Sport Hurling

Thursday 22 March 2018

Whelahan urges sinking Faithful to 'hurl way out of' malaise

Offaly manager Brian Whelahan
Offaly manager Brian Whelahan
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Even though Offaly hurling and the league have never been the best of bedfellows, this is an uneasy week for the midlanders as they prepare to face Kerry in a promotion/relegation play-off in Semple Stadium on Saturday.

Previously, such unhappy springs wouldn't have caused much concern as, even in their pomp, the league never really interested the Faithful. They've won the top flight just once, and got to the final on another occasion. After that, they've kept their distance.

Over the years when things went wrong in the league, their championship form would often be completely different.

They lost a league relegation final to Antrim in 1989 but recovered to win Leinster that year before losing out to the Ulster men in the All-Ireland semi-final. In 1994, Offaly won the All-Ireland from the second tier of the league.

But for many teams, the league has taken on a renewed importance while the gradual decay that has set in on Offaly is taking its toll.

On the surface, their relegation play-off against Kerry is an indicator of how far things have fallen, but their problems run much deeper than that.

On Saturday, the county minors play Carlow a couple of hours earlier in the Leinster championship and no one in Offaly is sure how that game against their ever-improving rivals will pan out.

Development squads haven't been going well either. As one former Offaly hurler put it: "We've been getting hidings left, right and centre." You have to go back to last year's league for Offaly to have won a game of any significance and back to June 2012 for a championship win.

This year's league started with a broadside from Ger Loughnane regarding their fitness and a rare defeat to Laois. They've haven't recovered.

The play-off defeat to Antrim rounded off a miserable spring. Confidence, manager Brian Whelahan admits, is low.

"We have been trying to get the lads thinking right for this challenge (against Kerry) because it won't be easy," Whelahan said.

"It has been tough but we have to keep going and see where it will take us. That's always hard to do but we are in a situation of our own making so we have to prepare as best we can."

The league structures determine that Offaly have a final chance to retain their 1B status. And the Team of the Millennium man admits the Kingdom should probably already be promoted.

"I have gone on record before saying that Kerry had done everything that was asked of them up to now and, by right, should have qualified and that we should have been gone down.

"But it was set out this way at the start of the year and we don't make the rules. We're certainly grateful to have the chance to save our status."

The return to fitness of the likes of Shane Dooley offered hope early in the year. However, Rory Hanniffy, David Kenny and Derek Morkan are set to be missing from their defence this weekend with Whelahan unsure if he'll have a full hand to pick from when they take on Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in the first game that Sky will have exclusive access to.

"I suppose we felt we were starting to – I won't say turn a corner – but we felt we were improving (after the Wexford game). And it was the same in parts against Cork. We felt we were on an upward curve but we lost those games and after the Antrim game confidence is very low. It has thrown up a lot of questions and we have to hurl our way out of it.

"We're playing a Kerry team coming off the back of a good league run and they were deserving winners last weekend against Carlow and were probably more comfortable than the scoreline suggests. They have some fine hurlers; it is going to be challenging.

"We have to see what is in the tank now because you can be sure we're going into a hard battle in Thurles.

"Kerry are very focused, are coming off the back of a very positive league campaign and they are determined to show they deserve a place in Division 1B. And if we're not ready, it could be a very difficult 70 minutes for us."

Irish Independent

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