Fall of the faithful
Defeat to Kildare on Sunday would make it five years without a Leinster championship victory for Offaly and, as former captain Finbar Cullen explains, expectations are at an all-time low
IT has been a turbulent year so far for Offaly football and it may be about to become even more traumatic as a depressing landmark looms on the horizon.
Defeat by Kildare in Portlaoise on Sunday would complete a fifth successive year without a win in the Leinster senior championship, something not previously experienced by Offaly. And since Kildare are 1/25 favourites to beat Offaly (11/1), the prospects of Tom Coffey's men advancing to a semi-final date with Carlow or Meath look slim.
Not that Coffey can be held remotely responsible for the current recession as he finds himself in the unusual position where his first competitive game as manager is a major championship showdown. He took over as interim boss in April following the departure of Gerry Cooney.
"Fair play to Tom for taking it on. He's a genuine Offaly man who wants to do what he can for the county. The way things had gone, he could have said 'no,' but he was prepared to give it a go and deserves credit for that," said Finbar Cullen, who captained Offaly to their last Leinster title from centre-back in 1997. Coffey was alongside him at No 7.
As the surge continued under Tommy Lyons, Offaly won the NFL title for the first time a year later, but it's very different nowadays as they find themselves in the basement department.
"It's horrible to see the way things have gone. Offaly would always have fancied themselves to do fairly well in the championship, but expectations are very low at present. You'd live in hope, but the odds are stacked against us. We're a Division 4 team now and we can't argue with that. Results don't lie," said Cullen.
Offaly have endured all sorts of traumas over the last decade, including a strike by the panel in 2004 and the departure of two managers during their first season. Gerry Cooney was the second in the latter category, quitting after this year's Allianz League campaign which ended in relegation to Division 4.
Coffey, who was in line for the job before withdrawing last September, agreed to take over on an interim basis, although it's now likely that, irrespective of what the championship holds, he will be asked to remain on for the next few seasons.
First, though, there's the pressing matter of ensuring that Offaly are seriously competitive against Kildare next Sunday. "From a manager's perspective, Tom has nothing to lose," Cullen explained. "He's only in the job since late April, so all he can do is straighten out as many things as possible and really go for it. All the pressure is on Kildare -- their supporters expect them to win easily, so maybe it will get through to the players."
It disappoints him that Offaly is in such a difficult position, but he sees no value in raking over the past, other than as a lesson on how to get things right for the future.
"There would be a lot frustration in the county, a feeling that things weren't done properly over the years and that we're paying the price.
"All the management changes haven't been good for Offaly and you have to ask yourself why was that happening? When managers change too often, it affects players. There's a sense that, 'sure maybe he won't be here next year,' which isn't good," the former defender observed.
He hasn't been convinced either that all the players were putting in the required effort over the years.
"I've seen lads play in the championship for Offaly who weren't fully fit. Well, not championship fit anyway. It was frustrating to watch," said Cullen.
Reflecting on the successful period enjoyed by Offaly in the Lyons era, he said it was an example of what can be achieved with a committed panel and good management. "When Tommy Lyons came in, we didn't seem to be going anywhere, but he got a bunch of players together who wanted to fight for the cause. He put a good support structure in place and got us seriously fit. We started to win a few games and it snowballed from there," said the former Offaly captain.
Cullen is hoping that the magic of the championship and the sight of the Kildare jersey will spark an Offaly backlash.
"It could hardly be a tougher start as Kildare are genuine All-Ireland contenders. They are a long time on the road under Kieran McGeeney, whereas Offaly are at the beginning of a new phase and have an awful lot of work to do. But if they play with real spirit, it will be a start," said Cullen, who runs his own pub in his native Edenderry.
Years ending in '2' hold a special resonance in Offaly folklore, completing an All-Ireland double in 1972 and wrecking Kerry's five-in-a-row dream in 1982. Thirty years on, even one championship win would be regarded as major progress.