Wednesday 13 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Faithful until the end

'The bad days are sickening. And I've had enough of them I suppose but I've never felt like walking away, put it that way'

Johnny Pilkington tells a story against himself about his time playing Fitzgibbon hurling with UCD. After a defeat to UCC, his team-mates seemed dejected as they set about the obligatory process of drowning sorrows. Pilkington, one of the greatest midfielders of his generation, liked to play up to his county's caricature of hard-living dissidents.

Sitting next to Tipperary's Conal Bonnar, he now felt the need for a re-affirmation of the Offaly way.

"Boys, will ye cop onto yerselves," he announced from a high stool. "I'm after getting beaten by Antrim and Down and Mickey Mouse teams like that. It's a privilege to be beaten by Cork."

RORY HANNIFFY UNDERSTANDS the fascination of outsiders, the suspicion that Offaly hurling never seems more than a street away from the asylum.

It has always moved to a different beat, beautiful and ungovernable. He first stepped into the county dressing-room just as Pilkington was stepping out, and the decade since has passed without the inconvenience of a cluttered summer.

This is Hanniffy's 11th championship, each one indistinguishable from another. Pilkington's Offaly had been maybe the purest team of the 90s, defined by outbursts of gloriously simple hurling and rumours of wilful decadence.

But that team's race was run by 2001 when the youngest of the Birr Hanniffys presented himself over to JJ Delaney's corner for a Leinster semi-final that Kilkenny would win unfussily by 12 points.

Since then? Rory says half his life seems to have been spent driving at night. If he became accustomed to epic spring achievement with the club, Offaly always had him earthbound again with a quick, summer tutorial in humility.

The county has won nothing in his time. Promised nothing. He has played in a single senior provincial final ('04), losing it to Wexford. He has never hurled for the county in August. His time with them has been played out largely on the fringes of serious championship activity, for Offaly's relationship with the All-Ireland qualifiers is one of intimacy and grief.

You mention that recent training-ground farce in Tullamore and Rory smiles like a man wondering what's taken you so long. It was an event that fed an image of systemic dishevelment in the county. Offaly's hurlers, literally, being hunted out the gate of their own county ground.

A barrister by profession, he suggests, diplomatically, that the week of a championship game might not be the best time to revisit such a story of dysfunction.

But he was there, in O'Connor Park, that morning. He knows what he saw.

"What I would say about it is I support Joe (Dooley) 100pc," says Hanniffy. "From the players' point of view, it was annoying that training had to be called off and we had to go again the following day.

"But, from Joe's point of view, I suppose it was just another obstacle put in his path. You would have thought the county grounds are there for the county team to train in."

When he's travelling to training from Dublin these days, he usually has Joe Brady for company. The two have hurled together since U-14 and you can tell there isn't much left in the game to surprise them.

"We've seen a lot," Hanniffy says, laughing. "We tend to thrash it all out, coming back in the car."

Some people wonder about the thanklessness of this commitment, yet he senses they are coming at this story of his hurling life armed with a few dangerous presumptions.

True, there have been some shocking days. Kilkenny in '05 was the standout, a 31-point trimming in the Leinster semi-final that was about as competitive as the gutting of a fish. Offaly had just been promoted from Division 2, so arrived into the championship armed with foolish self-regard.

And Kilkenny didn't spare them.

"As long as you live, you'll never forget that kind of day," remarks Hanniffy. "We got absolutely murdered in Croke Park. We were nowhere near the speed of championship hurling. It was like they (Kilkenny) were playing a different game."

Yet he regards the moment he sits into his car for the drive to training now as "a release". His work takes him from a base in Dublin's law courts to the midlands district circuit. He enjoys the travel and has taken a liking to audio books, insisting that a journey from Dublin to Galway could pass by without him retaining a single memory of the journey.

He has listened to just about everything written by the BBC's John Simpson and describes Ted Kennedy's autobiography as a personal favourite. For all the disappointments of his inter-county career, the journey has never felt a burden.

"The bad days are sickening," he concedes. "And I've had enough of them, I suppose. You'd like to think you'd never get used to it. But I don't know, you just get up and go to work the next day. Get on with it. I've never felt like walking away from it, put it that way.

"There's times you'd be annoyed, pulling your hair out. But, once you've been away from it for a week or two, you're beginning to feel this need to go back in again."

Still, the Cats seem to have a permanency in Offaly's bad dreams.

Even this year's National League tossed them back into the ambivalent murk of Division 2 from a launch pad in Nowlan Park. They lost their final game to Kilkenny on April 17 but, knowing that Wexford had to take something off Tipperary in Thurles to avoid becoming the fall-guys, Offaly weren't inclined to rush to the nearest radio.

Hanniffy was chatting to Eddie Brennan on the field afterwards and paying no heed to the voice on the tannoy.

Brennan stopped him in mid-sentence. "Did you hear that?"

"What?"

"They just said Wexford drew with Tipp."

"You're kidding me."

"Rory, I think ye've just been relegated."

He recalls the dressing-room after as a place of seething self-disgust. "We were gutted," says Hanniffy. "It was a huge disappointment because, having come out of Division 2 before, I knew the problems that could lie ahead.

"I think everyone assumed Wexford were gone and, maybe, we assumed it ourselves. In fairness, you couldn't but have admiration for what they did. But I'd regard getting that news as one of my biggest disappointments in hurling.

"We all knew it had been in our own hands. We had fecked up, that was it. There was no blaming anyone else."

If it was a pre-emptive blow to their championship morale, others followed in quick succession. Dooley found himself confronted by an injury-list lifted straight from the battlefield of Gallipoli. And, unknown even to himself, Hanniffy's name was about to be added.

Four week's before the Leinster quarter-final with Dublin, he took a belt on his left hand during a club championship game against Drumcullen. An X-ray the following day showed up nothing and, albeit with some discomfort, Hanniffy just kept on hurling.

The Wednesday before the Dublin game, the hand was still suspiciously sore and, sure enough, a scan confirmed his wrist to be broken. Offaly were down another man.

So he sat in the dugout that day, watching them hurl their guts out in a narrow defeat to the team that now has all of hurling giddy.

People gathered up the small detail and assembled it into a portrait of Dublin's "new maturity". Offaly were, essentially, forgotten.

Hardly surprising the Tullamore groundsman would, in time, mistake them for intruders.

And that is their lot, for now. A climate of indifference. Today they pitch up in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, hopelessly disregarded in all betting for their qualifier with a transitional Cork. Paddy Power yesterday had Cork quoted at 1/12 to win. Roughly the odds you'd get on night following day.

Does the dismissal irk him?

"If you listened to everything that's said about you, you'd have given up a long time ago," he smiles. "I mean people forget we've been very close. We were down a lot of people against Dublin, but the guys who played were fantastic. We probably should have beaten Galway over the two games last year.

"But, until we actually go and do something, we probably won't be taken seriously. And that's fair enough."

OFFALY'S ONE AND ONLY championship defeat of Cork was in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final.

In Denis Walsh's 'The Revolution Years', Michael Duignan describes how the victory was met with "a fierce over-reaction", the players celebrating vigorously for days after.

They couldn't have known it at the time, but that was to be that team's swansong. They lost the subsequent final to Kilkenny by 13 points and, though Rory Hanniffy was the only Championship debutant when they met the Cats again nine months later, the team had run its course.

Their reputation for hard living had been exaggerated, without much protest from its principals. If anything, they welcomed the illusion of fecklessness. Pilkington indulged the notion that hurling was, essentially, an intrusion on his busy social life.

But Hanniffy grew up in close proximity to all of the Birr heroes and knew the reality to be different. Two of his older brothers, Conor and Darren, were on the team that beat Sarsfields in the '98 All-Ireland Club final. Gary, the next in line, became a regular with club and county soon after.

If there was a kink of chaos beneath the hurling stories of Birr and Offaly, he knew it to be just that. A tiny kink.

No question, Pad Joe Whelehan had a way with Birr that referenced intuition more than science. But they worked harder than people knew.

"I can tell you the likes of Johnny Pilkington and Joe Errity could teach you a lesson in how to train hard," chuckles Rory now. "That was the great thing about it. When they were tuned in, they were really tuned in.

"Yes, we did things differently. The tales of alcohol are epic but, to be honest, 90pc of it is myth. Those lads trained as hard as anyone."

If there has been a precious day in his hurling life, maybe it was the '07 Leinster final when Birr beat Ballyboden St Enda's, for all those old soldiers had cashed in their chips by then. The club had simply come again with a new sheaf of kids.

And that's, maybe, what Offaly must do now. Derek Molloy left for America last week, yet another victim of the bust economy. And the sense of a young team faced with a hostile world now isn't difficult to summon.

In Hanniffy's estimation, David Franks is the only squad member married with children now. They need to make their own future.

Joe Dooley's last win in an Offaly jersey was that 2000 semi-final against Cork. Rory remembers a Birr gathering in Kelly's of Fairview beforehand and the journey home, interrupted by a solemn viewing of 'The Sunday Game'.

Eleven years on, nothing is now expected and Dooley's enemies lie in the long grass.

Hanniffy believes he is still the best man, maybe the only man, to lead Offaly to a better place. "He's a gentleman and it's been really enjoyable hurling with Offaly since he got involved," he says. "His ability to stay focused is admirable.

"Joe just has a very chilled-out approach to it. He doesn't get over-excited when we win or when we lose. And I like that. No point over-reacting.

"If Kilkenny don't win the All-Ireland this year, there'll be some people out to get Brian Cody. You either let it get to you or you don't, and Joe doesn't.

"If you think of what he's put into Offaly hurling, I don't think he owes anything to the county."

Light at the end of the tunnel?

"Truthfully, no one would put in the effort we put in, unless you thought you were going to get something out of it. I actually think it's entirely possible we can win something."

Still Faithful.

Irish Independent Sport Star Awards

Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport