Saturday 17 August 2019

Faithful depart but darker days may lie ahead

Kerry 1-18 Offaly 1-16

Offaly manager Joachim Kelly, selector Ger Oakley and linesman Liam Gordon look on during the second half of the Joe McDonagh Cup clash in Tralee. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Offaly manager Joachim Kelly, selector Ger Oakley and linesman Liam Gordon look on during the second half of the Joe McDonagh Cup clash in Tralee. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

The iconic lyrics of Chubby Checker's 1960s hit immediately come to mind when thinking about the state of Offaly hurling and one has to wonder 'how low can you go?'

Relegation to hurling's third tier - they will also operate from Division 2A of the league in 2020 - is catastrophic for a county that was celebrating their fourth All-Ireland SHC triumph just 21 years ago.

Ben Conneely shows his disappointment. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ben Conneely shows his disappointment. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Offaly's seismic fall from grace has been well telegraphed in recent years with fortunes going from bad to worse and mismanagement from the top down came home to roost in brutal fashion against Kerry in Austin Stack Park on Saturday.

Morale within the county was at an all-time low in the hours before throw-in with rumours of unrest in the camp and Joe Bergin - one of the Faithful's finest servants and their top scorer in this year's Joe McDonagh Cup with an average of 9.3 points per game - sensationally dropped.

Few could rationalise how a fully-fit Bergin was left on the sideline - he was introduced after 24 minutes but much of the damage was done by then - for one of the biggest games in the county's hurling history.

Indiscipline once again reared its ugly head with Peter Geraghty's seventh-minute dismissal for an off-the-ball incident involving Daniel Collins - when Offaly had started like a house on fire and led 0-4 to nil - leaving them with a mountain to climb.

Colum Harty of Kerry in action against Shane Kinsella of Offaly. Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colum Harty of Kerry in action against Shane Kinsella of Offaly. Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Combine that with Shane Dooley's missed penalty five minutes later - and the inspired form of Kingdom sharpshooter Shane Conway - and the hill was too steep for a county which has forgotten how to win.

Reports circulated in the immediate aftermath of this deflating defeat that it would have devastating effects on the Offaly SHC with next year's winners rumoured to be excluded from the Leinster club SHC due to their Christy Ring Cup status.

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A GAA official has since rubbished claims that the county's representatives must take part at Leinster intermediate club level but this is the only light from a harrowing weekend.

Joachim Kelly - who took the reins following Kevin Martin's sacking last month - was left "gutted" as Offaly fell deeper into hurling's abyss but he insisted they "must start again" in order to get out of this rut.

"Offaly needs to start again now at the bottom, we are where we are. Maybe we're not good enough and we maybe think we are and we're not but there's always hurling in Offaly," Faithful legend Kelly said.

"They're not going to fold up now just because of this defeat. Maybe it's the best place to start, the Christy Ring Cup, and get better and better and back up to the Joe McDonagh.

Formality

"No one died, the sun will rise again in the morning, and please God Offaly will rise again some time soon."

Offaly face trips to the likes of Derry, Wicklow, Roscommon and Kildare for next year's Ring Cup and promotion is no formality either with key marksmen Bergin and Dooley edging ever closer to retirement.

Despite falling outside the top 15 hurling counties, darker days may be ahead with Kelly non-committal on whether he would seek the unenviable job on a full-time basis.

"I'm not saying yes and I'm not saying no. I still love hurling, I still love Offaly and will continue to do so. I'm 63 years of age now and perhaps it's a younger man's game," he said.

Kelly did take serious exception to some social media critics which lambasted his management team - just nine of the side that lost out to Antrim two weeks ago started with surprising championship debuts handed to Dermot Gath and Eoin Parlon - in the build-up to the Kerry defeat and he took no prisoners.

"There are a**eholes on social media criticising us, they are gobsh**es who know nothing about hurling. Everybody gets it; the management, the county board, the players," he said.

"But if they (social media critics) only knew the work these lads have put in over the last couple of years, they wouldn't be so quick to criticise."

Kerry boss Fintan O'Connor - who managed St Rynagh's to the 2017 Offaly SHC final - took no great pleasure in Offaly's demise but victory and maintaining their status was a necessity after three years in charge.

O'Connor had John B O'Halloran to thank as the Kerry 'keeper got down smartly to save Dooley's penalty effort and this game-defining moment set about a change in fortunes in Tralee.

Conway was unerring from placed balls while the Lixnaw dynamo also provided the touch of class to send Pádraig Boyle through for a crucial goal in first-half injury-time.

Breeze

That left them four points to the good at the break, 1-7 to 0-6, after playing against a stiff breeze and despite Dooley's 39th-minute goal and the defiance of Seán Cleary, Kerry were always a step ahead.

Michael Boyle was immense at centre-back as they dominated the Offaly puck-out and the ease with which they adapted to the extra man was impressive. They utilised the extra space their numerical advantage created and it showed just how much they have improved in recent seasons.

"It means an awful lot. It would have been a huge setback for the group and for everything that they stand for. If you get relegated, you're a failure, that's the way it's looked at," a delighted O'Connor said.

"This gives us a chance to get better next year. It means an awful lot to us, I can turn around to them in the winter and say, 'We have to get better at this, we have to get better at that'.

"I don't know if I could have been looking them in the eye saying that next year if we were in Christy Ring.

"While there's huge satisfaction with being in the competition next year, there's no satisfaction in seeing the disappointment and the misery in the Offaly lads. They gave everything they had with 14 men for nearly 70 minutes."

 

SCORERS - Kerry: S Conway 0-11 (11f); P Boyle 1-1; J Conway, C Harty 0-2 each; J Goulding, P Kelly 0-1 each. Offaly: S Dooley 1-6 (6f); S Cleary 0-4, E Cahill 0-2 (2f); J Gorman, J Bergin, K Connolly, C Kiely 0-1 each.

KERRY - JB O'Halloran 7; J O'Connor 7, B Murphy 7, S Weir 6; D Goggin 5, M Boyle 8, D Collins 7; J Buckley 7, T O'Connor 7; M O'Leary 7, S Conway 8, P Kelly 7; P Boyle 7, J Conway 7, J Goulding 7. Subs: C Harty 7 for D Goggin (h-t), M Slattery for Goulding (72).

OFFALY - E Cahill 8; N Houlihan 6, B Conneely 6, M Egan 7; D Egan 5, C Kiely 7, E Parlon 6; S Kinsella 6, C Gath 5; S Cleary 8, D Gath 5, P Geraghty 4; K Connolly 6, O Kelly 6, S Dooley 7. Subs: J Bergin 6 for D Gath (24), D Nally 6 for C Gath (h-t), J Gorman 7 for Kinsella (48), S Dolan 7 for Connolly (57).

REF - C Lyons (Cork)

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