‘I was nearly a better player for it’ – Jason Sampson has bounced back from Faithful cull

Offaly skipper has taken setbacks in his stride as they plot return to Leinster

Offaly captain Jason Sampson believes the appointment of Johnny Kelly as manager was important in terms of keeping continuity within the squad. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Different people deal with adversity in different ways. Some take heartbreak as a sign that things were never meant to be, while others refuse to take no for an answer and stay chasing their dream.

It’s fair to say that Jason Sampson fits into the latter category having taken his licks when dropped from the Offaly squad in 2018-’19 before coming back better than ever.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Sampson has channelled every bit of hurt to develop as a player. The result is that he now leads Offaly out in Croke Park for Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final.

“I was disappointed, of course. If you are deemed surplus to requirements, then you’ll be disappointed, but it’s up to whoever is in charge of the team to pick whatever panel they want. I wasn’t sour or anything like that,” Sampson says.

​“I would have liked to have been there, but in the nearly two years away, I matured a lot and developed a lot more in myself as well, was nearly a better player for it, I’d say, when I went back in in 2020.”

Not only that, but having led Shinrone to their first Offaly SHC title last October as a forward – he was also crowned 2022 Offaly hurler of the year – the 30-year-old has now been reinvented as a centre-back.

It’s not a position which he was familiar with before new Offaly boss Johnny Kelly – a coach under his predecessor Michael Fennelly – threw him in there at the start of season, but it has gone swimmingly.

While that move may have been a bolt from the blue, Sampson is relishing the challenge, and he feels that the appointment of Kelly kept great continuity within the squad.

“I felt that was really important. It’s benefited us a lot this year. It wasn’t like, you know when you have that get-to-know-you period; that wasn’t there,” he says. “The lads knew everyone, so we didn’t have to go through that couple of weeks. We drove it on straight away from the minute we went back training, which has been really good, and it’s benefited us.”

Flanked by his younger brother Killian, Sampson has spearheaded a strong Offaly charge with promotion already secured to Division 1 for 2024, while all eyes are fixed on a return to the Leinster SHC should they beat Carlow at GAA HQ this weekend.

It is a special time for the Midlanders having watched the U-20 hurlers, who they regularly train alongside in the Faithful Fields, claim Leinster honours in Carlow last week.

Sampson hummed and hawed about going given their own big game was around the corner, but he was glad he made the trip and they hope to add to the “feel-good factor” going around the county right now.

“Thank God I went because it was deadly. You know you have your own game coming up in 10 days. You are kind of holding back a small bit, but it was hard not to; you’d nearly be pucking every ball with them,” he explains.

“They showed savage heart and character. If we could harness a bit of that character and heart next Saturday, it would go a long ways.

“Lads were coming to training on Thursday and they were bouncing. Everybody was chatting about it and all the rest. But it is important for us to remember we have our own job to look after. We’ve to go and look after our own patch.”

Victory would take Offaly back to the big time and Sampson, nephew of former Offaly star Pat Cleary (an All-Ireland SHC and All-Star winner in 1985), can just about recall the glory days of the 1990s.

“I remember being here (in Croke Park) in 1998, I was five. I remember walking down the steps with my father and we met Betty and Seán Dooley – they’d be Joe, Johnny and Billy Dooley’s mother and father, walking down the steps,” he recalls.

“I remember being in Thurles for the third game against Clare. I have faint recollections. Maybe I don’t have the memories at all. I want to have the memories, maybe.”