Hard to be faithful as Offaly struggle to stay relevant

Hard to be faithful as Offaly struggle to stay relevant
Offaly’s Liam Langton leads his team-mates off the field following their recent league defeat to Dublin. Our columnist says ‘the Faithful’s journey from the summit to the foothills has taken them two decades, with nothing but setbacks along the way.’ Picture: David Fitzgerald

The journey to the summit took them more than a decade, with many a setback along the way. Thing was, they never stopped believing.

Sheila Gallagher was coming home from school one day in 1976 when an individual she’d never met before stopped her on the street in Tullamore. “Would you ever tell that man to get sense?” the stranger demanded. “He’ll never make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

“That man” was her father, Andy Gallagher, recently appointed the Offaly hurling manager, and the stranger an old teammate of his. As for Offaly, they were a county that had never won a provincial title, never mind an All-Ireland.

Gallagher pére had played in goal with them from 1955 to 1969 and that hadn’t been a barrel of laughs either, a near-perpetual diet of league matches against the Westmeaths and the Laoises followed by a glance at Monday’s paper to see if he’d got a mention for saving most of the bullets fired at him the previous afternoon. He rarely had. “From the point of view of enjoyment it was okay,” he would reflect half a century later. “From the point of view of winning anything it wasn’t great.”

But Andy Gallagher, a hurling fanatic in a football town, believed. He believed so fervently, so implicitly, so hopelessly and so publicly that strangers stopped his daughter in the street to bemoan his naivety and his colleagues at work in DE Williams delighted in calling him The Super-Optimist. “When I was hurling with Offaly and we were literally nobodies, I still had this oul’ conviction that if we went the right way about it we could win something.”

Damien Martin made his intercounty debut as an 18-year-old against Wicklow in Ashford in the National League in the autumn of 1964, kept a clean sheet, was asked by some youngster for his autograph afterwards and went home delighted with himself, unaware that not every match he’d hurl for Offaly would result in demands for autographs. But Martin believed too.

Pat Fleury made his championship debut against Kildare in 1975 and… drew. But Fleury was another member of the band of the faithful and they were always able to find something that kept the candle burning. Scaring the daylights out of Kilkenny in the 1969 Leinster final after upsetting Wexford, the All Ireland champions, in the semi-final. Appearances in the provincial under-21 decider in 1967, ‘72 and ’73. Provincial success in the grade in 1978. Damien Martin’s selection as goalkeeper on the first All-Star team in 1971.

Always something.

When Offaly reached the summit they remained there for two decades. They won four All-Irelands and nine Leinster titles.

They frequently outhurled Kilkenny.

They almost invariably outthought Wexford. They played stringent hurling in clean, austere lines. They hooked and they blocked and they flicked. Their gift was to make it look simple and they gave the last great exhibition of absolute hurling purity when deconstructing Kilkenny in the rain in Croke Park in 1995.

And soon afterwards they were gone.

The journey from the summit to the foothills has taken them two decades, with nothing but setbacks along the way.

Thing is, they’ve stopped believing. How could they not have?

It is the saddest hurling story of the 21st century and the latest setback – a 12th defeat in a row in all competitions – arrived in O’Moore Park last Saturday night. Laois 3-17 Offaly 2-16.

Equally sad was the manner in which the basics of the game have been mislaid the space of a generation.

The first Laois goal arrived after one of the visiting defenders missed his pick-up. The second Laois goal arrived after a short puckout went astray, the visiting defenders stood off their opponents – waving their hurleys vaguely instead of employing them as lock-picking implements – and Willie Dunphy was afforded the time and space to spill the sliotar, then recover it. The third Laois goal arrived after Paddy Purcell was allowed stride through the centre of the visitors’ defence without a glove being laid on him.

So much lost defensive lore. Whatever happened to staying on your feet and making the forward make the decision? The likes of Fleury and the Coughlans would have wept. Perhaps they did.

Laois were favourites, incidentally, which in itself told a tale. Even three years ago Laois would never have been favourites against the neighbours.

Hurling being a numbers game, Offaly being a small dual county and the surprise being not that they’ve long since left the top table but rather that they succeeded in seating themselves there for 20 years, it is the headlong nature of the fall that is the most striking. Patrick Donegan, a local GAA statistician and writer and a man not given to dramatic metaphor, likens it to a descent down a steep stairs. The slippage, he argues, has been not so much gradual or annual; instead it has been marked by a severe drop every three or four years, starting in 2001, with further drops in 2005 and 2015. “This year it has taken an almighty tumble, landed on its head and is now terminally ill.”

Statistics provided by Donegan flesh out the full goriness. Over the course of Offaly’s nine National League games in the past 13 months Kevin Martin has used 45 players. Last year the county had eight senior A clubs, eight senior B clubs and two intermediate clubs. The manager is digging deep into a pool that isn’t so much a pool as a shallow end drained of water.

Of the XV that began this year’s league against Waterford, only three (Tom Spain, Pat Camon and Shane Kinsella) had started in last season’s opening-round victory over Dublin.

Only four had played more than ten times for the county, five more were debutants while another quarter had made their debuts in 2018. What county could sustain such a turnover? These days probably just Limerick and Galway.

Martin’s reign began in a blaze of enthusiasm with that win against Dublin. It ended in relegation from the MacCarthy Cup. Offaly’s 2019 championship will consist of McDonagh Cup fixtures at 3pm while outside the gates Tullamore goes about its business. It is little wonder that a number of players who put in a big effort last season and ended up shipping some demoralising defeats have lost interest. There is no longer any glory to be had playing for Offaly. There is not even the opportunity to face Kilkenny and Galway in the Leinster championship.

This is a systems failure on a grand scale and more than one set of fingerprints adorns the crime scene.

The county board’s fingerprints first, obviously. Remember the fiasco with the hurling review/implementation group, whose recommendations they sat on for 17 months? Offaly needed a Ned Quinn. Instead the committee members resigned in frustration.

Yet the abject failure to develop players for the also ask questions about the current state of the indigenous hurling culture. About the standard of coaching at club level; about who’s coaching the coaches; about why nowhere near enough good youngsters are being produced (Offaly haven’t beaten Kilkenny, Wexford or Dublin at minor level since 2005); about why all too few of the stars of the glory years went on to become successful coaches.

These days a few of the latter pop up from time to time grumbling about sweepers. Talk about being calcified into one’s worldview. Was it that their own absurdly high skill level prevented some members of Offaly’s golden generation from thinking more deeply about the game and its progression? Hurling has moved on.

Their abject failure to develop 21st century hurlers has laid the Faithful low and brought them to where they are, fighting a three-way battle with Laois and Carlow to avoid relegation from Division 1B. They may succeed. But what happens when the current old hands have departed the scene in five years’ time? Offaly won’t be fighting it out with Laois and Carlow then. They’ll be fighting it out with Meath and Kildare. Tipperary possessed the playing population to inoculate them against the worst effects of famine after 1971. Offaly do not.

The headline “New low for Offaly hurling” has lost its power to shock. The fall continues. It could end anywhere. It may even entail a future Damien Martin making his National League debut against Wicklow, whether in Ashford or elsewhere.

This they can believe only too well.

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