Small steps are important when morale is so low
Offaly optimists will point to subtle gains - but a win over Laois would be huge
The hurling people of Offaly may have been excused if they felt like covering their eyes when the championship got under way with an unsympathetic introduction to the Sky television era at Nowlan Park last year. Viewers seeing hurling for the first time wouldn't have appreciated the slight on Offaly's honour, but even those who remember when they could compete - their last championship win over Kilkenny now 17 years old - probably felt indifference. This is what we had come to expect.
Offaly ended the league's second-tier campaign fighting a relegation play-off, having lost the opening round in Tullamore to Laois. They employed a sweeper to keep the score down, but he was hopelessly outmuscled and by half-time, that plot was ditched, the game was lost and a massacre was in full swing. Offaly lost by 26 points; they went down to Kilkenny by 31 in 2005; this was now old news. And that was the depressing thing; it no longer caused any wonder or outrage, just pity.
Optimists look to improvements under the surface. Offaly haven't beaten any county outside Meath and Carlow in the Leinster minor championship since 2010, but their development teams at 14-16 are said to be promising and setting a new standard more in keeping with the county's prouder traditions.
In Kilcormac, there will be a training centre for county teams coming on stream, which will end the dispiriting struggle for venues that led the county to travel outside Offaly at times last year. These are small steps, but important ones. In the meantime, the show goes on. Today sees them in Portlaoise facing a neighbour that has been accustomed over the last 30 years to looking across the border with some envy. Now Laois look farther afield for counties to aspire to and at underage, they have surpassed Offaly's admittedly diminishing achievements. Laois have beaten Offaly in the minor championship in each of the last four years. The senior team's win at the start of last year's league also led to a testing spring for Offaly and a tough baptism in management for Brian Whelahan.
This year, they reversed that result in Tullamore and Offaly have looked the better side in recent months, defeating Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds and being competitive against Wexford and Waterford.
Laois have seen their form drop a few degrees and they took a hammering in both the Wexford and Waterford games. The brief departure of Cheddar Plunkett in response to some players, including his captain Matthew Whelan, opting to take part in a club challenge match isn't the kind of internal dynamic that suggests a team enjoying an entirely stable environment. Some of that can be coloured by results, and Laois have not been a happy camper in the preliminary round robin. But Plunkett has returned and so has his captain and the episode is behind them.
A win here will see them escape the round robin, where this year they lost the opening match to Antrim and left themselves with a hill to climb, later managing to win the remaining matches against Carlow and Westmeath without hitting high gear.
Offaly's recent outings have included a private challenge match with Tipperary, in which they chalked up 1-25, although they conceded six goals. They have an inexperienced backline, with relatively new players and improvised forwards. From here up, they are at their strongest and in attack they have noted marksmen in Brian Carroll and Shane Dooley.
Laois are striving to take a scalp and make tangible strides, to build on the near misses against Galway in the last two years and for all of Offaly's troubles, a Laois win over them would be noteworthy in that it remains rare. Their progress under Plunkett isn't a figment of the imagination, however, even if the progress is painstaking at times. It is only four years since they took a 10-20 to 1-13 drubbing from Cork in the qualifiers. In the next round, Cork had only a point to spare over Offaly.
The gap between Offaly and Laois has closed remarkably since then. Offaly haven't beaten one of the higher-ranked counties since they overcame Limerick in 2010 in the qualifiers. Beating Laois won't transform them, but the importance at a time when their hurling morale is at such a low ebb can't be over- emphasised.
Damien Martin, the former Offaly All-Ireland winner, is part of a group hoping to have a blueprint to help revive the county's hurling fortunes accepted by the county board. This is the result of a Leinster Council initiative, which saw former Offaly manager, Diarmuid Healy, drafted in to explore ways of improving structures and coaching standards. Tommy Byrne, the Offaly board secretary, said a report carrying recommendations was with the management committee. "We will be looking at it in the next few weeks. We have to go through it first before putting it to the county board."
Martin, one of a number of ex-Offaly players involved in the initiative, said he was hopeful the plan would gain board approval. "We are trying to improve everything from the bottom up along," he said.
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