Tuesday 19 June 2018

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Harsh reality waiting to be dispensed

Offaly’s Oisin Kelly attempts to get away from Dublin’s Cian Hendricken during their league clash in Croke Park earlier this year. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Offaly’s Oisin Kelly attempts to get away from Dublin’s Cian Hendricken during their league clash in Croke Park earlier this year. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Only Kerry can save Offaly or Dublin now. It's the ultimate irony that a county which has not competed in its own provincial championship for 15 years could decide the fate of two others in a different province.

That's how it's falling for Offaly and Dublin, one of whom will be relegated from the Leinster Championship unless Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup.

In that case, Kerry would play off against the bottom finishers in the Munster Championship to decide promotion/relegation down south, with the status quo remaining in Leinster.

There's no such arrangement with Leinster, where the bottom team will drop down automatically unless Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup.

They face a trip to Páirc Tailteann in Navan today where they face the winless Meath before the daunting task of taking on Antrim in their Cushendall backyard seven days from now.

Kerry (one wins, two defeats) are currently fourth on the Joe McDonagh Cup table so their prospects of reaching the final, let alone winning the title, look bleak.

Survival

In which case, the losers of tomorrow's Dublin-Offaly game in Parnell Park will be out of next year's Leinster Championship and can only return if they win the Joe McDonagh Cup.

Five years ago, Dublin were Leinster champions the first time in 52 years, two seasons after winning a first Allianz League title for the first time in 72 years.

It's 20 years since Offaly won the last of their four All-Ireland titles in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable - now just a few miles from the scenes of great joy in Croke Park, they are fighting for provincial survival.

Johnny Dooley, who played such a big part in the 1994 and 1998 All-Ireland successes, will be in Parnell Park tomorrow, cheering on the current generation as they bid to avoid the drop.

His former colleague, Kevin Martin is in charge of the team and while most observers believe that Dublin will win, Dooley remains hopeful.

"We beat Dublin in the League early in the year so the lads know they can match them.

"Losing so heavily to Wexford last week was a setback but they just have to put that behind them and focus on this one game as if it were an All-Ireland final," he said.

As an Offaly man, he obviously wants to see Dublin beaten, but looking at it from a hurling perspective, he is dismayed by a system that will dump one of them out of their own Championship.

Fellow Leinster counties, Westmeath, Carlow and Laois are in the running to replace Offaly or Dublin, but so too are Antrim.

If they win the Joe McDonagh Cup, Leinster will have only three counties (Kilkenny, Wexford and tomorrow's winners) in their own championship next year, with Galway and Antrim completing the five-team line-up.

"I can't see how it could possibly be good for hurling in Dublin or Offaly to be forced out of the Leinster Championship. It's not good for hurling overall either.

"We have two provinces with five teams each, yet automatic relegation applies to one only. That's unfair.

"At the very least, there should be six teams in the Leinster, which already has Galway there on a permanent basis.

"Even now, the system should be tweaked to prevent Offaly or Dublin from dropping out," said Dooley.

He fears that it will be difficult to get players from Offaly or Dublin to fully commit next year if they are not playing in the Leinster Championship.

"In Offaly, we have some lads around the 30 (year) mark. They are used to playing in the Leinster Championship - will they be as interested in the Joe McDonagh Cup competition? I doubt it very much.

"Two years is a long time in sport, so whichever side loses tomorrow will have several players who probably won't get a chance to play in Leinster again.

"Surely, the aim should be to get as many counties as possible playing the provincial championships.

"I fail to see how dropping one out of Leinster every year helps anyone," he said.

Dublin opposed the proposed changes in the All-Ireland Championship at Special Congress last September and Kilkenny wanted them deferred for a year.

Ironically, the only motion Offaly - in conjunction with Laois and Meath - offered was that the two Joe McDonagh Cup finalists be allowed to re-enter the All-Ireland Championship at the preliminary quarter-final stage, which was accepted.

Offaly would have been regarded as most likely to drop out of Leinster but they did not put forward a formal motion designed to avoid that.

Now, they face the prospect of the worst possible scenario. And, if they are relegated and Dooley's worst fears come to pass and some senior players opt out next year, they might not even make it back into the Leinster Championship at their first attempt.

Most Offaly hurling people find it hard to accept that their senior team could be facing exclusion from the Leinster Championship, especially since the province has taken in a powerful force from across the Shannon in the shape of Galway and is ready to accommodate Ulster guests too.

"Imagine if Offaly people were told when we won the All-Ireland title in 1998 that 20 years later we would be fighting to stay in the Leinster championship. They would think it was bad joke but it's happening," said Dooley.

"I know you can say we dug a hole for ourselves over the years since then, but that's not the issue now.

Work

"There's a lot of good work going on in Offaly and the last thing the county needs is for the senior team not to be in the Leinster Championship," he said.

Dublin's relegation would be even more of a shock, as their successes were relatively recently. Indeed, they were a Division 1A side up to last year when they lost a relegation play-off to Clare.

The supporters also find it difficult to understand how a team that ran Kilkenny and Wexford to two points each in recent weeks could be thrown out of the Leinster Championship.

Like Offaly, they might find it difficult to maintain interest among all their players if they are in Tier 2 next summer, knowing that on the basis of results up to now, they are better than any of the counties at Joe McDonagh Cup level.

Offaly can make the same argument, having finished ahead of the Tier 2 teams in the League in all except one of the last eight seasons.

None of which counts for anything as they head for the survival battle in Parnell Park.

"If ever there was a time for Offaly spirit, this is it," said Dooley.

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