Tuesday 23 July 2019

From All-Ireland champions to the verge of Joe McDonagh relegation - The rise and fall and fall of Offaly hurling

 

The Offaly hurlers will be relegated to the Christy Ring Cup if they lose to Kerry today. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
The Offaly hurlers will be relegated to the Christy Ring Cup if they lose to Kerry today. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Just over 20 years ago Offaly hurlers travelled to Austin Stack Park to play Kerry in their final league match as All-Ireland champions in April 1999.

It was a routine victory, 0-20 to 1-7, and while the subsequent Leinster final against Kilkenny didn't end well, they picked themselves up to bring newly-minted Munster champions Cork to the wire in a memorable All-Ireland semi-final.

The decade had brought another brace of All-Ireland titles, 1994 and '98, to add to the two they stockpiled in the 1980s.

Within a year they'd be Leinster minor champions and thoughts turned to the possibility of another generation keeping the flame burning brightly through another 20 years.

This weekend, that flame is flickering to the point where there is scarcely a shard of illumination coming from it.

They're on the road back down to Tralee today to play Kerry but not as All-Ireland champions. Instead, they're fighting for their hurling lives, the irony of survival in a competition named after the man who last presented the Liam MacCarthy Cup to Offaly, in 1998, not lost on some of their wizened followers.

No one could be surprised at the fall. For a county of Offaly's size and almost equal split between hurling in the south and west and football in the east and north winning back-to-back All-Ireland titles - hurling in 1981, football a year later - is arguably the greatest achievement by any county. To follow it up with three more All-Ireland hurling titles only served to embellish those earlier achievements. Those with long memories recall struggles with Laois, Westmeath and even Kildare in the '70s.

But it's the scale of the fall that is alarming now. While remaining seated at the top table was, in hindsight, never sustainable, maintaining a certain standard was and still is.

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The fall from that lofty position they occupied at the end of the 1990s has been ongoing for almost two decades now.

The initial suffering came at the hands of Brian Cody's Kilkenny in the 2000s. Sometimes the descent would slow and they'd plateau for a few months or even years. Joe Dooley's four years in charge between 2008 and 2011 brought some stability and decent performances; Galway held to a draw and almost beaten in a Leinster semi-final replay, Cork ousting them by just a point in a 2011 qualifier among the high notes.

Ollie Baker's two years in charge brought more of the same. Beating Wexford in the 2012 Leinster Championship was their last win against a traditional power, a year later a five-point defeat to Kilkenny seemed reasonable.

But after that the elevator began dropping quickly again, Laois and Westmeath taking them out of it in Leinster Championship games as the suffering to Kilkenny continued.

For a while Kevin Martin had ripples of success, an opening night league win over Dublin last year followed up by a one-point loss to Kilkenny in a league quarter-final. They were ledges on which to shelter.

But then it took off again last year with the loss of Leinster Championship status with four successive defeats in the middle of a current run that has seen them lose 17 of their last 18 games, including a trio of defeats in the Walsh Cup earlier in the season. The sole victory in almost 16 months was against Carlow in a regulation league match.

The descent has never been as steep as in the last three months, when they've gone from being a Division 1 team with prospects of a quick return to top-flight hurling to a Division 2 team on the cusp of dropping to hurling's third tier and relative oblivion.

Adding to their woes is that this year's minor team is probably not among the top five in Leinster, having lost a quarter-final last weekend to Kildare, another small but significant footnote in the decline.

Dispensed

In the middle of this current McDonagh Cup campaign, they've dispensed with manager Martin, replacing him with Joachim Kelly, after defeats to Laois by four points and Westmeath by 13 points.

But the expected pick-up didn't immediately materialise with a two-point defeat to Antrim in their last game giving today's Kerry game an importance that some would equate, in relative terms, as greater than any All-Ireland final.

There has been much circling of the wagons and attempts to avert the slide, among them a blueprint that was commissioned after a 2014 championship season where Kilkenny beat them by 26 points at Nowlan Park in that first ever live GAA Sky TV broadcast.

Initially chaired by former All-Ireland-winning manager, Kilkenny man Dermot Healy, and then Liam Hogan, a former Offaly player and one of Ballyboden St Enda's chief hurling architects in Dublin, it caused controversy because of its slow implementation.

Healy stepped down and Hogan and a subsequent implementation committee also resigned in 2017 over a lack of progress.

For their part, the board maintained that some of the recommendations have been put in place but it has been in the eye of the storm, most recently for the removal of Martin, a well-respected All-Ireland winner twice in the 1990s.

Win today and they can breathe, albeit briefly, before attempting to climb back into the top 12 teams in next year's National League.

Losing is just unthinkable.

Irish Independent

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