Wednesday 22 August 2018

Sheep in a heap, a mid-season manager and lots of ball work: How Offaly overcame a crazy summer to win the All-Ireland

Offaly completed a remarkable mid-season turnaround by winning the 1998 All-Ireland hurling championship.
Offaly completed a remarkable mid-season turnaround by winning the 1998 All-Ireland hurling championship.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

He can’t remember the name of the pub but he can remember how he felt.

From Michael Bond’s vantage point in a bar in Queens, New York, Offaly were a team that had lost its way – but were not a lost cause.

20 years have passed since the county last scaled hurling’s summit, with a possible relegation from the Leinster championship this weekend further magnifying the distance between then and now.

It’s easy to think back to July ‘98 and have your judgement dominated by 'sheep in a heap', but a five-point Leinster final loss to Kilkenny - which brought about the end of Babs Keating’s Faithful tenure in a deluge of back and forth broadsides – wasn’t as dire a defeat as the fallout indicated.

Back-to-back Leinster champions Wexford had been conquered already and the bulk of the squad were All-Ireland winners who were still in their prime. They just needed a little something.

That summer was dominated by Ger Loughnane’s rambunctious radio addresses and militaristic marches through hotel lobbies in pursuit of Munster council disciplinary delegates, plus Jimmy Cooney’s whistle, but what unfolded in Offaly between July 5 and September 13 is as bonkers as any summer storyline.

Michael Bond watched Offaly’s provincial demise on holiday in New York. Less than a week later he was their manager. Less than two months after that he led them to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

 "I honestly don’t know why they called," Bond says of the county board’s unexpected mid-season offer to replace Keating.

"There are a few cases where a manager was let go and somebody was ready to go, like Davy Fitzgerald with Waterford after Justin McCarthy. Offaly didn’t have a manager waiting. Maybe the fact that I was the principal of a school and somebody who would have some discipline could have been a reason. I don’t know.

"It is amazing how things happen. That whole summer was a fairy tale."

Bond had led Galway to an U21 All-Ireland in 1983, but hadn’t seriously managed a team since becoming principal of St Brigid’s Loughrea three years later. He might not have been au fait with the latest training techniques but as it happened, players like Johnny Pilkington weren’t big on new age methods either.

Bond’s back to basics style meshed perfectly with the raw talent of a squad whose All-Ireland final XV would accumulate 23 All Stars in their careers.

"When the county board rang, I talked about doing the hurling on the pitch and not in the paper, I talked about keeping my mouth shut and getting on with the job and I talked about not looking for publicity myself," he says.

"Not every team would have responded to my type of training but that was the type of training that they were used to. Fast ball, first touch and working on skill level and the speed of the ball.

"Our sessions were in excess of two hours but it was nearly all ball work. The ball was flying all the time."

While an All-Ireland was won in double-quick time, Bond’s first outing on the Offaly sideline resulted in an almighty pumping that posed the question of whether it was actually sheep carcasses that had been piled up.

"We played Kilkenny in a challenge match and were beaten 6-22 to 1-8. It was unbelievable," he says.

“I was driving home wondering what in god’s name I had got myself into. We had Antrim in the All-Ireland quarter-final and I thought I would have the shortest term of any inter-county manager ever – three weeks."

Things picked up quickly. An Antrim upset was averted and then Clare were on the docket for the All-Ireland semi-final. With the Banner fatigued from a season of all-out war between Loughnane and GAA authorities, Offaly nabbed a draw the first day, were handed a reprieve by Jimmy Cooney’s pre-mature peep in the replay, before eking out a three-point win on a sweltering Saturday in Thurles in the third epic.

"You kept doing what you had to do, working on their first touch, working on their minds and getting inside their heads to make them believe how good they were," Bond says.

"We were dead and buried at half time in the second game but we were coming in waves and waves at Clare at the end. We got it to a goal… maybe we wouldn’t have got a goal but nobody can say we wouldn’t have. We were lucky, but you make your own luck to if you keep chipping away."

Things came full circle for the players and Bond on All-Ireland final day. Kilkenny were the opponents, as they were when Offaly’s season descended into a tail-spin ten weeks previously. From eating a fry during their first meeting to prowling the touchline for the second, it was scarcely believable for the Galway native as Offaly won their fourth All-Ireland off the back of a magical display by Brian Whelahan.

Instead of withdrawing the ill wing back after he was cleaned out early on by Brian McEvoy – 'he was as white as a sheet when we got on the bus to Dublin' – Bond moved him into full forward where he turned in a match-winning performance, notching 1-6.

The final whistle went, the un-heaped sheep happily grazed on the Croke Park pitch as champions, and Michael Bond could finally take a breath.

"What I still remember to this day was when the whistle was blown, I just felt a sheer exhaustion," he says.

"A sheer exhaustion from the whole build-up and the tension of the game. It took a long time to get that tiredness to get it out of my system. It was a short season but it was very intense."

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