Martin: Offaly need to put shackles on Galway half-backs
IF OFFALY are to beat Galway tomorrow and reach their first Leinster SHC final since 2004, they will have to seriously curb their opponents' influential half-back line.
That's the opinion of Kevin Martin, who lined out for Offaly the last time they met Galway in a championship game -- all of 16 years ago.
That was in the 1994 All-Ireland semi-final and Martin subsequently won All-Irelands and All Stars with Offaly that season and also in 1998 when the Faithful county were in their hurling hey-day.
His inter-county hurling loyalties are somewhat divided at the moment as he took over as Westmeath manager this year and has led to them all the way to their own championship decider: the Christy Ring Cup final.
Martin is busy preparing Westmeath for their own big hurling day in Croke Park, against Kerry in a fortnight's time. But his heart is still inevitably tied to his native county.
He was player-manager with Tullamore last season when they won their first county SHC title in 45 years and, on top of that, his good friend and former All-Ireland winning team-mate Joe Dooley is in charge of the Offaly team.
Given his own playing position and experience it's no surprise that Martin believes that tempering Galway's half-backs would help hugely to dramatically swing Offaly's fortunes tomorrow in a game in which everyone is writing them off.
"I'm a firm believer that the half-back line is the launching-pad for every team and especially this Galway one," he said of David Collins, Tony Og Regan and Donal Barry, who were so influential in the NHL final and particularly in the Tribes' defeat of Wexford.
"One of the problems for this Offaly team is that they are seen to be weak in the half-forward line so that's an area they're going to have to improve in."
He feels that anyone who faces Galway should not concentrate too much energy trying to invent complicated tactical plans to negate their prodigious full-forward Joe Canning.
"Look, Joe is going to get a certain amount of scores in every game because if he's not scoring inside, Galway will just pull him somewhere else to open it up for him," he said. "At one level you just have to accept that and concentrate your energies on stopping the ball coming into him."
Pinning down the Galway half-back line would definitely be a huge help in influencing the supply lines to Canning.
But given the quality of Galway's free-takers, especially Ger Farragher's long-range shooting, Offaly also cannot afford to concede frees anywhere on the pitch, which will not make life easy for their midfield and half-forwards.
Many in the county do not hold out much hope for the Faithful county, particularly as they struggled to put Antrim away in Leinster's first round.
Reduced to 14 men for most of the second half, they conceded 3-16 and needed extra-time to see off the Ulstermen on a 2-26 to 3-16 scoreline.
Morale in the county plummeted further last week when the county's U-21s suffered an unmerciful drubbing by Kilkenny.
A year ago, Offaly's U-21s had pushed the Cats hard but 12 months later they lost on a mortifying 2-31 to 0-8 scoreline, their heaviest ever defeat at the grade.
"I couldn't get to the U-21 game but it was shocking alright and the whole county is still talking about it," Martin admitted.
Some have taken hope in the notion that Offaly, traditionally, would not fear Galway hurlers.
"That's true, we didn't fear them in my day but this is a very different type of Galway team you're looking at now," Martin warned. "Offaly certainly looked like they had improved during the league so I was surprised that Antrim gave them such a fight of it.
"We had beaten Antrim during the league but then (manager) Dinny Cahill would have had them ready for it; Championship is completely different and Joe (Dooley) told me they got hit with goals at crucial times."
When Galway beat Offaly twice earlier this year they did it without their four Portumna players and the addition of the Canning brothers, Damien Hayes and Andy Smyth (now suspended) has beefed them up even further since.
"People said Galway weren't that impressive against Wexford but they scored 2-22 and shot something like 17 wides," Martin noted. "With that kind of scoring threat Offaly will have to be competitive with them for as long as possible."