Wednesday 24 April 2019

Michael Verney: 'Offaly will continue to fall deeper into hurling abyss without seismic changes'

 

Offaly’s Conor Langton stands dejected. Photo: Sportsfile
Offaly’s Conor Langton stands dejected. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Relegation to the league's third tier is a bitter pill for Offaly hurling supporters to swallow, but if it didn't transpire this year, it was only a matter of time before it did.

Losing an 11-point half-time lead against Carlow despite the aid of an extra man for over an hour is unforgivable and Faithful boss Kevin Martin has serious questions to answer. They were in complete control before falling to pieces with a rudderless display against a stiff second-half breeze as Colm Bonnar's side seized the initiative and their Division 1B safety.

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The 'tear-provoking' 13-point league defeat of Dublin 14 months ago - which many proclaimed as 'bringing the pride back' into the county - is a distant memory as the walls continue to cave in.

Anyone who has put Offaly's hurling fortunes under the microscope since the millennium could see this coming but the question must be asked again: how did this almighty fall from grace come to pass?

Everything seemed rosy in the Faithful garden as the remnants of the golden era, which yielded four All-Ireland titles in 1981, '85, '94 and '98, lived on with Leinster minor and U-21 titles in 2000.

An All-Ireland senior decider was also contested that year but in the following 19 years Offaly's hurlers have fallen further into an abyss with no sign of them emerging from it any time soon.

Nearly three years ago - following their 14-point Leinster SHC mauling to Westmeath - I wrote that "many think things are low now, but contrary to what Sinatra said, the worst is yet to come" and this latest 'new low' is one of numerous more to follow.

Carlow's first Division 1 victory in 62 years of league hurling sentences Offaly to a Division 2A campaign next spring in the company of Kerry, Antrim, Meath, Mayo and Wicklow.

Eyes will be rolled at potential trips to far-flung hurling regions like Aughrim and Tooreen but when you don't adequately plan for the future, it eventually bites you in the ass.

Offaly punched above their weight with exceptional groups of players like the Whelehans, Dooleys and Pilkingtons for long enough but talent doesn't grow on trees, it must be continuously fostered and nurtured. It looks like Offaly have operated with little effective forward planning.

Lip service has been paid to player development for the guts of two decades and the hens are coming home to roost with current county chairman Tommy Byrne at the helm for two tumultuous reigns.

Apportioning blame to volunteers may seem like an easy cop-out, but issues at board level have to be examined. Byrne's previous reign was an eventful one with disquiet in Faithful circles after the shock departures as Offaly football boss of Paul O'Kelly (2003) and Gerry Fahy (2004) which triggered a players' strike.

That period also coincided with the Offaly hurlers' last relegation to Division 2 (2004) while history has repeated itself on both fronts in his second spell with yesterday's demotion, as well as the calamitous Stephen Wallace debacle last summer.

A Hurling Review/Implementation Committee - led by 1981 All-Ireland winner Liam Hogan - was devised to put Offaly back on track but having watched their suggestions fall on deaf ears, they abandoned en masse in the summer of 2017 with Hogan calling for Byrne to "step aside".

"If I was to put my neck…and I will put my neck on the block here, if Offaly are to succeed, and get to where they need to, Tommy Byrne needs to step aside," a defiant Hogan said at the time of their departure.

Offaly have become the butt of every hurling joke in recent times, and rightly so, and while the problems which exist within the county have been discussed ad nauseam in every forum, there is still little evidence of change within the county.

The magnificent Faithful Fields training facility has been developed in Kilcormac - although there is still no full-size all-weather GAA pitch in the county - and a series of dark days continue to be ignored by top brass.

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.

A small population and playing resources being split between two codes works against them and while they shouldn't expect to win underage titles, they should expect to be competitive. The routine hammerings dished out are frightening.

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

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