Sunday 22 July 2018

'If you want to f**k around, you won't be on this panel' - Drink ban key in reemergence of Offaly

New Offaly hurling manager Kevin Martin will be hoping his charges can build on last Saturday’s win over Dublin in Croke Park. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
New Offaly hurling manager Kevin Martin will be hoping his charges can build on last Saturday’s win over Dublin in Croke Park. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

As they laid one of their greats to rest in Coolderry on Thursday, a low murmur rumbled audibly through the midlands.

Offaly's hurling family is a tight, intimate community and the congregation at Pat McLoughney's funeral reflected it. Great men from a golden time hunched close in the cortege, paying their respects to a figure who played in the breakthrough Leinster Championship win of 1980 and was a selector for the All-Ireland triumphs of '94 and '98.

Those men were the game's ultimate non-conformists, a group broadly happy for the outside world to believe their only passion to be the wilful breaking of Commandments. Maybe their success (four All-Irelands in 17 summers) fed that gentle conceit, nurturing an idea that magic tricks came easy to Offaly. But then they fell off the face of the earth.

And, well, the wonder became how they'd ever escaped the miserable, deflating ennui of their history.

Once upon a time, you see, club enmities ran so deep in Offaly, the very concept of a county team seemed almost foolhardy. As Brother Denis Minahane, the Bantry man who managed Offaly's senior hurlers for 12 years through the 1960s and early '70s, once told me: "Things that might have happened in 1936, they still hadn't got out of their systems!"

McLoughney came through that time to be at the birth of a revolution that looks more and more implausible with the gift of hindsight.

Energised

And so there seemed something particularly apt that, five days before his final journey, Offaly hurlers recorded their first National League win in Croke Park since '91. Something faintly beautiful in the tone of old comrades' conversations, every last one palpably energised by a victory for Kevin Martin''s 5/1 outsiders over Dublin.

Daithi Regan says he met men like Jim Troy, Pat Delaney and Pat Cleary in Coolderry, all of them animated now in recognition of new hope rolling through the county.

True, Dublin fielded eight National League debutants and will, undeniably, have sharper teeth come summer. But, as Regan puts it, "the conversations had at Pat's funeral were conversations we hadn't had in years. Like, in recent times, it was nearly always about bad hidings and how dismal things had become."

Maybe last summer was the watershed. Fielding double sweepers in their championship games against both Galway and Waterford, Offaly leaked an aggregate of 1-68. Short of curtsying, they couldn't have been more passive.

Martin himself admitted on his appointment last November that they'd become "painful to look at", his minimum ambition being to make them a mite more quarrelsome now.

And maybe it was simply time to return to one of their own too, the Tullamore man having excelled as a broad-shouldered wing-back in the All-Ireland wins of '94 and '98. If he had no great name as a flowing orator, he did always radiate the authority of a man who understood the difference between heat and noise.

In '09, Martin was a 36-year-old player-manager when Tullamore won their first county title for nearly half a century, then guided Westmeath to a Christy Ring Cup win before managing Clough Ballacolla to a Laois title in 2015.

Yet the challenge of re-igniting a pulse in Offaly?

Just 18 months ago, the county looked set to be tangled up in a bitter civil war when it emerged that a 39-page report from the Offaly Hurling Review Committee - aimed at revitalising the game - had, effectively, been ignored for more than a year by the county board.

The original chairman of the committee, All-Ireland winning coach Diarmuid Healy, had previously withdrawn from the process out of frustration with the same board.

Yet, conversely, the county's €2.25 million, state-of-the-art Training Centre, 'Faithful Fields', opened just outside Kilcormac last September on the back of extraordinary support from the local GAA community.

Duignan, who chaired the fundraising committee for a project that was completed in two years, admits that the goodwill encountered was "massive". As he puts it. "there's been a lot of criticism of the county board, I have been vocal myself at times. But a lot of good work has gone into clubs, schools and development squads too.

"The trouble is, sometimes, things don't happen fast enough, maybe there's a flashpoint and people leave. A lot of good people have gone in that way. Like we tend to shoot ourselves in the foot at times."

The opening of 'Faithful Fields' has facilitated the single-site training of Offaly's best hurlers from U-17 up, everyone meeting and mingling now on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. And it has maybe helped nurture the kind of unity that, once, gave Offaly an edge on counties with a broader hurling demographic.

Choice

"That's what we were in Offaly" says Duignan. "Small numbers, a lot of families. We were very tight-knit because we had no choice. It's all we had and it worked for us."

One of Martin's first achievements was to negotiate the return to county training of men like Conor Mahon, Dan Currams, Colin Egan and Derek Molloy, who, for various reasons, had slipped away. He did so, offering no promises beyond inclusion in a regime that would be serious.

On Saturday night, Martin's old Tullamore clubmate Nigel Mannion brought a bus full of 28 hurlers to Dublin in support of the new Offaly manager. The deal was that they would train on Friday night and, again, at 11.30 on Sunday morning. In between, their trip to Croke Park would be a social release.

So they went to The Big Tree pub in Dorset Street and enjoyed a good night back home afterwards, celebrating the Faithful's unlikely 13-point win. And, Sunday morning, every last one of the 28 pitched up for training, all pretty much recyling the same line, "Jesus weren't Offaly brilliant..."

Mannion is a former county panellist who hurled for more than a decade alongside Martin and is unequivocal now about what his old friend is bringing to the Offaly job.

"I'll be honest with you, we were looking at inter-county players who were drinking during the championship last year," he stresses. "When Kevin came in, straight away, he put a drink ban in place and I honestly don't think they've had a blow-out since.

"He has stalled that kind of thinking. If you want to f**k around, you won't be on this panel. You either want to play for your county or you don't. That's how he operates."

Where all this will lead, of course, is anybody's guess.

The new competition structures open a real possibility that Offaly might not even be in the Leinster Championship next season (the bottom team in the round-robin system will be relegated), so men like Regan and Duignan are all too mindful that beating a makeshift Dublin team in January may not amount to a hill of beans come summer.

What they saw last weekend, however, fills both with hope that Offaly might simply be re-acquainting themselves with the sense of place that once drove great men like Pat McLoughney to hurling's mountain-top.

Duignan's two sons, Seán and Brian, are both involved at underage with Offaly and he himself has been helping out with Coláiste Choilm. They played the Offaly minors in a challenge on Tuesday night, the "buzz" palpable among young hurlers "who'd probably never seen Offaly win a match of any note".

He adds: "Listen, there's nobody saying we're back or anything like that, but there's a sense of excitement in the county we haven't had in years."

Regan concurs. "Last Saturday night we went and watched a bunch of players who fought for everything aggressively, things like defenders hurling on the shoulder," says the Birr man. "Not a yard behind which I've watched, fuming, for the last number of years. Real basic stuff as a defender, every one of them hurling in the manner of Kevin Martin. That would be the view a lot of us would have now, they're hurling in his manner. No nonsense, no bulls**t."

And Limerick in Tullamore tomorrow?

"We may not win, but we know what's coming," stresses Regan. "I'd be old enough to remember the late '70s and good performances against Tipp and Clare when you knew something was building.

"Like we might not beat those teams, but we'd always rattle them in a big way. We kind of lost that, which is why people were so heartened last Saturday.

"And it's like we can't wait for Sunday now, for a National League game! That's something that hasn't happened here in ten years!"

Irish Independent

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