Saturday 1 October 2016

Offaly hurling bracing itself for ten more years in the wilderness

'We're not where we are by mistake and nothing is going to change massively until we start doing better at underage,' warns Hanniffy

Christy O'Connor

Published 06/05/2016 | 02:30

Paddy Rigney (left) and Pat Camon give it their all as they battle it out with Westmeath's
Darragh Egerton during the Leinster SHC match in Mullingar (SPORTSFILE)
Paddy Rigney (left) and Pat Camon give it their all as they battle it out with Westmeath's Darragh Egerton during the Leinster SHC match in Mullingar (SPORTSFILE)

How bad was Offaly's 14-point defeat to Westmeath last weekend? Bad. It was the county's biggest Championship defeat to Leinster opposition, other than Kilkenny, since losing to Laois by 16 points in 1962.

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It was Westmeath's first win against Offaly in 40 years, but how much of a shock was the result? Was it even a shock? Offaly hurling has become immune to shocks and dog days because the county have become indelibly linked with them.

The team's skid off the road and into a Westmeath wall was a metaphor for how much the county have veered off track. The signposts have been everywhere. The misery has been relentless.

In 2014, Offaly just survived relegation to Division 2A when winning a promotion/relegation play-off against Kerry.

Last summer, they lost to Laois in the Championship for the first time in 43 years. In the last five years, Laois have beaten Offaly three times at minor level.

Much of Westmeath's confidence last week stemmed from the same source: many of their young players had regularly beaten Offaly at minor and U-21 level.

Underage results have portrayed a county in deep crisis. Offaly's recent championship wins at minor level against Laois and Westmeath at least bucked a trend that has been ongoing for years.

The minors have reached a first Leinster semi-final since 2010. Their last final appearance in that grade was in 2003. They haven't beaten Kilkenny, Dublin or Wexford at minor since 2005.

Consistent poor harvests at underage have added to the famine and drought at senior level. "We're not where we are by mistake," says former player Rory Hanniffy.

Killing

"Nothing is going to change massively until we start doing better at underage. We're not suddenly going to start winning. The killing thing about that is you're looking at the bones of ten years until that happens."

A generation has been lost in the wilderness years. After Kilkenny hammered them by 31 points in the 2005 Championship, nobody was in doubt about the hard road that lay ahead but successive administrations in Offaly didn't do enough to make that journey any easier. The beatings and the hardship just continued.

Apathy was everywhere. Morale was on the floor. The scale of Offaly's resources had always tempered patience but something had to be done to try to arrest the slide.

In 2014, a hurling forum was held in Birr. Coaching clinics were organised. A committee was formed to try and address the chronic failure.

Programmes for the development of underage hurling were drawn up the problems were so deeply ingrained that Offaly had to try and dig them out by the roots.

After the 26-point hiding from Kilkenny in 2014, Brian Whelehan accepted that huge changes were required. Offaly adopted a far more professional approach last year but the summer was still a write-off.

When Offaly went looking for a new manager afterwards, Hanniffy was part of the committee that appointed Eamonn Kelly.

He is a highly professional, organised, driven character but the committee also wanted to create the logistical and structural apparatus around Kelly to give the squad every chance of success.

There had been a good tie-in with Athlone IT but testing procedures went to a new level under Kelly. Areas of strength and conditioning, GPS tracking, nutrition and diet increased player accountability.

A database is being gradually built up to create an ongoing player profile assessment for future managers and coaches to work off.

Players have all the gear they want. Conor Gleeson is a highly regarded coach.

"It's undoubtedly the most professional set-up that we have had," says Hanniffy. "That's what makes last week's result all the more disappointing for Eamonn."

Trying to develop a new culture is another way of arresting the apathy which has too often infected the county like a virus.

There were times when player indiscipline and poor attitude contaminated their chances of moving forward. The same licence that exists in other counties for culling players over indiscipline wasn't always as freely available in Offaly due to playing resources but the environment for greater self-control has been created now.

Not everyone signed up to the squad this year because they couldn't match the commitment Kelly was looking for. Trying to create a new ethos and way of thinking is often an arduous process.

Progress is not always easily identifiable. Results go wrong. Casualties are everywhere. A handful of players departed the panel during the week.

To move forward, though, the proper culture always has to be the baseline standard.

"In my time, we were never going to win an All-Ireland but you still wanted to hit your potential," says Hanniffy.

"We never really felt like we were. We did have good players but we never felt we got what we should have got out of ourselves. That is nearly more frustrating that coming close and not winning.

"We probably weren't as professional as we should have been. We tried hard but we never seemed to be operating on the same level. We were always playing counties that appeared to be operating at a different grade to us."

Offaly's resources will always be thin but trying to operate on a more level playing field in a preparatory context has been the Faithful County's new starting point.

When €1m funding assistance was pledged for Antrim, Carlow, Laois and Westmeath at GAA Congress in 2014, Offaly were later added to that list.

A new committee was set up by the Leinster Council to supervise that spending - ¤40,000 per annum - in the four Leinster counties involved.

Former GAA president Nickey Brennan and current Kilkenny coach Michael Dempsey are part of that committee.

Most of the investment made is in sports science, with ¤10,000 allocated for minors and U-21s.

Creating a new culture in a small county though, is often a generation game.

Ned O'Connor and his minor management have invested huge work into this year's squad but they were recently beaten by Kilkenny by 18 points.

"Offaly have a long way to climb but the first thing they have to do is to ensure that the development work takes place in clubs, and that there is a passion in clubs," says Brennan. "You cannot create good underage players unless you have good club players."

Crisis

The county board have a lot to answer for in allowing the current situation to reach the crisis point it has.

A generation has effectively been lost but everyone has to take responsibility in trying to forge a way forward, to ensure the next generation will try and lift Offaly hurling out of the abyss.

Battles have to be fought now on every front.

"For a long time, we didn't move with the times," says Hanniffy. "From a small base, we're probably not winning the battle in terms of keeping enough young lads playing.

"The county structures are vital but we have to ask ourselves too if we have been putting in enough professional structures in place at club levels to ensure players can play at that level with the county.

"We have to work extra hard because we have so few clubs. The schools have to be another huge focus because we have definitely fallen away there.

"That's where the first lines of a successful underage structure will become visible. It won't be easy but we just have to keep going."

For years, Offaly's house has been decaying, and falling down around them. The roof caved in last weekend but Offaly have to keep trying to quarry something from the rubble, to stay rebuilding, at every level.

Brick by brick. Beam by beam. Step by step.

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