Ollie Baker believes in Offaly as they face Cats
Ollie Baker refuses to believe that Offaly are no-hopers today
OLLIE BAKER stretches his legs after a journey from Athlone and sits down to talk about a game that has already been written off as a Kilkenny rout.
The bookies have Offaly as rank outsiders to beat Brian Cody's men and, even in a two-horse race, odds of 10/1 look reasonable considering it's 15 years since they defeated the Cats in a championship game.
The teams arrive at this juncture after wildly contrasting spring campaigns. Baker's men had a poor league, finishing third in Division 1B, while Kilkenny locked away another Allianz League title. Yet Baker stoutly refuses to write off his side. Hurling remains the bedrock of his life and he doesn't like to set limits on what can be achieved.
"I wouldn't even hop into my car if I thought there wasn't a chance of an upset," he states.
Midlands-based for the past 15 years, Baker is a garda in Athlone. During his playing days with Clare, the trek to Ennis never bothered him, so the hop to Tullamore is even less of a burden. "When I was playing, every inter-county and club player was making sacrifices, and it's stayed that way with the economic climate.
"Most people find that they have to travel for work. But there hasn't been one day when I have sighed and said, 'Ah Jaysus, I have to go training tonight'."
In terms of raw materials, however, the Doora-Barefield native hasn't had much to work with.
Former Offaly All-Ireland winner Dáithí Regan recently suggested they were drifting towards inevitable decline and could be a Christy Ring side within five years. He had a pop at players and management, questioning the players' mentality and labelling some of the sideline decision-making as 'junior-level'.
That was pretty blunt analysis, even given that club hurling, despite the Leinster success of Coolderry and Kilcormac-Killoughey, has dropped a level since the all-conquering Birr era.
And while Baker's predecessor, Joe Dooley, oversaw a concentration on youth, there hasn't exactly been an overworked underage production line either.
Indeed, last Wednesday night Offaly recorded only their first under 21 championship win in five years – and that was a hard-fought one-point defeat of Laois. Over the past 10 years they have struggled for air at minor and under 21 level, and bowed out of recent senior championships all too easily.
Baker, though, isn't ruffled by other people's perceptions.
"Look, this is not going to happen overnight," he says. "The age profile of our team is mid-20s but the level of experience they have gained over the last five years will stand to us. Joe brought them on so they now have six years of inter-county experience. We want them to push it on.
"The drawback is the lack of confidence in themselves – that's holding them back. There is frustration among fans that success isn't there but the only way we get it is to compete against the top three in Leinster. We can't run away from Kilkenny; that's not going to work. We have to embrace the challenge. You can only put yourself forward in an honest fashion."
And the flak?
"I don't know if I'm getting that much flak either. But I welcome it."
"Unless there's passion in the supporters there's not going to be passion in players," he adds.
"Last year, after the Tipp and Kilkenny game, there was an outcry among Tipp fans over what happened. But unless that outcry is there, things won't change. I welcome any criticism as long as it's constructive and not personal. If you don't have passion and a fervent atmosphere at today's game, for example, you are dead. If there is no will to drive on, what are the players playing for? I don't think we go into the game without hope, so we have to decide are we playing for the history of Offaly or the future? And as long as the criticism is not personal – and it hasn't been – we drive on."
Having been with Offaly for two seasons, and cut his teeth as a selector with Antrim and Clare before that, Baker has seen how the other half live in the hurling world; an alien and austere existence compared to the rich one he enjoyed as a Clare hurler when they jockeyed for provincial and All-Ireland honours over a decade.
He was one of the most recognisable hurling faces of the 1990s, playing for the Banner with plenty of grace but no airs, at a time when legend had them running up mountains, starving themselves for three weeks before championship time and then emerging from the bushes to ravage traditional strongholds like Tipp and Cork.
"I always wanted to be there, in the middle of it," he reflects. "You have such a short playing career and then it's gone. I got 10 years out of it and was able to bless myself after it that I got as much as I could out of the game. Yet, I still went away thinking we could have won a bit more. If someone offered me what I got but said I'd still be disappointed at the end of it, well, I'd take that."
He played when hurling was at its peak in terms of physicality, competitiveness and all-out combat. During the 1990s, the game was a marketer's dream. There were characters everywhere and the wealth was shared evenly; Limerick came close on two occasions to the Holy Grail. Tipp got there, so did Wexford and Offaly, Clare made it twice and Cork and Kilkenny got in on the act too.
Since then, however, save the odd cameo from Cork or Tipp, the men in black and amber have sat in the top office, enjoying a near-monopoly of success in the game.
"If you were to take it a business point of view, if you don't have competitiveness then your product is going to go down. It's vital that it is competitive. But the fact that Kilkenny are winning and winning doesn't mean that it's not competitive," he argues.
"Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year were there until the last few minutes. At half-time last year, Tipperary were a point up. It's not that it's been completely uncompetitive, it's just that Kilkenny have been so dominant in terms of titles."
There are sporadic signs of change.
"Teams are making strides," Baker insists. "A few weeks ago, Wexford beat Kilkenny in the Leinster minor championship; Dublin have been strong at minor and under 21; Galway will always be strong. In Munster, you have Clare, Limerick, Waterford, Cork and Tipperary who are always going to be very competitive.
"What I would like to see is hurling being more spread out. Being completely radical about it, divide Tipperary north and south and have two teams. Divide Cork city and county and have two teams. Divide Kilkenny north and south and have two teams. Now we're introducing three new teams. It's radical but if you want to get away from one team dominating . . . "
Would anyone go for that?
"Not a f**kin' notion," he smiles. "Not a notion would Tipp divide north and south or north, mid and south. But if you want to have a serious look at how to promote the game and spread the game out, that's one area you could work on.
"There is the same amount of senior clubs in Offaly as in north Tipp. They have the same amount of players, probably more, than we have. The amount of players who don't even get a look-in at a county team and who would be every bit as good.
"And you could certainly divide Dublin north and south. All of a sudden you're introducing a whole new team. If you wanted to be really radical, that's what you'd do. But I think it may take 100 years for an idea like that to happen."
He wants his team to leave O'Connor Park today with no regrets. A quick scan of his own playing career identifies 2001 as the only blip on his mindset. There was no back door and possibly the most finely-tuned Clare team ever lost a first-round clash by a point. Their conquerors, Tipp, went on to win the All-Ireland.
"We'd have fancied our chances that year," Baker recalls. "Tipp and ourselves were the top two around and while everyone talks about 1998, that year never bothered me and it still doesn't. We played six of the best games of hurling Clare ever played in '98."
Last year, Offaly exited the championship in early July and didn't play another competitive game until February 23 this year. And another season in Division 1B is hardly going to bring the supporters flocking back.
"Kilkenny have taken the physical fitness bar to a very high level and we are trying to get there. They have managed to combine hurling and physical fitness into one game and they are the hardest team to play against. But we won't be going in saying, 'Ah we'll give this a shot'. We want an honest performance; that's about it. The first team we're playing against is ourselves.
"It can't all be about winning trophies. Certainly, we're going out to try and win but it can't be the whole focus of everything we're doing. There has to be a love of the game.
"You go into your national school and say to your eight- and 10-year-old, 'This is your life now – this is hurling. Love it! Because it's the most fantastic game in the world. And you're playing in one of the most fantastic counties in the world'."
Tullamore will sparkle if class acts like Rory Hanniffy, Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin get going this afternoon, but the team will need to draw on all of Baker's enthusiasm to be competitive.
They have no choice but to throw the kitchen sink at Kilkenny. If they don't, it won't be pretty.