Horan hails Offaly's return to 'the heart of hurling'
Offaly legend Padraig Horan has welcomed the return of competitive senior inter-county hurling to the "fortress" of St Brendan's Park, Birr this weekend after a nine-year absence.
The Faithful County host Kilkenny on Sunday in the Walsh Cup and 1981 All-Ireland-winning captain Horan believes the recent downturn in Offaly's fortunes coincides with games moving to Tullamore.
"Birr was always a fortress," Horan told the Irish Independent. "We never minded who we were playing there and teams never liked coming to Birr, even in the bad times. We always felt we had a chance of winning no matter who we were playing there.
"Things haven't been the same in Offaly since the games were taken out of Birr. The support hasn't been anything like what it was and the atmosphere just isn't the same in Tullamore.
"Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with the facilities or the pitch, but trying to get an atmosphere in Tullamore is like trying to get a sing-song going at a wake."
The home of the small ball is a huge bone of contention in Offaly, but St Rynagh's man Horan believes games must return to Birr to prevent further decline.
"A lot of Offaly hurling people will not travel to Tullamore and as a result, there are huge numbers of Offaly children not hurling because they haven't seen the teams playing," he said.
"No disrespect to the north of the county but Birr is the heart of Offaly hurling and young people always went to matches there down through the years.
"Now, many of Offaly's hurlers wouldn't even be recognised by our youngsters. For the vast majority it's a short journey to Birr and there has always been big crowds and a brilliant atmosphere there."
Birr is steeped in hurling history; the town hosted the first ever All-Ireland hurling final, and in 1971, over 15,000 spectators watched on as Tipperary beat Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final.
With Eamonn Kelly looking to restore Faithful pride, Horan feels it's fitting that senior county hurling returns to its "spiritual home", and what better way to celebrate the return than to host the back-to-back champions?
Meanwhile, Horan's neighbouring club Lusmagh, home of greats like John Troy and Joachim Kelly, will taste Leinster final action for the first time when they face Kilkenny champions Glenmore in the re-fixed JHC final tomorrow.
Lusmagh boss Paul Cleary believes the rural side face a "mammoth task" against the former All-Ireland champions, who can call on county goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, who plays at midfield, and All-Star Ger Aylward.
At 29, Cleary is one of the GAA's youngest managers. The Birr defender played nine seasons with Offaly and is still a regular fixture with his club, but managerial success has been a welcome distraction after a difficult year.
"It's been a tough year," he said. "I lost my dad suddenly last summer and I suffered a bad leg break (in three places) at the end of August.
"I wasn't able to play at all with the club or go to work and I needed a positive distraction. Lusmagh provided that. It's certainly kept me busy and they've been a breath of fresh air in hard times."
Intermediate county champions Lusmagh will play senior in 2016, leaving Cleary with a difficult decision as they could be drawn alongside his own club. But for now, all eyes are focused on Glenmore.