Vincent Hogan: Bergin remaining faithful to Offaly All-Ireland dream
Before the season has even brushed its hair, there's some salt in Offaly voices. The county's minor hurlers were whipped by Westmeath last weekend, managing just a solitary point from play in the hour.
"The difference in power and physique was astounding," wrote Kevin Corrigan in the 'Tullamore Tribune'. "Reality can be difficult to stomach," lamented Alan Walsh in the 'Offaly Express.'
Offaly's minors have now lost two of their last three Championship outings against Westmeath and two of their last four against Carlow. The county hasn't won a Leinster minor or U-21 title in 11 years. Their last senior provincial crown was in 1995.
As a backdrop to the county's hopes against Dublin tomorrow in Croke Park, it's about as comforting as a Mass card on a hospital locker.
To further blacken the midland sky, injuries have decimated Joe Dooley's team viciously. On Thursday night, Joe Bergin sipped tea in Tullamore, admitting that he couldn't be certain what 15 Offaly would be in a position to put out against the League champions. Story of their year.
All this misfortune triggers sniping, but Bergin keeps his distance.
He is 23 and facing into his sixth Leinster Senior Championship. The only top-eight side that Offaly have beaten in that time is Limerick. Last year, it was a ghost team they accounted for in Tullamore and, in '08, Joe fired 3-2 at the Gaelic Grounds against an oddly sedated one.
"In fairness, no-one would ever say a wrong word to you," reflected the Clareen man. "You'd hear pub talk, but you try to disregard that altogether. It's not coming out of stable mouths, so why would it bother you?
"Unfortunately, what happens in Offaly is people get half stories and the rest of it is made up of whatever comes into their heads. Other lads hear that and, all of a sudden, it catches wind.
"So, I keep away from it. If I ever did feel like a drink, I'd nearly go at an unsociable time, just so you wouldn't meet the kind of fellas you don't want to meet."
That's the emotional dynamic in the county. Relegated in the League and depleted in numbers on the cusp of Championship, the belief of Dooley and his players must be mined from an independent quarry. For, around them, it feels as if the county is submerged in a fog of foreboding.
You might believe the team to be without hope, then. But this is Offaly, remember. A county where history is bound up in little fictions.
The team of the '90s was, supposedly, an antidote to the fundamentalism sweeping the game. While other counties pared out joyless, ascetic schedules for their elite hurlers, Offaly's story was, supposedly, one of the hammock and the pub.
It was, of course, exaggerated to taste, with Johnny Pilkington playing Happy Gilmore. Johnny, reputedly, carried a lighter and a pack of 10 in his socks just in case of any stoppages. One of the most effective midfielders of his generation, he was content to let the nonsense fly.
No man ever hurled Championship the way Johnny could without hurting themselves to do so. Still, the silliness was fun.
Dooley's Offaly follows the conventional path now. They began training through the depths of winter in Joe Quinn's Clara gym and make the same lifestyle choices as any of the current high priests.
But they need a break and, frankly, they need it against Dublin.
Bergin remembers a minor game against the Dubs in Parnell Park seven years ago. Offaly were narrowly beaten that day and he reckons maybe 10 or 11 of that young Dublin team will have their names on the match programme tomorrow.
Dublin have been hot-housing young talent since then in a way that Offaly can merely envy. The city boys have won two of the last four Leinster U-21 crowns, two of the last six Leinster minors. And of course, when these counties met in the League on March 6 in O'Connor Park, they gave the home side an unholy trimming.
On all available data, Dublin and Offaly are moving in opposite directions.
Bergin remembers sitting at home, watching the League final unspool and feeling not a sliver of surprise. "Sure Dublin's League campaign was almost flawless," he said. "I know people figured they had a mountain to climb in Kilkenny, but, personally, I gave them a great shout.
"They're very fit, very strong. Big men, good in the air. And they're a massively confident team. I even found that hurling against Dublin teams at minor, they never lacked confidence. And that's a major thing.
"When they get going, they'll beat anyone."
Still, Anthony Daly -- we can be certain -- will be reciting a familiar mantra now. These supposed no-hopers in tricolour jerseys took Galway to the very edge of despair twice in six extraordinary days last June. Yep, the same Galway that had Tipp pinned to a wall with two minutes of their All-Ireland quarter-final remaining just a month later.
Offaly may be in trouble, but they're certainly not hopeless.
Bergin admits: "I don't think Offaly people in general would rate our own county championship, so that kind of throws a negative on things. Then winning only one game in the League didn't do us any favours. Once we beat Wexford, we probably thought that that would do the trick (secure Division 1 status).
"But, fair play to Wexford, they went and got two results that you'd never have seen happening. Now I'm not sure how motivated Tipp or Cork were against them. When you've teams doing that and you've other teams fighting to stay up, you wonder about it as a competition. Is it nearly a waste of time?
"Still it was in our own hands and we blew it. It's just every time we went to hurl a game, we seemed to be down two or three big players. We never had our strongest team out. Now, I'm not saying we're ready to win All-Irelands if we had, but we'd mix it with the best of them.
"I mean we should have beaten Galway the second day last year."
His first real hurling memory is the '94 All-Ireland, the 'six-minute final' as it's known. He was seven and in his grandmother's house in Lusmagh, watching cousins (his mother is Jim and John Troy's sister) and neighbours (the Dooleys lived a stone's throw from his home in Clareen) pull off a miracle.
Only now, does the class of that Offaly team find proper clarity.
"Maybe we're only starting to realise now how hard it is to get a team to that level," said Bergin. "There's not a massive population in Offaly and, when you consider half it is really football country, our pick is smaller again. So, for the Dooleys, Pilkingtons and Whelahans to all come through together was remarkable."
His work as a blocklayer hasn't escaped the teeth of recession and Bergin admits that the life his older brother, Barry, has now made for himself in Adelaide sounds attractive.
But he is, instinctively, a home bird and Joe's immediate plans are all to do with hurling.
The Offaly team hopes to have its League games returned to Birr next season ("we would really see it as our home ground") and, for all the prevailing doom about, Bergin still dares to let his ambition fly.
"I love hurling with Offaly," he says simply. "My dream is to win an All-Ireland and, somewhere deep inside me, I do believe I will."
He may need the blessings of a long life and patience.