Shane Lowry has been sitting in O’Connor Park on too many occasions to mention over the past decade as Offaly hit various degrees of rock bottom in both codes, so it’s fitting that the 2019 Open champion will take his seat in Croke Park tomorrow.
Lowry may be a world-class golfer, but Offaly GAA courses through his veins and there was never any doubt that his original Sunday flight back to New York would be deferred 24 hours to watch the Faithful footballers contest the All-Ireland U-20 final.
One of the most important periods of his golfing career is on the horizon with a coveted Ryder Cup place up for grabs over the next month, but the Clara native has been waiting 21 years to see the green, white and gold reclaim its place at the top table.
Lowry watched painfully as Kilkenny skinned Offaly in the 2000 All-Ireland SHC final in what was one of the last embers of a golden generation of a county which secured seven All-Ireland senior titles (four in hurling and three in football) since 1971.
The Lowry name was synonymous during that time with his father Brendan, as well as uncles Mick and Seán, central as Offaly ended Kerry’s five-in-a-row hopes in 1982 with one of the most dramatic conclusions in All-Ireland SFC final history.
The 34-year-old’s affiliation to his county has never wavered, but he went above and beyond earlier this year when pledging his financial support to Offaly GAA as an official partner over the next five years.
Lowry proclaimed that he’d “die a happy man if I could see an Offaly man walk up the steps of Croke Park in 10 or 20 years” but it could happen less than four months later with Roscommon now all that’s in their way.
“Everything has happened quicker than anyone could have envisaged,” Lowry tells the Irish Independent.
“There seems to be a serious bit of momentum in the county and winning a final would create a whole different type of momentum.
“I’m just very excited about it and my phone has been hopping. Wherever I go, no matter where in the world it is, there’s always GAA people and there’s always Offaly people and everybody comes up and says it to me about Offaly hurling or football.
“I’ve been going to O’Connor Park for the last 10 or 15 years and I can genuinely count on one hand the amount of times I left happy, it’s been a bad aul’ run and it’s nice to have some success again. We’re definitely on the right road as a county.”
Promotion for the senior hurlers and footballers (to Division 1 and Division 2 respectively) and Christy Ring Cup success – as well as 2020 Leinster minor final appearances in both codes – had him beaming heading into the final 36 holes of various tournaments this season.
“It perks me up, I’m in good form for the weekend whenever they win. It does determine your mood for a couple of hours,” Lowry says before revealing how Michael Duignan’s passion as Offaly chairman stoked him into action.
Duignan is in his second year at the helm having assembled a polished team in an effort to turn around Offaly’s ailing fortunes and Lowry has no hesitation in telling how the two-time All-Ireland SHC winner compelled him to play his part.
“It’s probably one of the only reasons that I got involved, because I met Michael last Christmas and when you see how much love and passion he has for Offaly and the work him and everyone else puts in behind the scenes, it’s just incredible,” he says.
“That’s what you need, there’s no doubt about it. It needs a whole lot of work and a whole lot of love, that’s what Michael is doing and he’s doing a great job. I don’t think I’d be involved if he wasn’t there and I didn’t see what he puts into it.
“I can see the pure love for Offaly and a pure want to do great things. He wants nothing more than Offaly hurling and football to be back at the very top. He’s going to do everything in his power to achieve that and I’m going to help him along the way.
“It’s just great to be involved with such good people, and such great GAA people. I’m loving it so far and I’m excited for the next few years. You have to buy into the whole thing and that’s what players have to do as well.
“That’s why you need the right people at the top because you need the players to buy into it. I get too much credit for what’s gone on this year because I became involved but I suppose it did create a bit of a feel-good factor. People became more interested and it’s just unreal that we’ve seen such great rewards so quickly.”
Lowry recalls the famous second replay victory over Clare in Thurles 23 years ago as his sporting highlight, but while he had “great days and great times” growing up, there’s a generation of younger Offaly folk that never witnessed any glory days.
Michael Fennelly and John Maughan are taking the senior hurlers/footballers in the right direction and tomorrow will be the Faithful’s third visit to GAA HQ this season having hardly laid a foot on the hallowed turf over the past decade.
Lowry won’t get to meet Declan Kelly’s U-20s before the decider, but he intends to do so after the game and “hopefully they’ll have a nice little trophy with them” as they aim for a first All-Ireland football crown at that grade since 1988, when it was U-21.
Seamus Darby was the man that broke Kingdom hearts in ‘82 with a goal for the ages, and he lauds an “exceptionally good team” which blindsided him with their thrilling upset victories over Dublin and Cork.
“I lived in Tipperary for the last 19 years and lads would be saying, ‘Ah sure, ye’re gone’ and I suppose it gets through to you,” Darby reveals. “I really didn’t think that I’d see this day again but it’s here now and we’re competitive again.
“It’s a whole new ball game now and, in fairness to Michael Duignan and his crew, they’ve put in a savage effort, and that’s no disrespect to anyone gone before them, but everyone plays their part. It’s like great players of the past, they kept the thing moving until we got a team together and county boards come in and they mean well. Everybody gets a sell-by date, a new broom sweeps clean and the whole county is in a really good place now.”
The thirst for success was highlighted by Ticketmaster crashing midweek due to the demand for the 24,000 tickets available and the Offaly Rising is well and truly motoring.
Team Car Flag Ireland sold out of Offaly merchandise with the county on a high and the bulk of the players on show tomorrow – including star men like Cormac Egan and Jack Bryant – were among one of the first cohorts to come through a revamped developmental squad system, partly funded by Leinster Council.
The Faithful Fields is the envy of all counties in terms of training facilities and Offaly sides no longer lag behind others in terms of strength and conditioning, although the work is only starting at underage level.
Submissions have been at provincial level for six more Games Promotion Officers (GPOs) to add to the two already existing with the focus set to shift back towards schools and clubs to ensure that this is not a false dawn for the Faithful.
The Grand Canal Walk last March raised over €200,000 and that buy-in has been replicated by personnel within county squads giving total commitment to their respective squads amid an ethos where players are put first, as Darby pinpoints.
“We’re very stable, especially considering that it’s not that long ago that there was an awful lot of good players that wouldn’t play for Offaly. Suddenly, everybody wants to play and that’s a totally different situation. Success breeds success,” Darby says.
“I got phone calls from ex-Kerry players to say that the Offaly U-20s were a breath of fresh air. They’ve a great style, old traditional football and they take you on and go for the goals. I got a phone call from Carlow telling me that four of those lads should be in Tokyo at the Olympics.
“That’s the calibre of players you’re talking about. The whole county is behind them and they won’t go down easily anyway. The old fighting spirit is back in Offaly.”