Friday 24 May 2019

Eugene McGee: Spirited youth can save offaly from oblivion

The shocking depths to which the Offaly senior football team has sunk in the past decade is a cause for major concern, even despair, to followers of the Faithful county, but it should also be a worry to the Gaelic football world at large.

Because over the past 50 years, since they won their first Leinster title in 1960, Offaly footballers have made major contributions to Gaelic football in Leinster and beyond. They have played in 15 Leinster finals in 50 years, winning 10 and competed in seven All-Irelands finals, drawing one and winning three. Offaly have also won minor and U-21 All-Irelands in the period. This is an average better than all but a handful of counties.

At the moment, Offaly football is at its lowest ebb in 50 years and the team seems likely to be relegated to Division 4. They are currently at the bottom of Division 3 with no points and a score difference of -38, the second worst in the NFL after Kilkenny.

But this is no sudden decline in Offaly. It has been signposted consistently since 1999, when Tommy Lyons left as manager after they had won both the National League and the 1997 Leinster championship. What most concerns their despairing followers is that all the things that made Offaly football great over the years seem to have disappeared into thin air and what is left is like the shell of a bombed-out building.

In the past, Offaly had a good record of winning tight championship games. They no longer even manage to make the games tight. Offaly had a fearsome reputation for raw courage in the face of adversity when playing teams such as Dublin, Kerry, Galway or Meath in their heyday.

That, too, is now just a memory, even when playing at O'Connor Park, which was always regarded as one of the main 'fortress venues' in the GAA. It was only after a tempestuous Offaly v Dublin league game in the 1970s that it was decided to fence in O'Connor Park, and not without reason!

Also gone is Offaly's great ability to beat their neighbouring rivals -- Kildare, Laois and Westmeath -- consistently. A few years ago, Westmeath beat Offaly in the championship for the first time in 50 years.

So, the Offaly decline to near obscurity is well documented by now. The question is what has gone wrong? How have so many cornerstones of the game in the county disappeared to be replaced by pathetic imitations of those involved in past glories, with defeat following inevitable defeat?

The turnover of managers has certainly been a huge factor since I left in 1984. It has been ridiculously high and indicates that the system of appointing managers leaves a lot to be desired.

But alongside that, it is obvious that some players who have been selected for the county panel should not have been, simply because they were not up to the required standard. This is not specific to the current panel because Offaly's problems go back many years.

Offaly football people who I talk to mostly blame the attitude of modern-day players compared to their predecessors and while this is a view held in many other counties too, there is no doubt it is especially true in Offaly's case.

The killer streak, the ravenous will to win and the famous fighting spirit when the team's back was against the wall -- they are the qualities that have largely disappeared and it is this situation that most upsets supporters and makes them angry.


But bad and all as the situation is at senior county level, there IS hope emerging in the county. Last weekend two Offaly schools, St Mary's of Edenderry and Gallen of Ferbane, won the two premier secondary and vocational finals in Leinster. Gallen won the All-Ireland VS SFC final last year and a couple of years ago Edenderry were only beaten by a last-second goal by Kerry's Colaiste na Sceilge in the All-Ireland final.

In addition, Offaly have played in several Leinster minor finals in recent years, so there are still good footballers in the county.

Under Paschal Keelaghan, the Offaly U-21 team have already beaten Meath and Kildare and play Louth in the semi-final -- no small achievement when we consider the populations of each of those two counties is twice that of Offaly.

Selecting younger players prepared to put into practice the traditional attitudes and beliefs of Offaly football is the greatest single hope for a revival, and that must exclude players who cannot, or will not, buy into this.

This ingredient is at the heart of teams like Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone and Armagh. Offaly need to acquire it now or face total football oblivion.

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