Saturday 24 March 2018

No-one in 1994 envisaged how far we would fall - Whelahan

Brian Whelahan is hoisted on the shoulders of Offaly supporters after his man of the match display in the 1998 All-Ireland SHC final. Photo: David Conachy
Brian Whelahan is hoisted on the shoulders of Offaly supporters after his man of the match display in the 1998 All-Ireland SHC final. Photo: David Conachy
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Offaly legend Brian Whelahan will be inducted into the Leinster GAA Hall of Fame tomorrow at Portlaoise, where the Faithful county face a daunting task against Allianz League champions Galway.

Whelahan (45) says he was honoured to receive the phone call to tell him about the award.

Michael Bond, Offaly Manager in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Bond, Offaly Manager in 1999. Photo: Sportsfile

"It was a surprise. I was delighted, of course," he says. "When your time is finished hurling, it's finished, and when something like this comes along, it's nice to get it.

"For some people, particularly young kids who'll be at the game on Sunday who weren't around to see Offaly when we were competitive and at the top tier, it's maybe nice to be reminded we were a force for the best part of 25 years."

Therein lies the nub of Offaly's current situation. A generation of players and supporters have grown up in a period when their hurling teams have not presented a serious threat to the big guns.

Galway, for example, have lorded it over their neighbours in Championship meetings. It is hard to credit that the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park on August 7, 1994 was the last occasion on which the green and gold banners were waved high in the sky to celebrate a Championship victory over the men in maroon.

John Troy and Billy Dooley were the goalscorers in a 2-13 to 1-10 success; the six-point winning margin was wholly deserved.

The winning team against Galway was: Jim Troy; Shane McGuckian, Kevin Kinahan, Martin Hanamy (capt); Brian Whelahan, Hubert Rigney, Kevin Martin; Johnny Pilkington, Daithi Regan; John Dooley, John Troy, Joe Dooley; Billy Dooley, Brendan Kelly, Declan Pilkington.

Subs: P O'Connor for Kelly (31); Ml Duignan for Regan (53); M Connolly for D Pilkington (60).

A few weeks later came that late, late show against Limerick, with Offaly scoring 2-5 in the last five minutes to win the final.

Galway have had the upper hand in recent clashes with Offaly, but in Whelahan's day, they were more evenly matched. The head to head since 1980 is 6-4 in Galway's favour, with one draw - in the 2010 Leinster semi-final, with Galway winning the replay.

Whelahan gives a nod to that 1994 victory, but does not dwell on the memory.

"After '94, we didn't play Galway in Championship again until 2010 - that's 16 years. And in those years, there mightn't have been a whole lot between the two counties.

"But yeah, the last few meetings have gone to Galway, and the most recent ones have gone quite considerably to Galway.

"There is no doubting the situation where Offaly find themselves.

"We have fallen away from the top couple of tiers of hurling, and we find ourselves in a situation whereby even competing with the top teams now is very tough.

"I don't think anyone in '94 would have envisaged us going back as far as we have."

Whelehan won another All-Ireland medal four years later.

The '98 campaign was full of controversy, first when Babs Keating quit after adverse player reaction to his "sheep in a heap" comments about the team's performance in losing the Leinster final to Kilkenny.

Michael Bond (pictured left) replaced Babs as manager that July, and out of the flames of controversy, Offaly took the qualifier route to glory.

They certainly did it the hard way. Remember that infamous sit-down protest by supporters at Croke Park in the semi-final against Clare when Galway referee Jimmy Cooney blew for full time five minutes too early with the Banner ahead by three points?

Amid another war of words and opinions, Offaly won the right to a re-match and duly won that encounter in Thurles before accounting for mighty Kilkenny in the final, in which Whelahan starred after moving from defence to attack.

But there has been precious little to crow about since then, and tomorrow's clash with Galway has to be seen in that context.

"To be fair, the lads are working very hard," says Whelahan. "People in Offaly are just hopeful we can put up a performance and be competitive, and stay in the game for as long as we can.

Whelahan has recently taken charge of Nenagh-Éire Òg in Tipperary.

"It's nice to be given the chance to get back into management again. It's been enjoyable over the last few weeks," he enthuses.

Irish Independent

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