Thursday 22 March 2018

'You reap what you sow, and we haven't sown anything' - Former Offaly hurler on county's demise

Senior woes just tip of iceberg, says former Offaly player Michael Verney

Darragh Egerton, Westmeath, in action against Paddy Rigney, left, and Pat Camon, Offaly
Darragh Egerton, Westmeath, in action against Paddy Rigney, left, and Pat Camon, Offaly
Eamonn Kelly (SPORTSFILE)

Michael Verney

While the nature of Offaly's defeat to Westmeath last Sunday raised national eyebrows, the result certainly didn't surprise anyone following the fortunes of the Faithful County's underage hurlers since the turn of the Millennium.

Everything seemed rosy in the garden as we clung to the remnants of the golden era, which resulted in four senior All-Ireland crowns from 1981 to 1998, to claim Leinster minor/U-21 titles in 2000 while contesting the All-Ireland senior decider.

But the picture has changed drastically since then. It seems the Y2K problem wasn't confined to computers alone, with the subsequent results and lack of development highlighting ineptitude within the county.

Offaly sides haven't got a sniff of a provincial final at any level since their U-21 appearance in 2008 (senior 2004, minor '03) and the likes of Laois and Westmeath, both traditionally inferior, have leapfrogged us.

You reap what you sow and we haven't sown anything. The Championship loss to Laois 12 months ago and the recent reversal to Westmeath are only the tip of the iceberg, with the slide showing no sign of abating without drastic change.

When I hurled with Offaly, players often joked about our "third-world preparation" - chasing travel expenses, winter training gear arriving in April, gym memberships cut off the week after Championship exit and no boot vouchers were everyday issues. Comparisons with other counties were laughable.

Michael Verney in action for Offaly
Michael Verney in action for Offaly

Calls to GPA chief Dessie Farrell were often mooted but we just got on with things. Perhaps if we'd taken a stand it might have helped the development of the next generation but the silver lining was always spouted that "we still have better hurlers" and "we're more natural hurlers".

The coat was always hung on this sweeping statement and for a while it rang true, but you can only tread water for so long before you eventually fall under. We relied on tradition but nothing was done to address the fact that we were slowly losing sight of the peloton. While Dublin were 'Unleashing the Blue Wave', we papered over cracks.

Many will point to financial restraints but it doesn't cost anything to be organised, to plan for your future and operate with vision rather than on a day-to-basis. While the next generation watched the Simpsons, someone needed to "please think of the children" rather than get blinded with short-sightedness at the competitiveness of senior sides.

We punched above our weight with exceptional groups of players but talent doesn't just spring from the ground, it must be fostered and nurtured. Dublin and Kilkenny aren't dominating by accident. They plan for the long-term, they constantly adapt, they constantly improve and they always strive for excellence.

They don't pay lip service and believe everything is in order, exemplified by the Cats launching a county-wide investigation when their minors surprisingly fell to the Faithful in a Leinster semi-final 16 years ago.

Their future is not ensured by ticking boxes, it's through hard work and vision.

Coolderry, Kilcormac/Killoughey and Birr have all performed well on the national club stage in recent years but with a wealth a quality club players has come a dearth of county players.

County development squads don't do what they say on the tin, often meeting sporadically and with no clear step up from club standard. And therein lies the inability to turn club players into county material. Meanwhile, St Brendan's CS and Banagher College, the former lifeblood of Offaly hurling, have failed to land a blow in recent years.

Eamonn Kelly took the Faithful reins in September and is shipping criticism from many quarters in the wake of last weekend but the Tipperary native wasn't privy to the development of the current squad before taking charge. Blame doesn't lie at his feet for the work of others.

The Offaly minor hurling team before 2007 Leinster final
The Offaly minor hurling team before 2007 Leinster final

We are living in the past, living on successes quickly receding.

The so-called 'Offaly pride' is becoming mythical and while hurling has moved on, we have refused to do likewise. It was always said that "Offaly teams are never beaten" but we will continue to regularly hit rock bottom until we change.

With 13 weeks from the first round of Offaly SHC to the next this year, club players are starved of opportunities to progress.

You wouldn't see it in Kilkenny or Tipperary, and the failing standards Offaly are setting highlight where they wish to go.

Many think things are low now, but contrary to what Sinatra said, the worst is yet to come.

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