McDonnell keeping the faith Offaly can kick on
OFFALY footballers approach tomorrow's Leinster championship opener away to Longford with a blend of hope and defiance underpinning their battle to regain lost pride.
A disastrous league campaign in which they suffered six defeats and earned only a single point from a draw with Fermanagh would not inspire confidence among supporters.
There's not much consolation to be gained from knowing that opponents Longford also fell through the Division 3 trap door into Division 4 for next season alongside Offaly.
Statistically the outlook is gloomy, but manager Emmet McDonnell is encouraged by Offaly footballers staying true to their Faithful County nickname.
"We're working hard and the league didn't go well – but there's a number of teams in Leinster that the league didn't go well for. We're doing our best to get ready for Longford," said McDonnell.
"To be fair to the players, they've been absolutely fantastic. You've seen in bigger counties that players have walked away because they're not getting game time.
"We're very lucky. The lads have taken a lot of criticism, but they are there every single night. They deserve great credit. It's a young team that hasn't got good results, but they're applying themselves very well in training."
Westmeath native McDonnell has seen both sides of the coin after just 15 months in charge. Last year, he guided the Offaly side to promotion and a Division 4 final at Croke Park; this year the league race proved a trial in every sense of the word.
Their cause was not helped by the enforced absence of strong players such as Brian Darby and Shane Sullivan, and as county hurling boss Brian Whelehan has won the battle for the dual players, McDonnell's side is shorn of some important talent for the championship.
"We were sort of hoping that (dual commitments) would go ahead – but I think Brian had other ideas. I get on very well with Brian, but he felt that they had to concentrate on one sport, unfortunately," said McDonnell.
"During the winter months, Shane Dooley, Colin Egan, Dan Currams, Conor Mahon trained away with the football team. They thought they would get the opportunity to play both (codes), but Brian wanted them to concentrate on one sport.
"There may be scope for change. We're not thinking that far ahead at the moment, but there may be an opportunity. I know Dan Currams was very upset that he won't get to play both codes. Dan was in a good bit with us, but we'll look and see how the summer goes."
Offaly footballers generally bring a level of passion to their game which makes them a tough prospect for any opposition. The records show, however, that real success is a rare visitor to a small county which has punched way above its weight.
The heady years of Eugene McGee's shock troops who won three Leinster titles and thwarted Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry when the Kingdom were on the cusp of a five-in-a-row All-Ireland success, are in the dim and distant past.
Offaly's last appearance in a Leinster final was in 2006 when they lost to Dublin. Prior to that, their previous provincial finals were in 1997 – they beat Meath with Tommy Lyons as manager – and 1982, when McGee was in charge. Right now, with Dublin rampant in the province, ambitions must be tailored with realism.
"Offaly is probably unique in that it's a small population divided 50-50 between football and hurling," said McDonnell. "It's a small pool of talent. We just have to keep working with what we have and try to improve. We're playing with four or five 19-year-olds at the moment.
"That's a route we decided to go down last year, we decided we had to do something different. We had a good run in the U-21 Leinster championship this year. Ten of that starting 15 who lost to Meath are underage for next year, so that's the route we're going down. It's going to take time."
Looking at the state of football around Leinster, McDonnell described the gap between Dublin and the rest as "worrying", particularly when the Dubs' U-21 All-Ireland-winning side could field a full-forward line of Cormac Costello, Conor McHugh and Paul Mannion that would get into any senior team in the country.
"It's worrying how good Dublin are at the moment," said McDonnell. "Where Dublin have an advantage is that Ciaran Kilkenny can get injured and they can bring in Alan Brogan; very few other counties can do anything like that. It's a daunting challenge, but Dublin are just a machine at the moment."