Friday 18 January 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'Hard to see anyone doing an Offaly on Dubs' drive for five'

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Seamus Darby (second from left) watches his last-gasp strike sail into the roof of the net past Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan to earn Offaly a dramatic victory in 1982. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus Darby (second from left) watches his last-gasp strike sail into the roof of the net past Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan to earn Offaly a dramatic victory in 1982. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

There was much to take out of two TV sporting documentaries - 'Players of the Faithful' and 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' - which drew much comment and deserved praise over the festive season.

The former, for those of you who have yet to see it on RTé, is a fabulously nostalgic recount of the famous 1982 Offaly team that defeated the great five-in-a-row-chasing Kerry. The latter, is an engrossing fly-on-the-wall Netflix series following Sunderland FC's 2017/'18 relegation season to the third tier of the English Football League.

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After dropping down from the Premier League the previous year, the Sunderland documentary was originally intended to track their challenge for a return promotion, a PR stunt by the owners to attract potential investors. What followed was an unexpectedly calamitous campaign, with a glaring insight into workings of a big professional football club.

Unlikely similarities can be found between both stories. A deep nostalgia for past successes is smothered by a present-day despair that those times may never return.

With each, their greatest days on the field overlapped with economic prosperity off it. As the shipyards and coal mines delivered league titles and FA Cups to Sunderland, the peat bogs and power stations delivered Leinster crowns and Sam Maguires to Offaly.

However, both communities now share a common resentment towards right-leaning economic policies that they feel have left them behind, and are bereft of hope for their young people and their beloved sporting institutions.

A sense of hope that they can compete is essentially all anyone really wants for their own team. Much of the current frustrations surrounding the modern-day version of Gaelic football are underpinned by a hopelessness amongst the ranks. Unable to see a future that is not dominated by sky blue, the rules of the game itself have felt the brunt of these frustrations.

It is no coincidence that the most radical rule changes ever proposed have arrived just as Dublin's dominance reaches a suffocating climax. Had last summer seen more top-level contests in the latter stages of the championship, it is unlikely we would be in the midst of the current rule-change firestorm.

Heading into this year's championship, everyone outside the capital will be rooting for a repeat of Offaly's feat in 1982. Not out of any dislike for Dublin, more out of the hope that Sam Maguire is still more than a mere pipe dream, that some team from what looks like a very beatable chasing pack can take down the 'greatest of all time' in waiting.

I got some stick for being caught on camera cheering for Mayo in 2017 when Lee Keegan blasted the ball past Cluxton into the Hill end. My emotion that day was not borne out of any disdain for Dublin, more a sense of hope that if Mayo can reach the summit, well then so can Monaghan. Always a sucker for the underdog, I similarly cheered for Dublin when Stephen Cluxton kicked their last-ditch winning free in 2011.

The build-up to the 1982 decider was everything that will follow Dublin's campaign this summer. Unbeatable. A procession. Greatest team ever. Watching Seamus Darby blast the match-winning goal into the net, and the impossible unfolding, naturally the mind wanders to consider who are best placed to replicate Offaly's unlikely feat.

It is hard to make a convincing case for any of the front-runners. Kerry? Too young. Mayo? Too old. Tyrone? Too one-dimensional. Galway? Too defensive. Donegal? Too one-paced. Monaghan? Too cautious, yet many including myself feel that they have it within themselves to be top of the chasing pile to try and halt Dublin's drive for five.

But Monaghan's Croke Park CV suggests otherwise. When you consider Conor McManus has still to score a championship goal there, it is a further indicator of Malachy O'Rourke's overly conservative approach at the latter stages of the competition to date.

The secret behind Offaly's unlikely dethroning of Kerry in 1982 was that prior to then they had proven themselves not to be afraid of going toe to toe with Mick O'Dwyer's men. The previous year, they pushed them all the way in a tight decider, with Kerry only pulling away in the final stages. In 1980, they enjoyed a memorable shoot-out in their semi-final defeat to Kerry, with Matt Connor registering an eye-popping 2-9. Only Mayo from the contending counties can claim any such similar sparring rights. Yet unless James Horan has a magic wand to unearth some new blood, it is hard to see how they can reach their former heights this summer.

Towards the end of 'Players of the Faithful' the overwhelming sense of melancholy in the voices of the Lowrys, Connors, and Furlongs from that Offaly era was unmistakeable. They are almost resigned to the fact that, in their lifetime anyway, similar days are unlikely to be seen in Offaly again.

If their history-blocking heroics are to be repeated this summer, Offaly are a mere footnote in the conversation. You almost get the sense that they'd trade it all in just to be in the race once more.

Regarding those counties in the chasing pack, whatever about their respective chances against Dublin, they will head into this season with a sense of hope that they can be the Offaly of their time. While none are short of a potential Seamus Darby in their ranks, they are all lacking a Matt Connor to make it a likely reality.

Irish Independent

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