Faithful must have realistic hopes for Whelahan -- Duignan
History will repeat itself for Brian Whelahan on Saturday, when he leads Offaly hurlers for the first time as they begin their season against Antrim in the Walsh Cup in Tullamore.
Antrim were also the opposition when he made his senior Offaly championship debut as an 18-year-old substitute in a never-to-be forgotten All-Ireland semi-final in 1989. He will be hoping that his managerial reign gets off to a better start than his playing career, which coincided with one of the biggest upsets in hurling history.
Antrim half-forwards Aidan McCarry and Olcan McFetridge scored 4-7 between them as the Ulster champions stunned Offaly with an incredible second-half performance, which helped them a nine-point win (4-15 to 1-15).
Offaly were managed by Brian's father Pad Joe, who dispatched his son into the action as a replacement for Johnny Pilkington. Nobody could have known it at the time but it turned out to be the launch of one of the greatest hurling careers, which included winning a place on the Team of the Millennium.
Almost 25 years later, Whelahan steps forward for a new phase of his career, with Offaly supporters hoping that he can reignite a spark in a county whose stock has been seriously devalued over the last decade.
Michael Duignan, a long-time playing colleague of the new manager, is delighted to see Whelahan in charge but warns against expecting too much too soon.
"Brian is one of the greatest hurlers the game has ever produced so his appointment has brought a fair amount of excitement in Offaly -- but we have to be realistic," said Duignan.
"We haven't done at all well at underage level for a long time and that tells. What I'd be hoping for is that Brian gets everyone who is available playing to the very best of their ability and see where it goes from there."
Offaly haven't a won a Leinster minor or U-21 hurling title since 2000 (they did the double that year) and haven't reached a minor final since 2003. That supports Duignan's view that the supply lines which made them such a formidable force in the 1980s and 1990s are no longer nearly as productive.
Duignan was pleased to see double All-Ireland winners Ger Coughlan and John Troy join Whelahan's management team and believes they will be major additions in the camp.
"Brian, Ger and John would have different views on various aspects of the game but they are all smart guys. They were all brilliant ball players and I'm sure that's an area of the game they will work on with the squad," he said.
"They are also very positive people. They will work well together and I have no doubt they will get the backing of everyone in the county."
Being in the promotion mix in Division 1B will be Whelahan's first target and they are joint third-favourites with Wexford, behind Cork and Limerick, to win the group. The Leinster championship draw could scarcely be tougher, however, as they would have to beat Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and probably Galway to reach the final.
"Brian will certainly have the lads primed for every game. He never went out in a game thinking he couldn't win it. There's a lot of work to be done but Brian, Ger and John are prepared to put it in. After that, who knows what might happen if Offaly got a bit of luck here and there," said Duignan.
Meanwhile, Whelahan has a Walsh Cup game to prepare for and will no doubt be conscious of his first experience against Antrim as a player.
"We all remember that day, even if we'd like to forget it," said Duignan, who lined out at full-forward.