Friday 22 September 2017

Taking backward step in struggle to make great leap forward

Stars of the fine Offaly side of the 1990s are fighting to revive an ailing football force, writes John O'Brien

John O’Brien

In Offaly, they say the rot set in when Paul O'Kelly was removed as manager after only seven months in charge. That particularly shabby piece of business took place in the summer of 2003. That is a long time festering.

An eternity for a proud and established football county to be teetering on the edge of a cliff face without any meaningful prospects of dragging themselves free.

The bare details of their descent have been well documented. From Division 1 ten years ago to the murky depths of Division 4 where they'll reside next year. It's five years since they won a game in Leinster, the blame laid squarely at the door of the various managers who seem to come and go with the seasons. Nine in the last 10 years now. Jesus Gil, it seems, is alive and well and manning the ship in Offaly.

They face Kildare in Portlaoise today with the kind of innocent hope Ireland brought with them to Gdansk on Thursday night. Kildare don't carry quite the formidable reputation Spain commands on the world football stage, but they have everything passionate Offaly people aspire to right now. A young manager given time to build and the ambition to push relentlessly forward. A dogged refusal to settle for second best.

There have been times in the past when Offaly's fortunes ebbed, of course, but since winning its first Leinster title in 1960 no slump has been as sustained or as dramatic as this one. "One strength we always had was our resilience and dare I say it our tradition," says twice All-Ireland winner Kevin Kilmurray, "but we've lost that tradition at this stage. I don't think there's any county in Ireland would fear Offaly anymore."

For the older stalwarts this is an incredible and sad state of affairs. Kilmurray was at the helm in Offaly in 2005 and 2006 and, despite reaching a Leinster final and retaining their Division 1 status in his second year, still became collateral damage as Offaly football threatened to tear itself apart from within. The knife wound it inflicted has never fully healed.

"Around that time they brought in Eugene McGee to bring the opposing camps together but it was never sorted out. Probably, I think the players lost sight of their main job and that was to play football. I still say the players are there to play football, managers are there to manage and the county board is there to control. I think all of those things were lost in Offaly along the way and everything has suffered because of it."

Finbar Cullen was in his last year as a player in 2003 and part of O'Kelly's backroom team. The blunt manner of O'Kelly's removal still bristles. "They thought Paul was too soft," he scoffs. In the years since his retirement, Cullen has watched Offaly lurch from embarrassment to crisis with an increasing sense of bewilderment. Some time back he attended a championship match and witnessed a sight that shocked him to his very core.

"I saw an Offaly player coming on and he was seriously overweight. It was a little bit embarrassing. I remember seeing it and thinking, 'Jesus, where have we gone?' It was an all-time low. It wouldn't be fair to mention any names but I just thought where are we going with a player like that? I said to myself he's been selected ahead of a younger, fitter player. We're headed in the wrong direction here."

For a shard of hope Cullen has to retreat 12 years. He remembers Offaly facing into Meath in the first round of the 2000 Leinster championship with their hearts in their mouths. Two weeks previously they'd been mauled by 18 points at a pitch-opening in Mayo and yet, when it came to it, they ambushed the reigning All-Ireland champions by four points. That's what Offaly were liable to do. Hit you hard when you were least expecting it, as Kerry famously discovered in 1982.

Such days are proving more elusive in this more scientific and biomechanical age. Kilmurray sees the likes of Longford and Carlow going well this summer, the result, he imagines, of better planning and improved structures. "If you want to be successful, you have to put in a programme," he says, "a four- or five-year commitment. Not the kind of fly-by-wire system it appears to me exists in Offaly."

What they hanker for is the kind of focused ambition last seen in Offaly when Tommy Lyons was introduced in 1997 and drove a talented but wayward Division 4 side to a Leinster championship and followed it a year later with a maiden National League title. When Meath exacted revenge in 1999, they quickly lost faith in Lyons and the managerial conveyor belt cranked into gear.

"Tommy got a bunch of players together and made them seriously fit and committed," Cullen recalls. "He was no-nonsense and it probably helped he was from outside the county. He dropped fellas with big reputations. He didn't care. He brought in a drink ban and had guys in different parts of the county checking up on fellas. If you broke the rules you were gone. It wasn't rocket science but it was what we needed at the time. It worked for us."

Fifteen years on, the team inspired to lofty heights by Lyons still holds the best hope for Offaly's future. Tom Coffey is incumbent senior manager who, if Offaly are serious, will get at least three years in the job. Vinny Claffey is a selector with the county under 16s. Ciarán McManus is involved with his native Tubber. Cullen spent two years as assistant to Peter Brady as they drove a young Edenderry side to a rapturous county title, borrowing methods they learned from Lyons all those years ago.

"We took tough decisions," says Cullen. "We got them fit and introduced a drink ban. We weren't the most popular in our home town but we did it for the right reasons and the players bought into it. We came out of nowhere to win the championship. I can't see any reason why Offaly can't do the same thing."

Claffey tells a story of the Cork under 16s making the journey north to play them in a challenge last month. Cork travelled in a convoy because they were playing Meath the same day and had two different teams to field. That opened his eyes to the magnitude of the task Offaly were facing. If you don't rise to the challenge, he believes, then you simply get left behind.

He is tired of the excuses now. If the schools aren't producing as many players as they once did, if rugby and soccer offer superior competition, then you just have to work harder to keep pace. Nor does he care to hear about the apparent riches being pumped into the game in places like Cork and Kildare. Not when there are vast reserves of talent and energy in Offaly being blithely ignored. Having ambition, after all, costs nothing.

"I don't believe we can't compete," Claffey says firmly. "I've seen it myself at underage level. The talent is there in Offaly. Okay, we mightn't have the same numbers that Cork or Dublin have, but the players are there. The challenge is to bring them through. You have to aspire to it. You have to think in a professional manner. If you get through to senior level these days, you are practically a professional. They're the standards you need to have."

As a kid, Claffey was more of a promising athlete than a footballer. As an athlete he remembers attending training camps where you were properly looked after and nurtured. Football was more carefree and haphazard. But back then the memories of the early '70s and '82 were vibrant. Offaly bubbled with a winning mentality. Now players enter a set-up where no match ever seems eminently winnable. Claffey doesn't pretend to have instant solutions, but he can identify the starting point.

"We need a proper development plan and to be serious about it. I'd sometimes hear fellas in Offaly saying that players shouldn't be pulled for county development squads, they should be left with their clubs.

"That attitude perplexes me. We have to learn from counties that are doing well. The ones that are doing well are those working really hard at underage level and which have proper development squads."

He wishes his former colleague well in Portlaoise today. Few managers have surely faced such a daunting challenge on their first competitive outing and it bears testament to Coffey's courage that he has chosen to hand four players their debuts when it might have been easier to play safe. The upshot is that expectations are virtually

non-existent. Go down fighting with a dash of the old Offaly spirit and resilience and for most it would be enough.

Coffey will thirst for more, though. Back in 1997, he told a story of his first fateful meeting with Lyons.

"The first thing Tommy told me was to lose two stone or forget about it. He told me straight up and I knew he meant it. It was six months before he even gave me a jersey." By the end of the summer, Coffey was first-choice wing-back and a Leinster medallist.

That spirit needs to be summoned and nourished now. Those at the coal-face are adamant that the young talent is there if it can only be properly harnessed. And from that fine team of the late 1990s there is a glut of ambitious and intelligent men who know what it takes to win and are willing to give generously with their time and energy. They deserve not to be failed.

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