How do you solve a problem like Offaly hurling? That’s the question that has no doubt crossed every committee meeting, boardroom, office, canteen and kitchen table from Birr to Tullamore over the past ten years.
It’s a question that has been repeated to the point of tediousness, an annual conversation not unlike something about the rules book, the standard of refereeing or the growing professionalisation of the GAA. The latest defeat to Waterford puts the debate back on the table for now, just like their 26-point hammering against Kilkenny in 2014, or Westmeath’s 14-point win in 2016, or last year’s relegation from Leinster. And yet the solutions to the Offaly problem seem further and further away.
A once great bastion of the game, Offaly turned hurling on its side during the 1990s with it’s successful All-Ireland winning sides that mashed tremendous skill and an enviable fight and hunger to deliver two senior titles. In addition to two more titles in the ‘80s, Offaly were the benchmark for the development of hurling in smaller counties. They had never won a title until 1981 and went on to win three more, before the likes of Waterford or Limerick could even smell it. A small midland area punching incredibly above its weight, but a proud hurling county that felt it deserved to be considered amongst the elite.
This year, 21 years after winning their last All-Ireland, Offaly aren’t even in their provincial championship. They would need an absurdly positive set of circumstances to even come close to another All-Ireland title, a consideration that can apply to the next half-decade and beyond.
So where did it all go wrong for the Faithful County? Why haven’t they been able to keep up with their peers in the elite provincial groups? It’s a union of several issues; some avoidable, some not.
One issue, and you could probably argue for it being an avoidable one should you have the right processes in place, is the quality of the talent. Offaly struck gold in the 90s. Their club championships were competing at an incredible level and one club, Birr, would have fancied themselves against most county teams. The competitiveness was at an elite standard, which in harmony lifted the inter-county team to great heights.
You can quite easily correlate strong club championships with strong county teams, a drop off in the former usually leading to a drop off in the latter. Limerick have cultivated one of the strongest club arenas in the country and the county reaped those rewards last year. Galway the year before. Tipperary, although their clubs have disappointed beyond the county borders, have an ultra-competitive competition.
And there was the talent themselves. Brothers are common amongst county teams, from the more recent McGraths and Mahers of Tipperary to the likes of the O’Connors in Cork, the Cannings in Galway or the Fennelly brothers. But to have three All-Star calibre brothers in the form of Joe, Johnny and Billy Dooley, all at the same time, is unheard of. It really was a golden period for the county, attested by the trio who won seven All-Ireland titles between them.
Brian Whelehan would go down as one of the all-time greats at wing back. Interspersed were other fine talents like Michael Duignan, Johnny Pilkington and John Troy – fantastic hurlers, with an unbreakable hunger for winning.
Offaly to their credit struck while the iron was hot, because evidently that level talent wasn’t going to last forever. As hurling veered into the new millennium, so did the professionalism and standards expected of county teams. Although far from what it is today, the early to mid-noughties saw hurling and the GAA in general turn towards a more professional outlook. Strength and conditioning wasn’t optional anymore. Healthy eating was becoming mainstream and preparation involved less time in socialising and more time working on improving, learning, adapting and reaching professional levels of commitment to the cause.
As Ger Loughnane famously put it, Offaly still lived in the “dark ages”. They never seemed to embrace the professionalism of the game like many others. It was sink or swim, and as the years rolled on Offaly plummeted to the bottom without a trace. Some of the folklore that lives on with the team of the ‘90s involves unorthodox pre-match routines that nowadays get you run asunder out on the field. A different time that, for some reason, Offaly couldn’t adjust to.
Fast forward to today and the talent pool just isn’t there. Players like Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin trudge on, fighting year after year for a cause that has earned them little reward. In this past weekend’s heavy defeat to Waterford, only three players had played a part in the 2018 league opener when they beat Dublin in Croke Park. That’s an astonishing turnover rate that no team big or small could possibly deal with.
Some fine talent is there in sprouts, in the likes of Oisin Kelly and Ben Conneely, but no matter how good they are that level of turnover will put a major limitation on what they can achieve.
Beyond the hurling field, Offaly players and management have been at loggerheads with the inaction and dissatisfaction of their county board for years now. If the board can’t enter the 21st century then it’s difficult for the team to, with so many obstacles in its way to developing, implementing and maintaining a plan that will get the trains back on the track. Something needs to happen from the very root, all the way down at the juvenile level, and it needs to be ingrained, inhaled and absolutely devoured into the culture in the county so the bad taste of the past 21 years can pass.
A state of the art facility in Kilcormac has brushed some fresh paint over the problems in Offaly, but they’re not going away anytime soon.
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