AS Offaly ease into the 2011 season in a Walsh Cup clash with NUI Galway in Banagher on Saturday, manager Joe Dooley believes that hurlers should not be asked to face a competitive game so early in the year.
Dooley remains a firm advocate for returning to an autumn start to the National Leagues, thereby easing the fixtures load on players in the first three months of the year.
"If we started the leagues in October like we used to, we could have a proper closed season," he said.
"As it is, we're not allowed return to official training until January 1 and we have a game two weeks later. The first few months of the year are hectic, especially for younger lads who are involved with college teams.
"I'd like to see three league games played before Christmas -- it would ease the pressure later and would certainly mean that players didn't have to face competitive inter-county games only two weeks after being allowed back to collective training. Still, that's the way it is and we'll get on with it."
Dooley will be without Brian Mullins and Ger Oakley, who have retired, while defender David Kenny faces a regular commute between London and Offaly this season. Kenny, who works in environmental science, has moved to England, but will return for Offaly's games.
It will add to the pressure on Kenny, who had an excellent season last year, and is a reflection on the dramatically changed employment scene in Ireland. Many counties have lost players to emigration, but, in Kenny's case, he will continue to be available for Offaly in what is a crucial season for them.
Their initial target is to retain Division 1 status, which will be more difficult than last year, arising from Wexford's promotion to the top flight. Strife-torn Limerick, who were relying on a second-string side last year, were always likely to be relegated and eventually suffered the drop.
And while Wexford struggled against Galway and Tipperary in last year's championship, they are still expected to be a very competitive force in the upcoming league, in which they begin their campaign away to Galway on February 13.
Offaly will be away to Cork on the same day to kick off a campaign in which they will have four home games. "Staying in Division 1 is the first priority as it is for everybody else," said Dooley. "We managed it last year and it gave us great confidence going into the championship. That's the aim again."
After taking Galway to a replay in last year's Leinster semi-final before losing by two points, expectations are rising in Offaly, but Dooley remains cautious.
"The championship draw isn't exactly easy -- playing Dublin in Parnell Park in the first round. We feel we're making progress, but it's getting tougher all the time because lots of others are improving as well," said Dooley.
The winners of the Offaly-Dublin game will play Galway/Carlow/ Westmeath in the Leinster semi-final.