Monday 21 October 2019

Michael Verney: 'Cracks are still being papered over but Offaly hurling is close to breaking point'

Analysis

Kevin Martin. Photo: Sportsfile
Kevin Martin. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

How many 'new lows' does a county have to hit before someone eventually stands up and yells stop?

It's a sad state of affairs when Offaly GAA is regularly making the headlines for all the wrong reasons and Kevin Martin's axing as Faithful hurling manager signalled the latest in a long line of bad publicity that is fully justified.

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Fresh from Stephen Wallace being relieved of his duties as football boss mid-season last summer, Offaly chiefs seem to be stumbling from one disaster to the next with little clarity about where they want to go.

Michael Duignan, a two-time All-Ireland winner with the county, branded their latest dismissal as "a short-term, reactionary move," something which has become commonplace in recent years with gaps regularly being plugged.

Cracks can only be papered over for so long, however, before the dam bursts in devastating fashion and Offaly are nearing that point with Faithful legend Joachim Kelly tasked with avoiding an incomprehensible drop from the Joe McDonagh Cup to hurling's third tier.

Martin is far from blameless with relegation to Division 2A of the league earlier this year followed last Sunday's harrowing defeat to Westmeath, another distressing milestone in their remarkable demise over the past two seasons as his record at the helm left a lot to be desired.

Thirteen defeats from 16 league and championship games - victories came against a second-string Dublin side as well as Laois and Carlow - during his two-year term meant that change was needed to save a potentially disastrous situation.

That comprehensive league defeat of Dublin in Croke Park 16 months ago was viewed by many as the dawning of a new era with euphoric reaction longing for a return to the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s when the county's four All-Ireland SHC titles were accumulated.

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Those with an intimate knowledge of Offaly's underage hurling record in the last 15 years were sceptical of that result, and rightly so as it proved to be an aberration with normal service quickly resuming.

Aside from their 2016 U-21 Leinster final appearance (beating Kildare and Carlow en route), Offaly haven't had a sniff of a provincial final at any level in the past decade and have generally struggled to leave a mark of any note.

Huge work has been put into this year's minor hurlers but the results haven't reflected it with a three-point opening-round loss to Wexford followed by a 13-point beating to Dublin and a 32-point hammering to Kilkenny. Not a good sign of what the future holds for their fortunes.

A Hurling Review/Implementation Committee featuring the likes of Brian Carroll and Liam Hogan was devised to put Offaly back on track but having watched their suggestions fall on deaf ears at board level, they abandoned en masse in the summer of 2017 through frustration.

Lip service has been paid to player development at every age group and the chickens are finally coming home to roost, although rock bottom is unlikely to have been hit just yet as little has been done to arrest their slide bar changing managers.

Apathy has set in at all levels and it's hard to get players to commit too. A county call-up used to mean something whereas now it's viewed by many as a poisoned chalice.

Traditionally inferior hurling counties like Laois, Westmeath and Carlow have leapfrogged Offaly in the pecking order and until people stand up to be counted and effect change, it will get worse before it gets any better, as Duignan highlighted.

"We have to have an acceptance here in Offaly that Westmeath, Laois and Carlow - counties like this - have better players than us now. They've moved ahead of us. They've been beating us at minor and senior for a number of years now," Duignan said.

"We're not grasping it. Until we devise a plan that suits our demographics then we're not going to improve. The people in power need to listen to the people who are willing to do that."

While management teams have come and gone, the personnel involved at board level has remain generally unchanged - as mentioned regularly in these pages in recent years - and introspection is needed.

That has been a common denominator through all of Offaly's hurling struggles but there is no reason why the lead of Carlow and Westmeath cannot be followed to get their house in order once and for all.

Offaly punched above their weight for years, but talent doesn't just grow on trees and if the future isn't looked after now, there may not be one.

Irish Independent

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