Offaly show small signs of recovery but they have a long way to travel
'Finally, we say to Offaly…for many years you have been our inspiration." The words of Anthony Daly after receiving the MacCarthy Cup in 1995 were an honest homage to Offaly's exalted status in the game and offer a stark reminder of the height from which they have fallen. A county long celebrated and admired as a symbol of resistance and hope for the underdog is as low as it has ever been.
Yesterday their hurlers ran out on to O'Connor Park in Tullamore before a tiny attendance of 950 to take on Carlow, a county they would have swatted away contemptuously in their heyday. The very real fear existed of elimination from the MacCarthy Cup, after losing by 14 points to Westmeath a week before in Leinster's round robin qualifiers, and that, worse still, Offaly could be hurling in the Christy Ring Cup next year. They survived, helped by 1-10 from Shane Dooley, to win 1-17 to 2-11. On they go on to face Kerry in the final round, with at least the prospect of playing in the Christy Ring averted.
That year Daly acknowledged Offaly's role in inspiring Clare, the midlands county produced a dazzling performance in the Leinster final, destroying Kilkenny; they looked the part of reigning All-Ireland champions. Astonishingly that blitz of Kilkenny in a thunderstorm in '95 was their last provincial senior title. And now, 21 years on, Kilkenny are light years ahead - 10 years after that Leinster final they hammered Offaly by 31 points in the championship. Two years ago, with Brian Whelahan as manager, they were beaten by 26 points in Nowlan Park. Offaly's last provincial wins at minor and under-21 were in 2000; their last appearance in a Leinster minor final in 2003.
Five years ago Johnny Flaherty spoke of their ills having seen the county minors lose to Westmeath by eight points, while scoring one point from play. Flaherty came out of the worst of times into the best of times, from a brutal era in the 1960s when lads were broken up through to a more enlightened age: the cataclysmic Leinster win in 1980 followed by a first All-Ireland a year later.
Flaherty talked of what young lads have now in terms of facilities and the little he had growing up in Kinnity.
"We had no nets and no hot water, and sheep shite in the field, but we had hurlers, now you explain that one now." He then added. "We are not creating the warriors, we are not creating the f***ing men."
When Carlow scored a second goal after half-time yesterday Offaly were three points down and another defeat looked possible. Then from the puck-out Joe Bergin put up his hand and made the run which led to the goal for Dooley to level. Bergin's intercession was the most important of the match in a way, a flickering reminder of what Offaly had once in spades. Carlow, who ended up with three red cards, led 0-5 to 0-1 early on and were sticky throughout. At the end Bergin took over the free-taking from Dooley, who'd missed a few, and scored the point which meant Offaly would not be bet.
The young Offaly kids of today have no memory of Flaherty, and no memory either of the Dooley's or Whelahan or Pilkington or Troy, the players who inspired the hurlers that came after. They are growing up seeing a different Offaly to the one many of us had the privilege of knowing. But on the ground there is progress being made. The minors this year, though beaten well by Kilkenny, have a realistic chance of defeating Wexford in the Leinster semi finals and are the first products of a paradigm shift in the county's development squad system. For years development squads were poorly managed and the neglect is being paid for now.
Offaly have fallen behind Dublin and Laois in Leinster underage competition. But their resources in the last five years have improved; from having one Games Development Administrator for the entire county, there are now half a dozen working the same patch. Development squads are well run with good people in charge. But there is no escaping the numbers challenge. In recent years places that were once churning out hurlers have had to merge with neighbours to remain viable. Seir Kieran and Drumcullen have joined at underage, as have Ballyskenagh and Killavilla, and Kinnitty and Lusmagh, in order to be able to produce juvenile teams. If you were aiming for an under-12 team in one of these clubs independently the reality is you would need to include players from as low as nine to make the numbers.
While the work carries on at underage, the Offaly manager Eamonn Kelly, who replaced Whelahan when he stepped down after two years, must do the best he can. He has set the bar high in the demands being asked of his players. Not all have been comfortable with those demands. But there are no short cuts and Kelly has support for his methods in striving to make Offaly competitive again.
Yesterday afternoon, on a drizzly and grey day, the players came out to hurl to a few shouts of approval from a few hundred faithful followers. It wasn't vintage what followed, but they got the win they needed. It's a start, however small.
Sunday Indo Sport