Cribbin hungry to keep Offaly on front foot
It's 'Showdown Sunday' in Mullingar tomorrow and Offaly manager Tom Cribbin expects championship intensity in his team's crucial Allianz Football League Division 3 match against Westmeath.
The stakes are high up and down the divisions, but particularly in Division 3, where only two points separate the top five teams. At the top, Offaly only need a draw to clinch promotion, while Westmeath require a win over the Faithful County to achieve their ambitions and rise to Division 2.
It's all to play for and with the added ingredient of Offaly native Pat Flanagan managing Westmeath, this match at Cusack Park will surely be jam-packed with drama.
Cribbin, the Kildare man who took over when Offaly hit crisis mode in February 2009 with a players revolt against Richie Connor, now sees signs of real progress in the current panel.
Supporters may feel the journey has been too slow, and nobody dares talk of Leinster titles, but Cribbin feels the roots of a competitive championship side have been set.
Offaly won their last Leinster title in 1997, while their famous All-Ireland win in 1982 remains a cherished but distant memory. Theirs is a county that has traditionally punched above its weight, but Offaly football folk are hungry for a return to the glory days.
Before glory, however, comes graft, and the virtue of patience is mandatory. Trouble is, these days fans, county boards and even players, don't always have patience for the long haul. Cribbin recalled the tumult in which Offaly found itself just over two years ago and appraised the journey to this stage of the 2011 campaign.
"There was some sort of cloud there," he said. "I couldn't put my hand on what it was or wasn't. Things were very difficult when I took it over. I can understand completely how difficult they were and frustrating for Richie too, because definitely there was a transition period there.
"Without a shadow of doubt, if Richie had been left there, I think he'd have worked his way through it.
"He was experimenting to try and come up with the right answers and, for whatever reason, people felt it wasn't going the right way."
Last year's league ended tamely. Then came the championship defeat to Meath, which was followed by three qualifier games, culminating in a two-point defeat in round three to eventual All-Ireland finalists Down. Beaten they may have been, but Cribbin and his men took heart from that match.
Cribbin recalled: "It wasn't just that we lost to Down by only two points -- it was the performance. The pace of the game, the intensity, the skill levels, everything had to move to a far superior notch and it did. James McCartan couldn't believe we were a Division 3 team.
"We have set our targets a lot higher than last year, so we're really looking forward to the match on Sunday and whatever that brings -- and then the championship."
Their away form, beating Limerick, Louth and Waterford on the road, has shown the mental toughness of the Offaly squad, which had been hard hit by injuries and the unavailability of key players.
"When we've a full panel we might have a reasonable first 30. And after that you're trying to develop maybe three or four or five young lads for the future. All the games we've played have gone down to the wire. You learn an awful lot about yourselves in those tight situations."
A tight situation is exactly what Cribbin anticipates tomorrow in Mullingar. "Pat Flanagan knows all the Offaly guys really well, so it's going to be a very tough encounter. It will really go down to the wire. Offaly and Westmeath games are always competitive and it will be championship fare on Sunday."