Tuesday 19 November 2019

Warriors depart faithful fields

Offaly hurling is the underdog again with the production lines reduced to a trickle, writes Dermot Crowe

T HOSE manic late moments in the 1981 All-Ireland final between Offaly and Galway are being reviewed in the company of Johnny Flaherty. "Is it 30 years?" he yelps. "It is! 30 years!"

The match is nearing conclusion, Galway to the fore, when Danny Owens accelerates through the cover with the ball glued to his stick. His pace seems to have set him free but as Owens squeezes the trigger Iggy Clarke audaciously hooks him, saving a score and salvaging the ball. He still has to clear it. He feints to his left side, then spins right and, virtually from the goal line, strikes a sweet relieving clearance to the middle of the field.

On such noble intercessions are All-Irelands won but that is not how Clarke's labour was rewarded. Offaly came again. The ball fell into the hand of Pat Delaney and the blond-cropped defender swept forward, released it to Brendan Bermingham who drew the cover and popped it inside to a small, 30-something forward with a Manuel-style moustache. Having set up a goal in the first half for Pat Carroll, Flaherty proceeded to score one for himself. He tossed the sliotar like a grenade and Galway's hopes exploded. Offaly won their first MacCarthy Cup; we would be compelled to look at Offaly in a different way from then on.

Thirty years later, Flaherty has shorn the moustache but lost none of the passion or fervent ideas on what made Offaly great in the first place. They head to Croke Park as outsiders today against an emerging Dublin team from a county that has seen their underage sides already speed past the Faithful's young hurlers. Last weekend Flaherty watched the Offaly minors lose to Westmeath while scoring only one point from play. He feels Offaly has lost its way.

He has been through all the relevant ages of Offaly hurling but that day in 1981 was unparalleled and unrepeatable because it was a first. Only a year earlier they broke their duck at provincial level after a decade of Kilkenny-Wexford finals. By '81, Flaherty was near the end of his career. When he started hurling for the county in the 1960s their matches were feral affairs. He played the day of the infamous Battle of Birr so notorious for its brutality that it seemed to stop all the clocks for a moment and demand that Offaly navel-gaze and reconsider what they were at.

"It was horrendous in the 1960s, how we got through the '60s I don't know. I often look back and to see the bully boys that tried to bully a hurler, and no appreciation for skill. If they couldn't beat you in hurling, they tried to bamboozle you some other way."

Birr has such graceful connotations in the hurling world that any association with thuggery seems inappropriate. But in 1967 Offaly went into the Leinster championship with an impressive league behind them and rising hopes of making a mark. They hosted Westmeath at Birr and lost the match with six players sent off, three from each side, including Flaherty though he pleads that he was not the aggressor. It had a pivotal influence on how the game was played, he believes.

The county secretary and eventual GAA president John Dowling, a referee himself, set the tone from the top down and referees who brooked no argument on discipline, like Mick Spain and Gerry Kirwan, emerged and a new enlightenment took hold. "We were in Birr and thought we could do what we liked," says Flaherty of the Westmeath game. "Looking back it was a defining moment; from there on we played hurling. Offaly tried bullying instead of going out to win the game. Breaking up lads. We got rid of that mentality."

Flaherty cites changes being wrought as far back as the late 1960s, simple things like tea and a sandwich after matches, and the arrival of Brother Denis as a hurling connoisseur and missionary from Cork. Their win in 1981 begat the wins in 1985 and 1994 and '98 and the underage success over the same period. But it has dried up. Since winning the All-Ireland minor title in 1989, captained by Brian Whelahan, Offaly have won just one provincial minor championship. In the same year, 2000, they won their last Leinster under 21 title. They are not unique. Wexford's last minor at provincial level was in 1985. But Offaly face Dublin today in the Leinster championship as underdogs, conscious of a widening gap, knowing their minors and under 21s are already playing second fiddle.

Having played the day they lost to Westmeath in '68, Flaherty was among the troubled onlookers as the minors suffered a similar fate last weekend. For four years he was the county's director of hurling and involved with development squads and trying to get the game alive and kicking in the county again. In 2005, he freely forecast that Offaly would be hot on Kilkenny's heels at underage in two years. That hasn't happened, not nearly.

Westmeath have a good minor team and there is a lot of admirable work going on in that county at juvenile grades. There is no shame in losing to them to those in the know. But the Offaly performance and exit left much to be desired. "With no disrespect to Westmeath, and I trained their fathers, and as nice a people you would not meet, but it was a hard one for me to sit on the sideline after all the work we put in trying to get them right," admits Flaherty. "To think all we were capable of was scoring one point from play. One point from play. The poverty of that. It hurts me deeply. One point. And that's where we're at."

John Leahy is Offaly's games development administrator and has overseen coaching for the last nine years. "This Westmeath team is coming for the last four years," he states. "People are probably saying it's an all-time low, but there are still activities taking place to keep the game alive in Offaly; hurling is an art, it needs a lot of attention."

He is doing what he can. "Leinster Council sets a lot of targets and one thing I would be critical of is that we are setting targets that are generic. And in order to get funding you have to reach your target. We do things different here than they do in Wexford, and maybe Westmeath. So I do believe that type of barrier should be taken away. I spend 90 per cent of my time trying to reach targets for Leinster Council in order to get finance."

The targets are having minimum number of blitzes and kids attendance figures and so on. "I have said it at Leinster level," says Leahy, "we have turned this into a numbers' game."

Flaherty is critical of some decisions taken in his time as director of hurling. "We got to within a point of (reaching) an under 16 final, beaten in extra-time in the semi-finals of the Arrabawn (tournament). We beat Limerick and Tipp and Clare and Cork that day and Wexford beat us by a point, a 21-yard free, and they beat Kilkenny by about ten points (in the final). It was an indication we were going in the right way and we were beginning to look after ourselves and do the right thing. We had them in the Forristal (under 14 tournament) two years previous to that and we got bet 28 points by Wexford, so it was a fantastic achievement to be able to turn that around."

When the development squad entered the two-year minor cycle the minor board decided to change the management team. A new team took over under Johnny Pilkington. "It was a fierce unskilful thing to do because we had developed a super attitude with these young lads. I never saw one curse or be out of control during those years," says Flaherty. "I went to America for a funeral, next thing they had a new management in place. The people who came in were very good people but I was very annoyed.

"We promised ourselves we would play a minor final within two years with that team and we were after playing everybody in Leinster and Munster and showed up well. It was the pinnacle of where we wanted to get with our development. And if we achieved that we had a base to work from. They reached no Leinster final."

In 2008 when that team reached minor maturity, they lost to Carlow, 2-13 to 1-9, then drew with Dublin and defeated Kildare. In the next round they lost to Wexford by 12 points and were eliminated. They haven't contested a minor final since 2003. The margin of defeat by Westmeath was eight points.

Flaherty may have a point in terms of continuity and even loyalty when raising the issue of changing management teams midstream during a team's development cycle. "They were the most ordinary, down-to-earth people of all time who had the oul' thing at heart. They turned up and did the work and they were good to the lads. They were terrific. They looked after them, they mightn't have been the best trainers in the world but they were there.

"The people who made that decision were never hurlers in their life or understood what the development of kids is all about. You don't have to be a fucking All-Ireland hurler to be a good coach or to do a job. You can go in there with common sense and do good training and have a good bond. If you want to grow as a manager then start at under 14 and work your way up and you might become a manager then; you learn your trade. There is a trade in being a manager."

Others argue the toss. The Arrabawn is a blitz and may not be a fair comparison to the demands of the minor championship. But nobody disputes that the results from under 14 to under 16 suggested improvement and that the existing management could be entitled to feel hard done by. "I am at the coalface 24 hours a day," says John Leahy, "and if I drove you to every hurling club in Offaly we would be there and back in three quarters of an hour. We have falling numbers. This summarised it for me: when girls could not play under 14 any more, that rule came in, some rural clubs could not field a full under 15 team and dropped back into 'B' competition -- that's detrimental. And we don't have the big towns, Clara, Edenderry and Tullamore; the biggest we have is Birr. Like we would have had a big six foot two lad and our best hurler and go down to, say, Clare and find he was nearly the smallest player on the field. See our current senior team in comparison to all the other senior teams out there. When we go out on Sunday we will see a massive difference in size."

Former Offaly hurlers like Michael Duignan, John Troy, Gary Cahill, Johnny Pilkington, and Mark Corrigan have been involved with development squads but Leahy is also keen to improve coaching standards in the clubs. The newly appointed hurling co-ordinator, Pat Cleary, is overseeing a programme that will coach kids from the age of eight up to the first development squad year.

Flaherty supports home-grown managers and is opposed to outside appointments. He talks about rediscovering the "Offaly way" of hurling. Leahy agrees that this can be hard to pinpoint. "It's a bit of a myth in one way, people will say to you 'ground hurling', but if you watch the old DVDs it was only very intelligent and skilful players playing the ball on, moving it on. They kept the ball low the whole time and if it was moved on the ground there was direction to it."

To which Flaherty says: "We have our own way of playing in this county, I wouldn't want that changed for anybody. That's why it is important for me to try to get our own Offaly way back of playing. Ground hurling we call it here, but we explain it badly, it is about using the open space. Use it to your advantage, move it fast."

In Flaherty's home club of Kinnity he sees all the modern paraphernalia he never dreamt of as a child: ball nets, stand, modern facilities, but not enough good hurlers. "We had no nets and no hot water, and sheep shite in the field, but we had hurlers, now you explain that one now."

He takes a moment and then seems as if he has suddenly seen the light. "We are not creating the warriors, we are not creating the fucking men."

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