Faithful can get better of Kilkenny – Johnny Dooley
Offaly legend insists massive underdogs can end 16-year wait and taste victory over Cats
When flu-stricken Brian Whelahan moved from defence to attack and scored 1-6 against Kilkenny in the 1998 All-Ireland hurling final, he would never have imagined that, 16 years later, they would still be waiting for their next championship success against the black-and-amber.
Offaly became the first county to win the All-Ireland title via the qualifiers and, next Saturday, they will be involved in a historic occasion too as Sky Sports show their first live championship game when Whelahan's men take on Kilkenny.
That's where the similarity ends as other than Whelahan's involvement as star man in 1998 and team manager in 2014, there is no common ground between the two chapters in Offaly's story.
Nowhere is the difference more pronounced than in their rivalry with Kilkenny, which was based on total equality for almost two decades before becoming embarrassingly one-sided.
Kilkenny have beaten Offaly by an average of 15 points in nine championship clashes over the last 15 years.
The winning margins ranged from five to 31 points, with seven of the defeats by 11 or more points.
It's scarcely an encouraging background on which to plan a raid on Nowlan Park, yet the more positive Offaly supporters continue to trade in positivity.
Among them is Johnny Dooley, most of whose career coincided with a period when Offaly were very much equals with Kilkenny.
That applied across minor, U-21 and senior grades between 1987 and 2002, by which stage dark clouds were beginning to gather over Offaly.
The last decade has been quite dismal for Offaly, but having played through more successful times, Dooley would always believe that however bleak the immediate past may have been, there's always hope.
So, while Sky Sports are hoping that the novelty value of their arrival on the GAA scene will attract a big audience on Saturday evening, Dooley will not be among them.
Instead, he will be in Nowlan Park, supporting Offaly in a test for which they are 12/1 outsiders (Kilkenny are 1/50).
"I always give Offaly a chance in every game they play. I suppose it was the way I was brought up and the experiences I had.
"There's a fair bit of negativity around Offaly, but that gets you nowhere. There's no county out there who would fancy Offaly's draw – taking on Kilkenny in Nowlan Park – but it's the hand the lads are dealt and they have to play it as best they can.
"In a way, they have nothing to lose because most people expect them to be well beaten so the challenge is to make it as hard as possible for Kilkenny and see where it takes them.
"You need to have a stubborn streak and dig in even when things aren't going well. Offaly used to be always very good at that," said Dooley.
Offaly's League campaign left them needing to beat Division 2A winners, Kerry to survive in Division 1, scarcely an encouraging sign ahead of the daunting championship opener.
And yet, the 1B campaign wasn't without its brighter days for Offaly, not least the Round 4 game where they drew with Limerick, who are now among the top All-Ireland contenders after beating Tipperary last Sunday.
The second boost for Offaly comes from the memory of last year's championship clash with Kilkenny when they defied the odds and were still in with a real chance after 63 minutes.
They trailed by only four points at that stage and while they eventually lost by five (0-26 to 4-9), it was their best result against Kilkenny for 15 years. It was also one of the very rare occasions that Kilkenny conceded four goals in the championship.
"Offaly gave away a lot of silly frees last year. Eoin Larkin pointed 10 or 11 of them – you really can't afford that sort of thing against Kilkenny.
I'd expect the lads will have learned a lot from that. It's not easy to avoid conceding frees when you're under pressure but they have to be kept to the minimum.
The big thing Offaly will have taken from last year is that they were able to compete with Kilkenny, not just for part of the game but all the way through.
It wasn't like that in lot of the games over previous years when Kilkenny won easily. The thing about Kilkenny is that if they get on top, they don't ease off. If they can beat you by 20 points, they will, so you have to be competitive all the time," said Dooley.
Those who believe that last year's relatively close call for Kilkenny was a one-off will have been interested in how Laois came so close to beating Galway last Sunday. Laois lost to Galway by seven points last year after leading for much of the game, but many believed that Seamus Plunkett's men were unlikely to be as close this year.
Instead, they came within a blocked 20-metre free from goalkeeper Eoin Reilly of beating Galway, which further raises Offaly hopes.
"You take encouragement from wherever you can get it. Laois were unlucky to lose to Galway last Sunday. Nobody gave them a chance, but they hurled their own game and did very well.
"That's the sort of approach Offaly will have to take to Nowlan Park. They're rank outsiders but they can't think like that. Every game is there to be won. If you have belief in yourself, you can make anything happen," said Dooley.
Kilkenny v Offaly by numbers
26 Goals scored by Kilkenny in nine successive championship wins over Offaly since 1999.
19 Years since Offaly last won the Leinster title.
16 Championships clashes between Offaly (7 wins) and Kilkenny (8 wins) in the 1980s and '90s (one draw). Years since Offaly last beat Kilkenny in the championship.
15 Average points win by Kilkenny over Offaly in their nine championship successes since 1999.
11 Leinster titles won by Kilkenny in the new millennium.
10 Years since Offaly last contested the Leinster final.
9 Leinster title wins each by Offaly and Kilkenny in the 1980s and '90s; All-Ireland wins by Kilkenny in the new millennium. Successive wins by Kilkenny over Offaly in the championship.
4 All-Ireland wins each by Offaly and Kilkenny in the 1980s and 90s.
0 Leinster and/or All-Ireland titles won by Offaly in the new millennium.