Tuesday 13 November 2018

Fleury flees from Offaly cross-fire


IT is likely that an accumulation of issues persuaded Pat Fleury to abandon Offaly after one season in charge but the decision was not unexpected within the county. His own explanation - the logistics of time and travel - can be fairly interpreted as a smokescreen, or a dignified attempt to avoid a soap opera.

He was never a candidate for public melodrama, being more inclined to bear his ills privately, but it is impossible not to surmise that his spell in charge was a depressing one, punctuated by occasional moments of bliss like the wins over Wexford and Cork.

It is clear that he had excessive misfortune. Early in the year, the Birr controversy set in train a series of events that ultimately appear to have become too much for Fleury and his fellow selectors, Ger Coughlan and Pat Cleary, to bear. It was one hassle after another.

Birr's influence in Offaly is unwieldy and probably unparalleled in any other county. When they refused to play a championship match against St Rynagh's, the county board sensationally threw them out of the competition. There were threats that they would boycott Offaly in protest. This was tantamount to blackmail.

The dispute was eventually resolved when the board, effectively, backed down and reinstated Birr to the championship but Fleury had an early taste of the strife a manager is likely to encounter. He would have expected set-backs as par for the course - but surely not as many as were about to unfold.

A row over sponsorship erupted soon afterwards when a locally-based mobile telephone company agreed a deal with the Offaly team. On the week of their championship match against Wexford the county board was embarrassed to open the local newspapers and see Offaly players smiling out at them as they endorsed the new, but unofficial, sponsor.

This did not make pleasant reading for existing financiers Carroll Meats and prompted the board to issue a prompt statement underlining their unqualified commitment to the main sponsor.

Fleury was aware of the impending deal, apparently, and did not appear too bothered by the scope for friction. He seems to have washed his hands of it but it was hardly ideal timing on the brink of a critical championship match against Wexford that would make or break their summer. As in the Birr case, he was caught in the cross-fire between his players and the county board.

Their emphatic win over Wexford swept them into the Leinster final and healed prevailing wounds. But some injuries were not healing so readily. Brian Whelahan and Kevin Martin were under constant strain, while John Troy's hand injury meant he lost out on much of their intensive training before the championship.

When Troy came on as a substitute against Wexford he was visibly overweight but at least he was on the mend. Players like Troy are indispensable to Offaly which is one of the main problems a manager has to face; they are dealt a small, intractable, hand.

The Leinster final brought another thumping from Kilkenny and a record third consecutive championship defeat. In the Derry game, Troy started but was taken off. His vocal outburst towards the bench for this decision was followed by his own withdrawal from the squad.

Repeated efforts from players and management failed to bring about a change of heart and he sat out the Cork match in which Offaly delivered one of their most complete performances, if not the most complete, of the past 20 years. Fresh approaches were made to Troy and this time he relented.

STILL, the Cork win was the pervasive arbiter of the general mood, managing to transcend all the internal strifes and unspoken griefs. It is from here on, it appears, that Fleury's problems became so burdensome that he decided to leave.

Hubert Rigney had been back in training and pushing hard for a place in the 24-man squad. Like Troy, a player of Rigney's stature, given Offaly's strapped resources, would be seen in many quarters as virtually indispensable.

But he wasn't recalled. Two days after the All-Ireland final Rigney, and his brother Michael, informed their St Rynagh's team-mates that they would not be taking part in the local championship due to a lack of support from their club. Hubert has been turning out for soccer side Banagher Town since then.

Club chairman Paddy Scales would seem to dispute Rigney's version. He told a county board meeting last Tuesday week how he had telephoned both Fleury and board chairman Brendan Ward informing them that Rigney should have been included. Rigney may have been unaware of these interventions or felt that they were insufficient.

Fleury is not likely to have been pleased by these phonecalls as they were an interference and could be construed as an attempt to undermine his authority.

HE stood over some tough calls aside from Rigney's omission. Colm Cassidy was recalled, even though he had been out of hurling almost as long as Rigney had. The fall guy was Drumcullen's Aidan Mannion.

Mannion hadn't played any championship hurling with Offaly but he had been there all season with the panel. The decision to drop him, taken by former Drumcullen player Fleury and his selectors, was not well received in the homeplace. It was an act of ultimate bravery on Fleury's part and can't have been an easy decision to make.

Drumcullen delegates raised their grievance at a county board meeting and even offered to pay the fine that would result if Offaly added Mannion's name to the official list of 24. The board declined.

In recent weeks there have been claims that Fleury has been contacted by Drumcullen officials on the issue. Coupled with the acute disappointment of their All-Ireland final defeat, the stress may have become too much for Fleury to either manage or tolerate.

The episode is likely to reinforce the view that an outside manager remains Offaly's best option. Fleury's birthplace, far from helping him, proved a source of unease for him. Would Drumcullen, after all, have telephoned Eamonn Cregan had he made the same decision?

Since Dermot Healy, there have been eight Offaly hurling managers. Number nine may prove elusive.

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