Cats claws leaving a deep scar
OFFALY hurling has lost its way and needs to go back to its traditional skills and make coaching fun for kids again.
That's the view of Offaly legend Brian Whelahan, who believes the focus on underage coaching is wrong and says it's time for hurling in the Faithful County to go back to basics.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Offaly hurling's first ever All-Ireland triumph. But after so many golden moments throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the county's fortunes have dipped alarmingly.
For GAA Team of the Millennium hurler Whelahan, the future depends on a proper investment in good coaching.
"You have to commend the people that are going into the schools and doing their work, but I just think the focus on it is wrong," he says.
"We are trying to get kids from eight to 12 to master all the skills straight away and that's not what it's about. No one masters the skills. Every day you go out, you go out to improve, even as a senior hurler, and I just think we need to get the basics right so that when they get to 15 or 16 years of age they have that to fall back on.
"That's what we really need to focus on and make it fun again. I think it's very serious now. There's an awful lot of drills being done at underage that seniors are doing and I think that's a little bit much," he argues.
The Birr legend was a lynchpin of great Offaly teams who showed no fear playing Kilkenny when their paths crossed in the championship, famously beating the Cats in the 1998 All-Ireland final.
But Offaly haven't won a Leinster title since 1995, and Whelahan believes Brian Cody's all-conquering Kilkenny team of the last decade left a lot of scars.
"I think playing against Kilkenny in the first round of the championship over the last decade was a big thing because it looked as if there was a fear element straight away and it sucked the confidence out of the team.
"The confidence was very low going into the back-door system and we had a very poor run there for a number of years."
Last year Offaly were beaten in Leinster after two titanic struggles with Galway, when Whelahan believes Joe Dooley's team showed some of the old characteristics of Offaly hurling.
"They hurled with a carefree spirit against Galway and it was great to see. It was great to see hurling with a purpose and see movement of the ball and players.
"We are not expecting them to win All-Irelands or Leinsters at the moment because Kilkenny are so strong, but to go out and have a go is what we are after," he says.
Enshrined in GAA legend as the only player from the modern era to be selected on the GAA's Team of the Millennium, wing-back Whelahan was just one of several iconic hurlers to line out for the county in their golden era.
But he still owes much of his philosophy to the coaching he received from the Christian Brothers in Birr.
"It was all about moving quickly. We had our own little leagues where you were allowed rise and hit it and could catch it in the air, but you couldn't solo run. It was a way of curbing stronger players and bringing everyone along and that worked very well.
"It brought a new way of thinking that lads had to be moving if they were going to be involved. They had to make space and hurling has to be about that again," he says.
"I looked at Tipperary in the final last year and after five minutes Noel Hickey and Lar Corbett were out around the midfield and that's what you are looking for -- to create space.
"Kilkenny set up their six backs and are very hard to break down. Tipp found a way of doing that, so other teams will have to start thinking outside the box again and to me it goes back to getting the basics right and making it enjoyable for kids again.
"It's where we need to go in Offaly anyway, and the sooner we do, you won't see it for a while but, maybe in five or 10 years, we'll come with a bunch of players again that will take a bit of beating.
"In an ideal world your game has got to be about movement and I think we are very static at the moment, especially up front," he adds.
Offaly open their Allianz NHL Division 1 campaign away to Cork tomorrow. For Whelahan, the goal has to be retaining that status as preparation for their tough Leinster Championship quarter-final with Dublin in Parnell Park on May 29.
"The next number of years are very important for Offaly," he warns. "They need to find another couple of forwards. They were very reliant on Shane Dooley last year, and if we can get Joe Bergin back into a bit of form, he has the potential as well.
"If we could do that we could be a threat in certain areas, but we are still a long way off the creme de la creme of the Kilkennys and the Tipps."
In the meantime, Offaly hurling's old guard like Brian Whelahan will look for more signs that the links to their glorious past are not all broken.