Friday 18 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Burdened by delusions of adequacy'

‘Given the circumstances, it required world-class levels of chutzpah and self-delusion for Offaly to insist last year that they were too good for the Joe McDonagh Cup.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Given the circumstances, it required world-class levels of chutzpah and self-delusion for Offaly to insist last year that they were too good for the Joe McDonagh Cup.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The disastrous decline of Offaly hurling is a sporting tragedy, not just for the county but for the game as a whole. Last Saturday night the downward spiral of the past few years reached an apparent nadir when Laois beat them 3-17 to 2-16 in the league. The score flattered the losers, whose second goal arrived in the final seconds.

Having spent much of last year arguing that they shouldn't be removed from the All-Ireland senior hurling championship, Offaly have begun this year by proving that they should have been. Now they're in grave danger of dropping a level in the league as well.

In reality, the defeat in Portlaoise was merely the icing on a cake which has been unpalatable for a while now. Since 2016, Offaly have played 18 games in Division 1B and won five of them. In 2018, they lost to Antrim, in 2017 they lost to Laois and in 2016 they lost to Kerry.

The championship has witnessed some horrendous maulings for the Faithful County: 24-point and 17-point defeats by Wexford and Dublin last year, 24-point and 19-point trouncings by Waterford and Galway the year before that. It's 2012 since their last significant championship win, a Leinster quarter-final victory over Wexford.

Given the circumstances, it required world-class levels of chutzpah and self-delusion for Offaly to insist last year that they were too good for the Joe McDonagh Cup. They've lived off past glories for far too long.

Their demise is bad for hurling because it reduces the ranks of serious senior teams to nine (judgement on Carlow must be reserved till after this year's Leinster campaign.) The geographically restricted nature of top-level hurling made Offaly a tremendous breath of fresh air when they created one of the great shocks by defeating Kilkenny in the 1980 Leinster final.

The following year's All-Ireland victory was an emotional highpoint, but more significant was Offaly's ability to build on the initial breakthrough. Between 1980 and 1995 they won nine Leinster titles to Kilkenny's seven and even when the Cats defeated them in the 1998 decider, Offaly bounced back to win a fourth All-Ireland.

That era was built on success at underage level, All-Ireland minor wins in 1986, 1987 and 1989, Leinster under 21 victories in 1989, 1991 and 1992, All-Ireland senior colleges titles for Birr Community College in 1985 and 1986 .But you have to go back to 2000 when Offaly won both under 21 and minor Leinster crowns for the last provincial successes.

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Last year's minor team might have come within two points of a Kilkenny team which went on to the All-Ireland final, but from 2012 to 2015 and again in 2017 Offaly were beaten by Laois in the Leinster Championship, something which makes last Sunday's result much more explicable. Heavy defeat has usually been their lot at under 21 level. They did make the 2016 Leinster final where they lost to Dublin, but had only to beat Kildare and Carlow to get there.

It could be argued that Offaly hurling did well to be so competitive for so long as it worked off a relatively small base and was backboned by the remarkable Birr team which won four All-Ireland and seven Leinster titles between 1991 and 2007. Yet they should surely be better than they've been of late.

After last week's defeat, manager Kevin Martin lamented: "We didn't work hard enough. It's just down to work-rate in the first half, it just wasn't there. The players have to ask themselves questions about their commitment tonight and whether they gave everything or not. They'll have to digest it over the weekend."

Former inter-county referee Brian Gavin reckons "the whole culture has been challenged by the manager and it has backfired on him. There is a culture there with seven or eight players. Some of them are with the county in January, February and March to get themselves right for the club."

These suggestions of player lassitude echo those of Kevin Ryan, who was given a four-year contract as manager in November 2016 but quit in July 2017 after observing that "we can't get 30 lads in to play a full practice game. If a lad won't commit to come into you on a Sunday morning for a training session, it is hard to get them to commit for a full year. There are some genuine reasons why lads can't commit, but there are some bullshit excuses."

From this you might deduce that while most inter-county managers worry about getting their players to go that extra mile, an Offaly hurling boss struggles to get them going any mile at all. Yet perhaps such public criticisms do more harm than good. Portraying players as dossers is a motivational technique of questionable utility.

The lack of underage success would suggest that shiftless senior players are not wholly to blame. It's notable that Offaly footballers are also locked into the same cycle of underachievement and recrimination. Why should it be so difficult to motivate players from a county with such an enviable tradition? The social whirl around Tullamore and Birr is hardly that irresistible.

Offaly chairman Tommy Byrne believes that relegation to Division 2 "is the worst thing that could possibly happen. If we go out of Division 1B, you don't want to think of the consequences. The consequences will be terrible for Offaly hurling." I wonder. Offaly's problems may have worsened partly because hanging on in the top flight allowed themselves to pretend they remained one of the hurling elite.

It can be oddly comforting to persistently lose against much stronger teams and kid yourself that a ten- or 12-point defeat actually represents an impressive performance when the opposition probably weren't killing themselves. Beating opposition on the same level as yourself is a much more difficult task which reveals more about your true standing. Relegation might be no harm if it stripped away the county's last remaining delusions of adequacy.

Hurling needs a proper Offaly team. Because it is a mighty irony that a sport so universally beloved and so persistently hyped as a national treasure cannot muster even ten first-class teams.

If Offaly continue to slide, they will go the way of Antrim. It seems scarcely believable now that the Ulster kingpins were able to reach the 1989 All-Ireland final and come within an ace of making another decider in 1991. Or that in 1992 Down gave Cork a very decent game in the All-Ireland semi-final before losing by nine points, while in 2000 Derry came within six of Offaly in the quarters.

Those were moments when the field of contenders seemed about to be broadened. There were others. Laois were on the verge of a breakthrough in the '80s, losing by a point to Offaly in 1981, drawing with them the following year and defeating Wexford in 1985. The moment passed for them as it did for the Westmeath team which in 1986 beat Galway and Offaly and was extremely unlucky to lose a league quarter-final by two points to Kilkenny. Such results seem almost unthinkable these days.

Almost. Because Carlow drew with Galway in the league a couple of weeks back and are having their moment right now. History suggests it will hardly last. The last team to break through and stay there for a sustained period was Offaly. Their role as revolutionary standard-bearers for hurling's downtrodden masses makes their current plight all the more pitiable.

Should Offaly continue to deteriorate it will cast further light on the great historical failing of the GAA. Possessing one of the world's great field games, their contemporary promotion of it has been so poor that not even half of the counties have teams good enough to be allowed play against the All-Ireland champions.

Isn't that some state of affairs for a game everybody loves? And wouldn't it be a genuine service if at some stage the Association got a president or general secretary who made it his mission to ensure that at least half of the counties could compete in a top-tier championship?

For all the guff about promoting it in foreign fields, or being granted special cultural status by UNESCO, or getting it into the Olympics, you know what would be a real achievement for hurling? Making it something that the majority of youngsters play as well as admire, something that is not a Cinderella sport in large swathes of the country.

Doing that at grassroots level and bringing populous counties with decent traditions like Meath, Kildare and Kerry up a notch is overdue at a time when Croke Park seems increasingly focused on pious aspirations and trivialities.

I wouldn't bet on it ever happening. Which is why we need Offaly. Get the act together lads. You are the county of Delaney and Flaherty and Hanamy, of Carroll, Kinahan and Kelly, of the Dooleys and the Whelehans and the Coughlans.

It pains us to see you like this.

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