with their experience in the club championship – even up against the All-Ireland champions Cuala from Dublin – Kilcormac-Killoughey are 9/2 outsiders on Sunday. Their cause hasn’t been helped by the failure of Cillian Kiely to challenge a suspension but Whelahan believes that they have a good chance.
“Without a shadow of doubt. Killian’s an awful loss to a club team but if he’s not there it can have a positive impact on a team – to make sure that he has another day out. Cuala are worthy All-Ireland champions and have been impressive in Leinster.
“They were frightening at times against Dicksboro [the Kilkenny champions. They break in twos and threes like a football team and KK are going to have to make sure that that middle section is blocked with enough bodies but if there’s things they have, it’s size and work rate to disrupt Cuala’s patterns.
“They’re also an experienced team and it would be felt here in Offaly that they were unlucky in 2013 not to win the All-Ireland with Dan Currams’s injury and the two dismissals and only losing by two points to St Thomas’s. They have the forwards up front to trouble Cuala.
“It would give Offaly hurling a lift coming into Christmas. We need something to give a ray of light into the county.”