Thursday 18 January 2018

Offaly's hurlers are taking steps to end the lean years

Offaly players warm down after their Walsh Cup clash against Galway at O'Connor Park in Tullamore
Offaly players warm down after their Walsh Cup clash against Galway at O'Connor Park in Tullamore

Damian Lawlor

WHEN Dan Currams, the captain of Offaly, spoke to a local radio station last Sunday after his under-siege team pulled off an unexpected four-point win over Laois, he used the opportunity to vent some frustration.

After a dire 2014, the Division 1B opener at O'Moore Park wasn't a game Offaly were expected to win, especially if you consider how easily they were cast aside by Galway just a few weeks earlier in the Walsh Cup.

Factor in that Brian Whelahan was minus two great servants who had retired, others who were injured, and more still who didn't even wish to be considered for selection and you can imagine the pressure they were under to beat their next-door neighbours.

But they secured the two points. It was the first time in decades that Laois were resounding favourites to beat Offaly and while no one in Offaly was in a position to quibble with those odds, they surely stung the visiting side.

Perhaps that's why Currams unloaded his vexation on Midlands 103 at the final whistle, denouncing the abuse the players received as 'slanderous'. Currams referenced 'cowards behind computer screens' and pointed out that his team-mates were giving up their time to hurl for Offaly. "People would be better off getting behind us instead of running us into the ground," he slammed.

Today, their resolve will be tested again. It's a much bigger test. Offaly and Wexford; two giants of the 1990s whose powers have waned dramatically since.

There is one key difference, however. After sitting back and watching an alarming slide run deep, Wexford finally acted. In 2006, they looked to George O'Connor and other former hurlers to come on board but about three years ago they upped the ante again and became more co-ordinated and focused.

This has given them a clear head-start on today's opponents who inexplicably let their freefall continue until last summer.

Indeed, Wexford's battery is near full again at all levels, or, at the very least, capable of sustaining rich summer assaults on glory.

Meanwhile, Offaly are still in a state of flux. Last week, Croke Park's National Finance Committee was called in to aid their financial planning. With resources running low they might be a while challenging on the field.

That's not the senior team's fault even if pundits maintained in the last few years that some players were out of shape. There have been times when even their manager has been frustrated with their displays - the 12-point Walsh Cup defeat to Galway was the latest example. "We showed very little stomach for battle," Whelahan said. "We'll have to show a bit of fight for the battle now, see what's in the bellies."

That heavy loss came after some equally insipid performances last year in a season that saw them having to survive a play-off with Kerry to remain in Division 1B, before shipping massive beatings from Kilkenny and Tipperary.

The core issues, however, are structural and do not lie with team or manager. They have rued the absence of a type of strategic plan, although one, thankfully, is on the way. Leadership has also been missing across the board. Some players refused a call-up to the senior team this season. That just shows how many big players the county has lost in the past decade. Take last year, for example, when Rory Hanniffy spent all season in an Offaly shirt hurling with what was, technically, a broken knee.

With Wexford, Limerick and Waterford all ahead of them in Division 1B, this has the makings of another very tough season, especially with the retirements of the inspirational Hanniffy and Kevin Brady too.

But the first steps to fighting back have been taken.

After the summer ended, the county board contacted Diarmuid Healy to help design a blueprint to secure the future of Offaly hurling. Healy is a father figure to the county and has little time for excuses. During his term in charge of the county he took a team that had never achieved anything to two All-Irelands and four Leinster titles. He set about examining what was wrong.

Meanwhile, ex-Kilkenny selector Martin Fogarty addressed a forum at the County Arms Hotel and also delivered three coaching seminars.

There is a prevailing sense now that the county has hit rock bottom and wants an end to the despair. The time for bloodletting is over; the habit of demoralising defeats must be kicked.

"They were certainly sick of the way things were," Healy said. "I just looked at the way their teams prepared and, in terms of general coaching through the grades and team preparation, it left lot be desired," he admitted. "We then held a seminar, Martin Fogarty ran those public coaching courses and domestically they started their own in January.

"We drew up programmes for the development of underage hurling and appointed a three-man committee to implement them."

A body to oversee these attempts to get back to hurling's mainland is chaired by Kieran Keenaghan, and includes Pat Cleary, Joe Errity, Cillian Farrell, Martin Hanamy, Liam Hogan, Finian McDermott, Damien Martin and Pat O'Connor.

The first pressing item is an obvious deficiency in talent at underage. They have not won a provincial minor or under 21 title since 2000. What is being done about that?

"That's something we are well aware of and the Hurling Review Committee is due to put a proposal for a five-year development plan before the board within the next month," says committee member and senior hurling coach Cillian Farrell. "We've reviewed the situation for the past seven months and we will put formal structures in place for development squads and all underage structures. It will be a co-ordinated approach on long-term development," Farrell stated.

Why wait so long, though? The NHL game they lost to Carlow in 2005 should have set off alarm bells. There was talk of a revolution after that but few came to battle. Then Kilkenny hammered them by 31 points, clocking up 6-28 as they went.

Their minor hurlers were also taken a couple of times by Carlow over the past decade and have been beaten three years on the trot by Laois, having not lost to them in the 40 years before that.

Last summer, eventually, steps were taken to stop the rot. It took another almighty trashing at the hands of Kilkenny to get things moving. "I'm not going to make any comment on the past because I know lots of people who tried their best to get things moving," Farrell adds.

"All I'll say is that we have a long way to climb but there is always a realisation in Offaly that if we get our act together we will be a match for anyone. It's a backs-to-the-wall mentality we need and despite these lean times that mentality is still ingrained in the Offaly people. We all want to fight back now."

It's time for them to knit together. The county board are dealing with slim resources and they have received serious flak over the years on a range of matters.

A spotlight is frequently shone on O'Connor Park in Tullamore, a great facility, but expensive to run too. Locals feel it was financed at the expense of vital investment everywhere else and blame the board for that.

The lack of development squads, strength and conditioning programmes and the overall development of the game in the county shows they are light years behind.

"We are a county small on numbers," Farrell points out. "There are clubs in Dublin and Cork that would have more playing resources than we do. Look, we have been in the doldrums in both hurling and football and there is genuine concern. But we have people interested in bettering the situation and I'd like to think we have some good foundations."

Last year, the serious decline in their fortunes prompted the GAA to assign them a special status also afforded to Antrim, Carlow, Laois and Westmeath, counties who were deemed to be in need of direct intervention. It may have been hard for locals to swallow when Offaly were included with those 'emerging' teams, following a request from their board, but at least there is a further €45,000 per year available to help their teams.

That move suggests this latest restructuring will not be a false dawn, of which there have been too many already. Indeed, the current movement appears to be more concerted and determined, although scepticism will remain until results improve and meaningful progress is made.

"I hope progress will be made," Healy says. "I don't like excuses. Nor do I go along with this lack of numbers issue. You only need 20 players. When we won an All-Ireland in the '80s, Birr weren't even a force. Only two clubs were prominent. You go with what you have."

If they are looking for some validation along the way, they could do worse than examine the recent journey of today's opponents, Wexford, who also went through the wringer.

They have not played senior hurling at Croke Park for seven years and last claimed a senior provincial title in 2004, but the fightback is well advanced.

In 2012, Liam Griffin's son Rory highlighted their problems in a strategic report. At schools level he reported that 4,300 young Kilkenny players experienced A-grade championship hurling over ten years. During that same period only 1,300 Wexford boys tasted top-tier competition.

His document also found that in Tipperary, Kilkenny, Galway, Waterford and Cork, youngsters played on average 70 hours of hurling, including games and training, from May to August. In Wexford, because of the two-code structure, they only had 35 hours. They were way behind - and also suffered defeat to Carlow at minor championship level, in 2007.

That report paved the way for the birth of 'Hurling 365' in Wexford, an action plan to drive hurling participation in clubs as well as schools over 365 days a year.

The ongoing initiatives of primary school hurling 365, secondary school 'A' and 'B' standard colleges teams and the Third Level University scholarship programme are the foundation for success to continue.

Dividends are already handsome. They have won the last two Leinster under 21 titles and also reached the deciders in 2010 and '11. They made the provincial minor finals of 2008, 2009, and 2012, their seniors beat Clare in the championship last year and will be looking to beat Offaly today to help gain promotion.

They are further up the road than today's opponents but at least Offaly have found a starting point for their own journey. They must drive on; there can be no more looking back.

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