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Happiest in the heat of battle

C IARáN McMANUS has forgotten many things during his 16 years with the Offaly footballers, but some moments are forever locked in his memory.

Take the Nutron diet: back in 1997, Offaly manager Tommy Lyons put his squad on what was then the cutting edge of well-being and weight loss. McManus remembers that the players hadn't a clue what was involved, but surrendered for blood tests to uncover food intolerances. The results were analysed and the players proceeded to devour spade-fulls of anything shaded in green while avoiding foods with a red backdrop.

The poundage quickly fell off and suddenly they became pioneers of a modern science. Players lost up to two stones and their manager successfully took the diet too. The Offaly footballers became the first sportspeople to publicly embrace this new concept and were heralded as groundbreakers.

McManus chuckles now at the madness of it all. "The only thing I remember about the Nutron diet was that I was allowed cider," he says.

"Feckin' cider. The others were off drink, chocolate, bread, sweet things and basically anything that tasted nice. But there wasn't a pick on me anyway and what I was banned from was limited enough. Sure enough, my results came back and there at the top of my green list was cider. The lads broke down laughing."

The waiver was wasted on him, however. McManus often abstains for seven months at a time while in football mode and has always been fixated on his conditioning.

This is a chap who travelled over and back to Ireland for four years from Southampton, Finland and Germany while working as an engineer for ESB International and didn't miss a competitive game during his 42-month overseas stint. He took up Pilates and spinning while away and didn't even get homesick because he was back in Offaly more often than some of his team-mates.

McManus joined Tullamore Harriers Athletic Club over the winter, working with their middle-distance runners, and lined out with Edenderry soccer outfit Derry Rovers. It brought him back to the table with a renewed hunger for Gaelic football.

When Offaly took their first bleep test of the New Year he hit level 14.7 -- right up with his best of previous seasons. "It was important to mix things up and come back with the right attitude," he remarks. "I'll keep going with Offaly as long as I can contribute. If Tom Cribbin thinks I'm past the sell-by date, grand, but I know from training and matches that I'm not.

"Some people might disagree, you definitely hear more negatives the older you get. People pick up more on the same mistakes you always made and they are amplified because you're around so long. They just want you gone.

"I'll know myself when to go. As Eamonn O'Hara says, if you're there because of your name forget about it. I just have to prove myself again this year. If I start pulling out of tackles, or slowing down, or I don't have the will, then it's curtains," the 34-year-old admits.

Consider his longevity. Only Brian Dooher is around longer on the inter-county scene. He first played championship in 1996 while his league involvement stretches back to 1995, against Tipperary. Since then he reckons he's clocked up 113 league games and 61 championship matches.

Yet, at the starting line all those years back, he worried he wouldn't even get out of the blocks, feeling out of sync at minor trials.

"I gave up on trials because they tried me in goals one year and corner-back another," he recalls. "Then I was picked on the Offaly under 21 side at just 18. We won the Leinster title with me at midfield. Peter Moore was my manager and I'll always remember him for that.

"The call came to join the seniors and the set-up was so different to nowadays. We had a manager and two selectors. I don't even remember a physio. We trained in Ballyfore where the ladies made sandwiches for us after training.

"Jesus, it's changed. Nowadays, we've two physios, a masseuse, our own chef who goes everywhere with us. Tom has his backroom team and advisors too. We have dieticians, Johnny Doran is our physical trainer; we can use a sports psychologist and stats people.

"Everyone has their own specialised element and we're not listening to the same voice the whole time."

In 2004, former manager Eugene McGee was drafted in to solve a civil war between the players and county board. But progress was slow. Managers were coming and going like buses at a depot -- they had six in six years. It would have been a good time for McManus to quit.

"And leave it in a state like that?" he asks incredulously. "That would be like walking off the track in the middle of a race. The goal is to leave with Offaly football on the up. We've had great days and shocking ones too. But we've a new-look squad now, lots of young lads who were beaten in Leinster minor finals and I hope they're bloody hungry."

While there was a danger he would be lost in the despondency of it all, he argues instead that the dark years handed him a perspective on life. By his own admission, he needed more balance.

Right now he has that: a demanding but rewarding job with ESBI and a fine new home on the family land in Tubber. Two years ago, he married Linda Hayes and they're expecting their first baby in July. "It's the week of the Leinster final," he laughs. "I'd love nothing more than to put the young lad or lassie into the cup. That's something to aim for anyway."

He also works hard on the beef farm at home and recharges in the solitude of country life. At night, he's back at UCD studying for a Masters degree in management.

They commence their Division 3 campaign today but McManus' first objective is to help breathe new energy and personality into the youthful set-up.

"We're not like Kerry; we can't just turn around during a game and change our game-plan and tactics or switch from long ball to short passing. We don't have enough numbers or personnel in Offaly for that.

"I don't like using buzzwords so the only thing we'll look for is hard work. And getting a bit of steel back in Offaly football -- that's what's been missing the most. Lads have forgotten how to win and we need to put the chests back out. We won a couple of games last year but with the likes of Thomas Deehan back in the squad, I'd be optimistic about 2011. A couple of tight wins and we'll be on the road.

"Modern-day football might be all about tactics but for me it hasn't changed much. Any time we've won, we've worked our arses off and played well, simple as that.

"I'm going to 40th birthday parties at the moment so I mightn't have a huge amount in common with the youngsters but after a week or two we're all in it together. Hopefully, they'll get the same buzz I get five minutes before a match, waiting to get out on the field. That's when I'm happiest, in the dressing room waiting for a battle."

Today, it all starts again.

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