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Championship exclusion may tip Offaly into the abyss

GAA players dream of championship, are Offaly displaying the reasons why a tiered football championship should be denied?

The GAA will convene a Special Congress this autumn where it is mooted that creating a tiered football championship will be on the agenda. In theory, and in a world where the gap between the haves and the have nots of the football world is developing into a gaping chasm, this idea makes perfect sense. Teams would be tiered in terms of their previous performances and would thus be scheduled to meet with teams of similar ability. Parents in counties such as Wicklow and Longford would no longer need to guard their children’s eyes as the Goliaths from Dublin crushed their poor David’s.

Hammerings would be a thing of the past and everybody would be placed in competitions where realistic hopes of success would exist. This is all true but the reality also is that those teams outside the top tier would really just exist in a type of footballing purgatory. Like actors in an off-Broadway show, they would be in a championship but not in THE championship.

In O’Connor Park in Tullamore yesterday, a sense of apathy permeated every corner of the ground. Offaly were beaten by 12 points by Galway, as they were in the first round of last year’s Leinster Championship. On that occasion, when a second half goal brought Offaly to within striking distance of the then All-Ireland champions, there was a palpable sense of a crowd getting behind their team. When Offaly scored seven of the first nine points at the start of the second half yesterday, there was no similar sense of a connection between crowd and team and Offaly’s challenge against a Galway team featuring just two of the starting fifteen from last year’s All-Ireland final fizzled out.

If the powers that be study the story of the Offaly hurlers in this year’s League, then they will thread very carefully with their plans for the football championship. Offaly have lurched from one awful performance to the next and their fortunes have contrasted wildly with what we saw from them last year. Why the disparity in performances? Over 40 players have been used now as Kevin Martin enters his second year in charge. Why the turnover? In 2018, they began their League campaign with a win over Dublin and concluded it by running Kilkenny to two points in a quarter final.  At the time, both of these teams were Leinster rivals of Offaly’s but now Offaly inhabit a different world.

They are exiles in their own land.

In Offaly, players grew up dreaming of the Leinster championship and without that carrot, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to get the best players within the county to commit to the inter county set up.

2nd July 2017 Leinster Hurling Final Day – Tullamore Train Station

The platform where people await the train to Heuston is a hive of activity. There is the odd smattering of maroon Galway support but the majority are natives. The people are Offaly people and they are going to the Leinster final. It is 13 years since Offaly last competed in a Leinster final but that does not mean it is not still a special day in their sporting calendar.

The Leinster final matters to people from Offaly. The Leinster championship matters to them. They are part of it.

Exile is more than a geographical concept. You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.

Twenty years ago, Offaly began the League as All-Ireland champions. Ten years ago, they began the League off the back of a championship campaign in which they had beaten Limerick and ran eventual All-Ireland finalists Waterford close in front of over 30,000 spectators in Semple Stadium.

Offaly have been architects of their own falling trajectory with a negligent attitude towards the development of underage players prevalent in the county for two decades now. Their recovery will be long and arduous and will require a policy shift from a county board with whom the Offaly Hurling Review Group could not develop a working relationship before disbanding in 2017. None of their current players will experience the glory days they may have grown up dreaming of but it is incumbent upon them to be part of the recovery. That recovery will not be aided by exclusion from the Leinster championship. The Leinster championship matters to Leinster teams and counties who want to compete in it should be given the opportunity to do so.

When Special Congress are making their decision on a tiered football championship this autumn, it would be prudent of them to reflect on the apathy currently emanating from the Offaly hurlers and compare it to the energy that flowed from the county at this time last year.

Actors dream of Broadway not off–Broadway.

GAA players dream of championship not off-championship.

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