Against all odds
Tonight in Sean Maunsell's public house in Tullamore, the 1997 Offaly football squad gather for the 20th anniversary of an extraordinary Leinster Championship win. No one had seen it coming. The previous two All-Ireland champions, Dublin and Meath, stalked the province, Mick O'Dwyer was back in Kildare for a second term, Laois were gathering pace and Louth had assembled arguably their strongest team in two decades. At best, Offaly were sixth on the starting grid. But over three months later they had delivered the county's only provincial senior football title in the 35 years since they were last All-Ireland champions. It was a remarkable climax to an extraordinary summer in Leinster.
Tommy Lyons recalls being like a "lunatic" at half-time in one of Offaly's early Division 4 league games against Kilkenny. Leading by just four points Lyons, an All-Ireland club-winning manager just two years earlier with Kilmacud Crokes, wondered, just for a moment, what he had let himself in for.
Some perspective was applied, however, by then County Board secretary Christy Todd. "Tommy, settle down we were down here a year or two ago and we were behind at half-time."
It provided Lyons with a reminder of how far Offaly football had fallen and how far they had to go. But from the moment the balls rolled for the Leinster Championship draw the previous autumn, keeping Offaly on the other side to Dublin and Meath, he sensed opportunity.
"I came in and put a bit of structure to it. That was it," he says now. "I often joked that when we first trained them, we were getting them fit to train. They were a long way off. But there was a lot of good footballers."
Those players had largely come from decent underage teams in 1986, '88, '89 and '95 but they had grown stagnant at senior level and were in need of real impetus.
"It needed a shake-up," recalls wing-back Tom Coffey. "When Lyons took over he rattled the whole thing. You could compare the impact to Davy Fitzgerald and the Wexford hurlers right now.
"He would have presented it very well in the beginning, put in ground rules and stuck by them. He proved that a younger, fitter lad was the way forward. If you couldn't do that you were no good to him. People were waiting for something to happen. When they saw what he was doing he got confidence and shoved on."
Coffey himself had to shed two stone to get to, as Lyons would put it to him, his "fighting weight".
"I was 14-and-a-half stone at the start of the year which was crazy," he recalls. "I had to re-invent my life. Most nights, when we weren't training, I'd have cycled, ran on my own. That's what had to be done. In fairness Lyons was cruel which was good because you didn't get the jersey until you were fit to run."
They also embraced the famous Nutron diet which became the big thing that season and for a couple of seasons after. The principle was based on blood-testing establishing what food types individual systems were compatible with.
Lyons lost two-and-a-half stone himself in the early part of the years and they all took it on when the manager struck a deal with the franchise holders at the time. Years later, he acknowledges not knowing anything about the science of it but the value at the time was evident.
"I couldn't tell you if it was good, bad or indifferent but it gave us something in our heads that was an edge," he recalls.
"You only ate food that agreed with you but at the end of the day most people were off wheat. I remember Sean Grennan was allowed eat bacon and cabbage. He didn't care after that."
By championship Coffey was down to "fighting weight", making a critical block when they were a point down in a second round match against Westmeath, to help create an equaliser and a replay which they won comfortably. They were up and running.
Early in the championship Kildare and Laois met in Croke Park and within 12 minutes referee Pat Casserly had sent off Martin Lynch and Johnny McDonald, reducing Kildare to 13 players for the remaining 60 minutes or so.
What followed was an epic rearguard action that had Kildare's players, fashionably derided during Mick O'Dwyer's first term at the beginning of the decade for succumbing so easily to Dublin, digging deep into places they didn't think they could go.
"If there was one game I could play again it would be that," admits Glen Ryan, who led his team superbly and scored a second-half penalty.
"Kildare supporters generally just love that game. I gave the tape to Charlie McCreevy some time ago. He loves it to this day. He's never given the tape back though!
"You probably did stuff that you have never done before, stuff you possibly hadn't realised that you could. You could pick out an incident that every player contributed," reflects Ryan.
"It brought us on a level in terms of our ability, but also belief in fitness levels. In many ways, we probably ran them off the pitch."
The importance of it has never been lost on him in the context of two subsequent Leinster titles in the following three years.
"We got the s***e beaten out of us by Dublin physically years before that but a lot of the same crew were still there. If we didn't step up then, sure it would have been curtains. Every one of those lads would pinpoint that as a turning point in our journey."
Paul Bealin was at a work function in Kilkenny recently to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the XL convenience store brand and those hosting the event brought their audience back to themes that dominated 1997.
For Bealin, thought association was instant. There was only one. In the dying moments of their Leinster quarter-final with Meath, Dublin three points down, were awarded a penalty.
Penalties had created anxiety throughout the decade so the task to rescue them fell to the midfielder this time. He struck it hard, it hit the crossbar and must have soared 20 feet in the air as it rebounded back out.
Meath won and Dublin had their cast complete for a replica of the Pizza Hut advert featuring Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, who all had the ignominy of missing penalties on big England days!
"It came to mind almost straight away," he says. Bealin was distraught but got a sense of perspective early the following morning.
"I was coming out of the shower and the first sports news bulletin had Dublin 'crashing out and Paul Bealin missing a last-minute penalty'.
"Those were the words. And I said 'Jesus, how am I going to go to work and face anybody.' The next report was about a minor who had died as a result of injuries from an accidental collision in an Ulster match the day before. That, of course, was Paul McGirr.
"I said to myself 'cop yourself on now and get up and get on with it'. Very quickly I had dusted myself down, no more sorry feelings. Straight away my thoughts went to his family rather than my miss.
"It was the first thing I heard, it was the last thing I wanted to hear but it gave me some context. What I thought was the end of the world, missing a penalty in Croke Park, it certainly wasn't.
"I had a great 10 years with Dublin, winning an All-Ireland, playing in two other finals, five Leinsters, two national leagues. And the one thing people remember you for 'oh you're the fella that missed the penalty."
Meath and Kildare advanced to a Leinster semi-final on July 6. Almost a month later they were still locked together as a third attempt to divide them was required.
In between, the second game was among the most memorable as Meath came from five points down in normal time and then six points down in added time to lead by one before Paul McCormack struck an equaliser for Kildare.
Jody Devine became synonymous with that game, courtesy of his four long-range points in the second half of extra-time, almost all replicas and in succession.
"There was a breeze blowing into the Canal End that day," he recalls. "But, honestly, if I was to do it a hundred times over, I wouldn't score four like it again."
His amazing cameo wasn't enough to cement a starting place for the second replay two weeks later and even when injuries and suspensions reduced Meath to just 18 players on the squad for the Leinster final he was waiting in the wings.
"I came on with five or 10 minutes to go in the last game against Kildare. It was disappointing but you just took it at the time. That was the way it was. In my Meath career I'd say I didn't start as many as I came on."
The final game was attritional with four sent off, two from each side. Mark O'Reilly, Darren Fay and Graham Geraghty were all suspended as Offaly loomed on the horizon.
Lyons looked up at the scoreboard at one stage in the first half, scarcely believing what he was seeing.
'Offaly 2-6, Meath 0-2.' "Jesus it would be some game to lose now," he thought to himself.
Seven weeks earlier they had seen off Louth in their own semi-final and waited as Meath and Kildare knocked lumps out of each other.
"We really felt whoever came out of that game would be punch-drunk. We reckoned if we could get a good start against them we might have a chance. Never dreamed we'd get that start though."
The wait had been long but they kept themselves busy and diverted. "We kept doing different things. We went camping in a valley in Doon, the army put up tents for us and we had a barbecue sitting on bales of straw."
When Roy Malone took off for that memorable second-half goal that effectively sealed it the manager had the perfect view of his slipstream.
"He would often do that in training and score the most incredible goals. But not from that distance. I saw him going and going and I couldn't believe it. And I actually thought, when he shot, he was 30 yards out."
It still irks Lyons that they were fixed for the semi-final two weeks later.
"It killed us. It felt like we had no time. We did a recovery session in the pool in Edenderry and a light run around on the pitch but sure, a couple of thousand people turned up."
What pleased him most was that they remained competitive for a few seasons after that, winning the league the following year to dilute any thinking that '97 was, simply, an exercise in opportunism.
What it all told Coffey was that the Board should have been pro-active in seeking a manager like Lyons a decade earlier to get the most out of the talent that was there.
"Peter Brady was 30-years-of-age competing at the top level for the first time. If that decision was made 10 years before, it might have made all the difference."
What Coffey remembers most though is the spirit they generated that year.
"I left my gear in different houses three times after games when we might have gone out for food or a drink that evening but when I'd get all back on the Tuesday night the boots would be polished, there'd be newspaper in them, the shorts and socks would be cleaned and ironed. That was the mentality of the parents at the time. They knew we were under a lot of pressure with hard training regimes and diets. We'd do the same in our house.
"We were just lucky to have a great group of people."