Carroll making headway but warns of the long road ahead
Later in his career, when Offaly started to really falter, Brian Carroll lived for the occasional day out against the big teams. When he could test himself in company that had become increasingly removed from his orbit. You might dream of higher aspirations, the kind you held when John Troy and Brian Whelahan were still playing, but those were not bedded in reality.
Carroll was part of Offaly's last minor win in Leinster in 2000, a year in which the under-21s also last won the province - beating Kilkenny, who had Henry Shefflin on their team. The seniors reached the All-Ireland final the same year. Those days are long gone and were a fading memory when he retired from inter-county hurling last year.
The Coolderry hurler was Offaly's best player when Sky television launched itself on the GAA market with exclusive coverage of their Leinster Championship meeting with Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in 2014. The game was a write-off, Kilkenny winning 5-32 to 1-18. Today's meeting with Galway might not be an annihilation, but it could be. Offaly gradually reached an accommodation with these drubbings - reactions of shock and indignations are becoming a thing of the past too.
Carroll's Offaly career went downhill after a bight start. They reached an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2003 and the Leinster final in 2004, a game they will always feel they should have won. The next year they took a brutal beating from Kilkenny, 6-28 to 0-15, in the Leinster Championship. As Kilkenny grew into a superpower they were emblematic of a county travelling in the opposite direction. As he got older they became more vulnerable to humiliations like that - here the colour of the jersey, and the tradition, offered no protection.
Going into matches where they are rank outsiders was a mental challenge. "You needed to be blindly optimistic," says Carroll, "so every day you go out you have to believe you are always capable of that one-time performance, of upsetting the odds. You have got to believe that. You can't go out thinking you are beaten. And then the importance of never giving up and to keep going."
Of Offaly's current difficulties he realises there is no quick solution and that the more they lose, the more desolate people tend to become. "It is a vicious circle, the further you move away from it (success), the worse it can get," he says. "Success breeds success."
Last year Offaly appointed Carroll their director of hurling, but he is not comfortable with the title for two reasons. "It is egotistical in its nature in terms of the title. I don't appreciate that," he says. "It also implies I am getting paid and I am not, it is completely voluntary. They thought when John Leahy, who was a coaching officer in Offaly, went to Renua (as replacement leader for Lucinda Creighton) I was taking over his position. I am still teaching in Portlaoise, I just help out at meetings and the whole idea is to try and support the full-time staff, point them in the right direction, come up with ideas.
"I suppose many hands make light work. There are a lot of very knowledgeable people in the county and it is trying to harness that knowledge and use it."
Former Offaly hurler and Ballyboden coach Liam Hogan, who chaired a group that came up with plans to rejuvenate Offaly hurling, approached Carroll to get involved - even though he was only recently retired and might not appear the kind of candidate you would find on a committee. "I suppose it did take some convincing," Carroll admits. "I was just out of the game myself but I suppose everyone needs to put their shoulder to the wheel. I will do whatever I can."
The 'Offaly Hurling Pathway' document was presented to the county board in the wake of the heavy loss to Kilkenny in 2014 but sat idle for 13 months before being made available to the clubs. Out of this came Carroll's appointment last year, with a number of other hurlers also involved in supporting the venture - including Pat Cleary, Rory Hanniffy who recently retired from Offaly senior hurling, David Kenny and Cillian Farrell.
"There is a willingness to change," says Carroll, "but it is going to take time and for any real change. People have to move out of their comfort zone and work with everybody." A new centre of excellence training centre for county teams is a sign of the county's progression. "We now have no excuses from that perspective, we have the best facilities," adds Carroll. "But it's only one of many boxes that need to be ticked.
"Really, we need to invest in youth and that is where the clubs are crucial. The real development happens from (age) six to eight, it is almost too late by the time they get to the development squads. We are faced with a change in primary schools, we need the clubs taking on a bigger role and taking their place and supporting the schools as much as possible."
There will also be a huge emphasis on coaching personnel in the clubs. But these are geared towards long-term benefits. "Success isn't instant and I think Offaly need to understand this," Carroll states soberly. "It could take a long, long time. And, being honest, we might never see massive success out of this. Ultimately we were spoiled in the '80s and the '90s. The gap is getting wider at the moment. The work we are putting in at the moment is probably only stopping the rot."
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