Dooley and Bonnar ready for relegation Russian roulette
IF Joe Dooley and Colm Bonnar weren't so obsessed with the action in O'Connor Park, Tullamore tomorrow they might well stop for a chat along the sideline and ask each other: "How has it come to this?"
As players, they were used to the big occasions, jousting -- and often winning -- in All-Ireland, provincial and National League finals. Now, as managers, it's all about survival at a respectable level, a challenge which is proving increasingly difficult for Wexford and Offaly.
It's tougher on Dooley than Bonnar. Offaly is his county, his son Shane is a leading member of the panel and, as manager, he is charged with extracting the maximum from a crop which isn't anywhere nearly as good as in his playing days.
The supporters recall Offaly's glory days of 1980-2000 -- many of which Dooley himself contributed to with his consistent attacking excellence -- and find it hard to take that times have moved on, not very happily for Offaly.
The faithful still believe that Offaly are a super-power whose generator has developed some minor circuit difficulties. Repair those and all will be well again. That's the theory, if not the reality.
Offaly regard Croke Park on big days as their natural habitat, a view reinforced by their performance against Galway in last year's drawn Leinster semi-final when they re-visited the old days where spirit and defiance against the odds were trademark specialties. Offaly lost the replay and were later dispatched from the championship by eventual All-Ireland winners Tipperary, but, overall, they could be encouraged by the year's events.
Now, three months into the new season, much has changed. Pointless after four League outings and with an average defeat rate of almost 11 points per game against Cork, Galway, Dublin and Tipperary, they know that defeat by Wexford tomorrow will almost certainly consign them back to Division 2, from whence they emerged two years ago.
The same goes for Wexford, who are also pointless, having lost to Galway, Waterford, Kilkenny and Dublin by an average of over nine points. Wexford and Offaly have each averaged around 14 points per game, 11 points less than leaders Dublin and second-placed Galway. That strike rate leaves them deep in relegation territory.
Both Offaly and Wexford know the potential damage of being in Division 2. Offaly emerged from there in 2009 and were soundly beaten by Wexford in the Leinster championship before being easily seen off by Cork in the All-Ireland qualifiers. Wexford came out of Division 2 last year only to find it had left them hopelessly ill-prepared for the power unleashed by Galway (Leinster championship) and Tipperary (Qualifiers).
Both sides have found the pace in Division 1 much too quick for them so far this year, but it's still better having weaknesses exposed against the top teams than living in a sheltered world in the second tier -- especially when there's no guarantee of an immediate return.
If anything brought home to Offaly and Wexford the degree to which their status has dropped, it was the defeats suffered against Dublin in recent weeks. Granted, Dublin are a rapidly expanding force, but Wexford still wouldn't expect to lose by nine points, no more than Offaly would envisage a 16-point defeat. To compound the indignity, both were at home.
Wexford play Cork and Tipperary, while Offaly face Waterford and Kilkenny in the last two rounds, so it's difficult to see them picking up points there, making tomorrow's clash ultra-important.
The winners will probably survive in Division 1, giving them a considerable boost ahead of the championship, while the losers will almost certainly head for the summer campaign with a Division 2 road map in their kit bags.
That's certainly not what either Offaly, who face Dublin in the Leinster championship, or Wexford, who will play the winners of Antrim v Laois, want, but it's what they are faced with. Truly, a day to subject Dooley, Bonnar and their players to a real test of their fortitude.