Friday 18 October 2019

Michael Verney: 'Offaly facing into biggest game in their history - relegation would be catastrophic'

Joachim Kelly must mastermind an Offaly victory to avoid the Christy Ring. Photo: Sportsfile
Joachim Kelly must mastermind an Offaly victory to avoid the Christy Ring. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Just three months after Offaly legend Johnny Dooley described the Faithful's Division 1B league relegation play-off with Carlow as "one of the most important games in their hurling history", they face an even bigger assignment.

Relegation to the league's third tier left Offaly spirits on the floor but few could have envisaged just how much deeper into the abyss they would fall as a disastrous summer transpired.

When comprehensively demoted from the race for Liam MacCarthy 12 months ago having finished bottom in Leinster - without a win and a scoring difference of -62 - many assumed they would bounce back a year later.

The opposite has happened and they travel to Tralee on Saturday afternoon knowing only victory against Kerry will maintain their place in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

Twenty-one years after winning the last of their four All-Ireland SHC titles, they could find themselves in the third tier of championship hurling, a far cry from the heady days of the 1980s and '90s when they lit up the game.

While edging closer to rock bottom every year - last Saturday's Leinster minor quarter-final defeat to Kildare was another statement of their current plight - relegation to the Christy Ring Cup would be catastrophic.

All eyes will be on the conclusion of the pulsating Leinster SHC round-robin this Saturday evening with events in the Kingdom an afterthought, but the ramifications for both counties are stark.

Successive defeats to Laois and Westmeath after a disastrous league spelt the end for Kevin Martin after he was relieved of his duties, with Offaly legend Joachim Kelly filling the hot seat on an interim basis.

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The expected bounce of a new management team never materialised against Antrim where they were always chasing the game despite having an extra man for long periods and it has left a lot of collateral damage.

Confidence was already at an all-time low and Kelly - who guided Coolderry to Offaly SHC success last year - faces the unenviable task of lifting their spirits without some key personnel.

Conor Mahon is suspended having been red-carded against the Saffrons while Colin Egan's county season is over after picking up a serious ankle injury while Aidan Treacy - one of the few bright spots in that defeat - is also unavailable.

Someone is going to walk away disappointed this weekend as Kerry are also fighting for their lives but after stunning Westmeath in Mullingar in round two, a draw will suffice to keep Fintan O'Connor's men afloat. O'Connor - who managed Offaly side St Rynagh's to the 2017 Offaly SHC final - is in his third year at the helm and this result is set to determine his future.

Shane Conway has lit up this season between his exploits with UCC - where he was named Fitzgibbon Cup Player of the Year - and the Kingdom, and a porous Offaly defence will need to be on guard to curb his influence.

Offaly hurling's extraordinary fall from grace could be completed this weekend and if they fall that far, they might never climb back up.

Irish Independent

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