Sunday 21 January 2018

'Realistically, where are Offaly going?'

Former star Johnny Pilkington tells boss Ryan to temper expectations and stop applying standards from other counties

Johnny Pilkington, an All-Star in 1990, was central to the Faithful’s most successful period. Photo: Ray Lohan/Sportsfile
Johnny Pilkington, an All-Star in 1990, was central to the Faithful’s most successful period. Photo: Ray Lohan/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

Given their chequered relationship Johnny Pilkington is reluctant to bring up the name of Michael 'Babs' Keating when discussing the current situation in Offaly hurling but a story from nearly 20 years ago highlights the misconception that outside managers regularly face when taking the reins in the Faithful county.

After a 26-point mauling at the hands of Galway last Sunday, Kevin Ryan spoke of his struggles to get 30 players for a game, which is in stark contrast to his native Waterford "who would have 50 queueing up in the morning" because they can "smell success" in the county on the back of their All-Ireland U-21 win.

It reminds Pilkington, an Offaly All-Ireland winner in 1994 and '98, of a time during their heyday when Keating was manager and they were castigated for being unable to fulfil a fixture with Tipperary. The situation is different but little has changed, with the former Birr midfielder believing Ryan's hopes are unrealistic.

"His expectations are very high. I don't think he realised. . . lots of managers would go in and say 'I'm training Offaly, that's a good hurling county'.

Bottom end

"Realistically he should be saying to himself that we're down at the bottom end of the top tier between tenth and 12th," he says.

"I remember Babs Keating going on in 1998 saying that 'it wouldn't happen in Tipperary' when we failed to show up for a challenge match down in Tipp during the summer for one reason or another, he kept saying 'this wouldn't happen in Tipperary'.

"Kevin Ryan is talking about 'down in Waterford'. Listen, you're not in Waterford, you're in Offaly. The circumstances change and lads aren't chomping at the bit to hurl with Offaly for the simple reason that realistically where are we going?

"A lot of managers go into a club or county scene and say 'this is the way things should be done' but 'there's no template, every county is different."

Pilkington, an All-Star in 1990, was central to the Faithful's most successful period, winning League, provincial and All-Ireland honours, but it all came on the back of three All-Ireland minor titles ('86, '87 and '89) as well as second-level success for St Brendan's CS and Banagher VS.

Recent years have been bleak with regards to underage, however, and until last summer - when Offaly's U-21 hurlers qualified for the Leinster final via wins over Kildare and Carlow - no side had gotten a sniff of a provincial decider at any level since their U-21 appearance in 2008 (senior 2004, minor '03).

This is the big difference between Offaly and those counties with realistic aspirations of winning Liam MacCarthy, and while four-time All-Ireland club winner Pilkington praises the "massive effort" by all involved, the same winning pedigree is not there when compared to their counterparts.

"Our players love to hurl with Offaly and they'll put in the best effort they can but is there any point really coming down expecting an Offaly or a Laois lad to put in the same effort as a Kilkenny, Clare or Wexford lad who have had big success at some stage or the other?" he asks.

"This is where managers at the lower end of the table fall down.

"Davy (Fitzgerald) is gone down to Wexford and he's after putting a big buzz and a big excitement into it but Wexford won three Leinster U-21 finals comprehensively. Wexford have something to build on, Clare and Limerick likewise.

"You go to the likes of Westmeath and Laois and Offaly, we don't have that success to build on, the mindset is completely different. Managers come in and expect the Offaly lad to have the same pride or expectation as the Wexford or Limerick lad putting on their jersey, it's a completely different ball game.

"It might be hard to get on the Kilkenny or Tipp team but it's actually harder get off the Offaly team. We're only picking off a small base so if three or four of the main lads on our team want to do their own thing then there's not an awful lot you can do. It's not as if you can turn around and say 'Well you can go, we have another lad there'.

"Don't get me wrong though, you have lads there and they're putting in a huge effort and any of the past managers have all said 'whatever these lads are asked to do they do it and there's no issue with that'.

"But if you're without some of your stronger players, we can't survive that."

The players he speaks of include Joe Bergin (injured) and the trio of Colin Egan, Dan Currams - the last two senior captains - and Conor Mahon, who are all unavailable this year, and their absence will be sorely felt in a do or die Division 1B clash with neighbours Laois in O'Moore Park tonight.

It will see last year's Offaly manager Eamonn Kelly, now at the O'Moore helm, trying to plot the downfall of his former side and with "both sides in the same boat" after Laois' late collapse against Kerry, Pilkington is hoping for a Faithful backlash but is unsure if it will materialise.

"It's a huge game because we don't want to be going down to Kerry with everything on the line because in all honesty you would fancy Limerick and Wexford to beat us," he says.

"It's important for the morale of the lads that they show up and give a performance..

"Performance is nearly more important than a result and Laois will look at last weekend's performance against Kerry and say 'well whatever happened in the last few minutes, for 40-50 minutes we were well up and we're going in the right direction' whereas Offaly don't have anything to fall back on. That's an advantage for Laois going in."

Irish Independent

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