Seven-year glitch leaves Faithful morale at low ebb
Longford a daunting prospect as Offaly seek first Leinster victory since 2007
The last time Offaly played Longford in the Leinster football championship, they swept to a 19-point win and went on to take the title for the first time in 15 years.
Now, they are readily available at 5/2 to beat Longford (2/5) in the first round next Sunday as they seek to win a Leinster championship game for the first time since 2007. It's Offaly's longest barren spell since the 1930s and while it may be a county with a residue of tradition that usually encourages optimism, it's difficult to locate it at present.
"You'd have to say that morale is very low around the county. Results have been bad and there's no great sense that things are going to change. We would always feel we could beat Longford and we'd be hoping that hasn't changed, but it's hard to have much confidence about it," said Finbarr Cullen, who captained Offaly to their last Leinster title in 1997.
That campaign started with a 5-17 to 0-13 win over Longford and grew in power and efficiency as they beat Westmeath (replay), Wicklow, Louth and Meath, the reigning All-Ireland champions. Eight months later, Offaly won the Allianz League title for the first time.
It maintained Offaly's record of winning major titles in every decade since the 1960s, but that run has long since ended and is replaced by the far more modest ambition of trying to avoid a seventh successive season without winning a Leinster championship game.
"It's something I never thought I would see – Offaly is a county with a great tradition, but it doesn't seem to count for anything these days," said Tommy Lyons, who managed them to the Leinster/League double success in 1997-'98.
"One of the reasons I took the job back then was because I knew what tradition meant in Offaly. I talked to Eugene McGee and others and they all told me that even when things weren't going that well, Offaly players believed in themselves. They could look back on the success of previous decades and it gave them encouragement. Offaly might have gone through some lean periods but would then come with a burst. That's not happening anymore," said Lyons.
He believes that a detailed review of underage structures, overseen by a seven- to 10-strong group of dedicated, knowledgeable football people, is urgently required.
"There's no quick fix to a situation like this. It's got to be a five to seven-year project, working through development squads. The framework must be right and the investment has to go into it. People talk about how good Dublin are these days, but that didn't happen overnight. A phenomenal amount of work has gone into it since the late 1990s and the fruits are there now.
"I know Dublin have a much bigger population than Offaly, but the basic principle is the same. However big or small the population is, the proper structure must be there to bring youngsters through the development squads. It takes time, but it's the only way to go," said Lyons.
Cullen agrees, but while he accepts that reviving Offaly is a long-term project, he believes that progress would be accelerated if an underage team succeeded in making a breakthrough.
"Pascal Kelleghan is doing well with the minors (they play Westmeath in the Leinster quarter-final tomorrow evening) and if something could come of that, it would be a great. Being honest, though, we have to admit that at senior level, we're off the pace. We dropped into Division 4 this year and we could have no complaints. That's about our level," said Cullen.
Offaly's decline has reduced public interest in the county, further fuelling a sense of apathy.
"You need to have the county team going fairly well to create interest. Attendances were poor at some club games over recent weeks, but you never get that when the county team is doing well," said Cullen.
Current boss Emmet McDonnell is the 12th manager since Lyons departed at the turn of the Millennium, which underlines the level of turbulence experienced in Offaly.
"Football people everywhere are sad to see Offaly drop so far back. The only way out of it now is to start at the bottom and build slowly and patiently," said Lyons.
While Offaly are long outsiders to beat Longford in Pearse Park on Sunday, history is on their side. They haven't lost to Longford in the Leinster championship since 1965 and have run up some very big wins since then.
Longford beat Offaly by five points in this year's league, but still ended up joining McDonnell's men on the relegation chute to Division 4. Currently managed by former Dublin star Jack Sheedy, Longford dropped two divisions in successive seasons, but are still fancied to be too good for Offaly. Sheedy managed Cullen's club, Edenderry, some years ago and knows the Offaly scene well.
"Jack will have Longford right for this one, but we'd still be very hopeful in Offaly. Morale around the county isn't high, but this is a clash between two counties who were relegated to Division 4, so there isn't much between them. After such a bad run in Leinster, Offaly are due a break. But whatever happens on Sunday, there's a lot of long-term work to be done," said Cullen.
Offaly football fortunes: from boom to bust
1960s: Breakthrough decade
Offaly won the Leinster senior title for the first time in 1960; they retained it in 1961 and later reached the All-Ireland final, losing to Down by a point. They won a third Leinster title in 1969.
1970s: All-Ireland double
Willie Bryan led Offaly to a first All-Ireland title in 1971 when they beat Galway. A year later they completed the double, beating Kerry in a replay. They won Leinster titles in 1971-72-73.
1980s: Kerry killers
Séamus Darby's famous goal ended Kerry's five-in-a-row dream in 1982 as Sam Maguire came to the midlands for a third time. Managed by Eugene McGee, Offaly won successive Leinster titles in 1980-81-82.
1990s: First League title
After a disappointing first five years, Offaly recovered impressively under Tommy Lyons, winning the 1997 Leinster title before taking their first – and only – Allianz League (Division 1) title in 1998.
2000s: Promise and decline
After mixed results in the first five years, Offaly reached the 2006 Leinster final where they lost to Dublin. They reached the 2007 semi-final, again losing to Dublin, but haven't won a provincial game since then. They have won only three of nine All-Ireland qualifier matches in the last six years.
Six of the worst – Offaly's first round results (2008-2013)
2008: Westmeath 2-11 Offaly 1-8 (Tullamore)
2009: Kildare 1-16 Offaly 1-10 (Portlaoise)
2010: Meath 1-20 Offaly 2-7 (Portlaoise)
2011: Wexford 2-16 Offaly 0-8 (Tullamore)
2012: Kildare 0-19 Offaly 0-6 (Portlaoise)
2013: Kildare 0-19 Offaly 1-12 (Croke Park)