Saturday 7 December 2019

Old Faithful ways catching the eye

Opening league victory has brought some much-needed hope back into Offaly hurling

Offaly’s Conor Mahon gets away from Bill O’Carroll and Tomás Connolly during last week’s Allianz League opener against Dublin in Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Offaly’s Conor Mahon gets away from Bill O’Carroll and Tomás Connolly during last week’s Allianz League opener against Dublin in Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

They won't be carried away by a January win over a depleted Dublin, but there was a lightness in the Offaly step in the days that followed all the same. And why not? They have seen some dark days. Take last year's corresponding National League opener, when they ran into Galway in Tullamore a few weeks into February and lost 6-23 to 1-12. Offaly had become easy pickings, a challenge only in calculating what they lost by.

In the Galway game, the sums were deeply unflattering: a 26-point defeat. Having capitulated to Galway, Offaly lost the next three rounds to Laois, Limerick and Wexford much more respectably, then scored a win in Tralee which brought them to the quarter-finals, where they met Tipp. They conceded 4-28, and scored a healthy 3-13, for an 18-point loss. The previous year they reached the league quarter-finals and met their old friends Kilkenny. Final score: 6-20 to 0-14 - a 24-point trimming.

If you are still feeling guilty about savouring Offaly's win in Croke Park last weekend, worried you are over-indulging, you may need to look back to the championship last year which used to be Offaly's forte, the fast ground.

They met Galway in the summer too, scored 1-11 and conceded 0-33, losing by 19 points. Much-needed euthanasia was finally administered in the qualifiers by Waterford on July 1, Offaly putting up 0-14, and letting through 1-35, a loss of 24. No team had scored 35 points in a championship game before then.

So those were, in the words Ger Loughnane once reputedly used at a meeting of a group set up to revitalise hurling in weaker counties, the "horror stories". The humiliations. And there is no humiliation quite like a hurling humiliation, for it leaves a team in smithereens.

Offaly had become accustomed to being beaten and often beaten very badly. But there was more to it than that. They had become disillusioned by an increasingly defensive style of play which appeared to offer little comfort in the way of damage limitation.

Last Saturday, allowing for all the mitigating factors, they went out and hurled on the front foot, with no recourse to sweepers, and were fit and sharp and tough. They played hurling that stirred the poet and the beast in equal turn. If Michael Duignan shed a tear in an unmanly fashion over such a performance then he may be forgiven this once. It has been a long time and a bleak one and anyone who has enjoyed hurling long enough to remember Offaly in a more exalted place will also feel a tinge of excitement that this might signify something fresh and more lasting. They have been missed.

A few weeks back I was almost dispatched to Tullamore to see Offaly play Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup semi-final on one of those awful days we've had lately. The assignment did not materialise in the end but in contemplating it I was considering the prospect of another demoralising Faithful loss to add to the catalogue and another rueful commentary on the parlous state of this once noble county. But that day they showed there might be a small corner turned, losing to Kilkenny but making a serious game of it.

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Feeding the sense of chaos and instability in Offaly has been a sometimes turbulent political situation. Last year Liam Hogan and a group selected to try to stimulate a revival in Offaly's fortunes stepped down in protest over the slow progress in implementing their proposals. Hogan called for the resignation of the county chairman in a frank interview on local radio and at that point, with Kevin Ryan having left as their third manager in three years, the picture looked unappealing to a successor. But Kevin Martin saw it differently and put his name forward.

"Sure, I am an Offaly man," Martin says, laughing, when asked why he would do such a thing. "We are watching it for a few years and we are all giving out about it, so I felt we have to do something about it. It was getting hard to look at, and it was down so low."

Beating a coltish Dublin in late January is a start, a small but significant step. It is 20 years since the county last won the All-Ireland senior hurling title. Eighteen years since they last won a Leinster minor or under 21 championship. But winning Leinster titles is not an immediate priority. Gaining some self-respect is. The win over Dublin was the senior hurlers' first win in Croke Park since 2005.

Martin says he has been helped by the timely arrival of a central training base at Kilcormac, the Faithful Fields, with the usual suite of modern facilities. It is a huge advantage and resolves one of the difficulties facing Offaly teams of the past who were shunted around from location to location.

"I remember it in my own day," he says, "you could be training on a Tuesday, you might be provisionally say up in Drumcullen and get a call at 3.0 or 4.0 that day to say that pitch is not playable, and we are being switched to Banagher."

But you need the players. Martin felt there were more in Offaly than were coming to the surface and he has been helped by the return of Dan Currams and Conor Mahon who missed last year. "Definitely, I thought we were not getting the best out of the players that were there. In fairness they are buying into the whole thing and training very hard.

"It gets to a point where you are just looking at it and knowing that they are better than what they are doing on the field. I would often come home after watching Offaly and be in bad form and the wife would ask what was wrong with you. You would come home in bad form from matches. But it did not happen overnight. We are a good few years not having a good county team. Most of the guys playing now, when they were minors Westmeath and Dublin were beating them, so there is that mentality there."

Half of the team, he notes, hadn't experience of playing in Croke Park before last weekend. Already they are in a better place than they were this time a year ago. "When I talked to the county board," says Martin, "I said we had to settle the ship, because the ship was sinking. That was the reality. That's where we were at. So it was our aim to steady the ship and keep our status in the league. And with the new format in the championship we have four games in May and the first week in June and we have to try and win two of those games. We have to. Otherwise you are going down."

The death of Pat McLoughney shortly after the win over Dublin, who was part of five different Offaly senior management teams, from Eamon Cregan to Joe Dooley, allowed time to reflect on the heritage the county feels the need to honour and preserve. McLoughney was a first cousin of Pat Carroll, whose tragically premature death in March 1986 made the Coolderry championship win later that year a highly poignant affair. The winning goal was scored by McLoughney, then nearing the end of his career and came against the run of play against St Rynagh's, a powerful side at the time.

McLoughney played 54 times for Offaly and was part of the liberating Leinster final win of 1980 against Kilkenny, when they struck for home in the final ten minutes, finding a belief that nothing in their history entitled them to have. It was that day that they created the foundation for the big wins to follow, beginning with the All-Ireland a year later. Offaly remain the last new winner of the MacCarthy Cup. Their story has been an inspirational reference point for other counties striving to make a breakthrough.

McLoughney was also a first cousin of Pat O'Connor, who scored the second Offaly goal in the blitz that won the 1994 All-Ireland final. He was a second cousin of the Dooleys, who also had a major hand in that win and many others. No doubt there will be a minute's silence respecting his service when Offaly play Limerick at Tullamore this afternoon. McLoughney was man of the match when he won the first of his three county medals with Coolderry, against Kinnity in 1977. In 2015 he was part of the management team that brought Coolderry another county championship. With Offaly, aside from Cregan and Dooley, he served under Fr Tom Fogarty, Babs Keating and Michael Bond.

Brian Carroll was part of a Coolderry under 21 three-in-a-row that McLoughney also steered almost 20 years ago. He was also moved by Offaly's performance against Dublin. "It is massively encouraging the way Kevin Martin has approached it. He has said from the outset he is going to play a more direct type of hurling and return to more traditional-based values, and that is hugely important. Obviously the game has modernised and there are tactics and sweepers involved. But the all-out defensive system that we played last year in particular did not work and it was extremely negative both from a supporter and player perspective, and we ended up taking two of our biggest defeats against Galway and Waterford when playing defensive.

"We are not naive enough to think we are going to win an All-Ireland this year but I think Offaly hurling people want us just to have a go - to go out and play the manly and direct type of hurling that we know our hurlers are capable of playing. The other thing about Kevin Martin is that he is very confident in the players' ability, realistic but very complimentary towards his players and that can only rub off on your players."

Carroll featured in some of Offaly's worst hidings in his own career and has more recently been involved in efforts to map out a plan that can secure the county's future and arrest the slide of recent times. He still hurls with his club.

"Probably the biggest concern coming into the (Dublin) game was we didn't score enough," says Carroll, "but we had 16 points on the board at half-time and finished with 2-25. We will come up against better opposition, but the big thing is that if we approach it in the same mindset we will be competitive at least. And that is a massive step in the right direction."

That will do for now.

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