Last autumn, I got a call from someone on the committee established to find the next Offaly hurling manager. The guy I spoke to was full of ambition and intent. They were only in the early stages of the process but he wanted to know if I’d be interested in speaking to them. I politely declined.
I was delighted to hear shortly afterwards that they appointed Michael Fennelly as manager. Getting such a big name smacked of the ambition and foresight Offaly were clearly intent on showing.
On the face of it, the job wouldn’t have been that attractive, especially when Offaly had been relegated from the Joe McDonagh Cup. But the goals and aims that committee member spoke to me about was clearly about establishing the building blocks of a long-term project. At that time of the phone call, the first foundation stones were already being put in place in how influential figures within the county were already mobilising to have Michael Duignan elected as county chairman.
It was still going to be a long-haul journey but I knew that there was some decent talent within the county. That was obvious from the club scene, which has been ultra-competitive over the last few seasons.
When I was Kilmacud manager last year, we played Coolderry in a challenge game in Monasterevin and they gave us bags of it. That was no surprise to me; the previous year, Coolderry took Ballyboden St Enda’s to extra-time in a Leinster semi-final.
The club scene hasn’t always been reflective of the overall health and well-being of a county, but one of the great mysteries in the hurling world over the past 20 years has been Offaly’s slide from the top table to near oblivion.
The playing pool in Offaly has always been small but it’s no different now to what it was back when Offaly ruled the hurling world. Offaly clubs may not be as strong now as they were when Birr were gobbling up All-Irelands, but they’re still at a fairly high standard. And yet, Offaly have still managed to find themselves outside the top 16 hurling counties, in championship terms, and outside the top 12 in the league.
Promotion back to Division 1 would have been a priority this season but Offaly were squeezed out, with Kerry and Antrim set to face off in a promotion final in October. That was disappointing for Mick Fennelly but it was another dose of reality, and totally in sync with Offaly’s place in the hurling world; Kerry relegated them from the Joe McDonagh Cup last year.
It’s very much a numbers game in the modern GAA world but hurling people everywhere still find it hard to fathom where, how and why it all started to go so wrong for Offaly.
Twenty years ago, Offaly were still at such a level that they could cod the hurling world into thinking that a team apparently on the road to nowhere could always end up somewhere. In May 2000, they embarked on an overnight trip to Ennis, with a challenge match against Clare posing as a handy excuse for a blow-out.
We whipped Offaly that evening. They resembled a rabble by the end of the match but it didn’t knock a stir out of the Offaly lads. Word came back to us later that, by mid-morning of the following day, the drinking session was still in full swing with a sing-song in the Auburn Lodge hotel bar. We trained like a commando unit that year but we were gone from the championship by early June. Offaly were still standing by September.
That story sustained Offaly’s near-playboy reputation but the hints and signs of a hurling county headed for nowhere eventually saw them arriving at that lonely place. Offaly could have – should have – won a Leinster title in 2004 but they were already on the slippery slope. Memories of those halcyon days when they ruled Leinster with an iron fist are now lost in a time warp.
Ten years after that 2004 Leinster final, Ger Loughnane wrote in his newspaper column that Offaly were the only team in the country where you would still see players with “fat legs, bellies and arses.” It was typical brutally honest commentary from Loughnane but nobody could argue with him. A few days later, Offaly lost to Laois at home for the first time in more than 40 years.
I’d seen as much first hand three years earlier when Dublin hammered Offaly in the Leinster U-21 championship in Parnell Park. The previous year, Kilkenny had beaten Offaly in the same grade by 29 points. It was obvious that Offaly had let their underage standards slip disastrously. I remember being taken aback that evening in 2011 because they were in rag-order.
It was careless in a county with small numbers, but even more reckless considering that the basis of Offaly’s success in the 1990s had come from three All-Ireland minor wins in four years between 1986-89. Those teams produced some of their greatest ever players – Brian Whelehan, Michael Duignan, Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington, John Troy. The groundwork was done with those teams but, when it no longer wasn’t, and the underage well dried up, did Offaly really think they were going to keep producing that calibre of hurler?
I’ve often wondered if Offaly tried to be too smart, especially when playing up to their image often seemed to work in their favour. I remember after Clare played them in the (first) drawn All-Ireland semi-final in 1998, and speaking to the players that night in Dublin. “Hi, this image that this crowd aren’t fit, is pure bullshit,” I told them.
“We were nearly caught here today. We’re fit but don’t think that this crowd weren’t able to stay with us throughout the match.” I firmly believed at the time that Offaly were almost trying to lull everyone else into believing they were something they really weren’t. I read somewhere before that Dáithí Regan often said to Pilkington, “Why are you doing this to us?” Johnny continually projected this laissez-faire attitude of sinking pints and lighting up cigarettes, and that hurling was only an afterthought. You’d think Johnny wouldn’t be able to run five metres before the black smoke would appear out his ears but he was a machine, a brilliant box-to-box midfielder.
That image probably cost Johnny a couple of All-Stars. He was a top midfielder for nearly 15 years but, even when he had great seasons, the All-Stars selectors may have had in the back of their heads that Johnny couldn’t deserve an All-Star (he only got one) when he routinely purported to show that he could hardly be bothered with hurling.
And yet, despite that frustration with the image Johnny and the Offaly boys often projected of themselves, they were still slow to ever debunk the myth. It was nearly an attitude of, ‘Ah sure, we’ve good auld wrists, we’ll tip away and see where that takes us.’ There is a certain mental strength attached to portraying that message, and at the same time, being able to control it to their advantage.
Offaly always had incredible self-belief but they had a real sense of manliness about them too. I often marked wing and corner-forwards who you knew, deep down, were a little soft or watery, guys who you could intimidate or get under their skin. That was never the case with any of the Offaly forwards I marked over the years. You certainly wouldn’t bully any of those lads.
As a county, they had so much going for them. Their small tight-knit hurling community made Offaly more like a club than a county team. They had a unique style, an innate telepathy. It was always going to be difficult to maintain that standard to the same level but, it was a crying shame that they let their standards fall to pieces at underage.
Offaly won a Leinster minor title in 2000 but as the decade stretched out ahead of them, anyone suddenly seemed able to beat them at underage in Leinster. No disrespect to some of those other counties in Leinster but, when that was happening, Offaly’s freefall was inevitable.
In my first few years with Dublin, it was obvious that every team at senior level was moving, or trying to move, to that next level in terms of preparation and professionalism. However, Offaly were still stuck in the time warp, where guys with fat bellies and big arses would be bursting out of Offaly jerseys and togs.
And yet, they’d still catch you every now and again, which would almost reaffirm for them that it was their way or the highway, and that their way was still working.
When Dublin played Offaly in the league in Tullamore in 2010, I drove up from Clare that morning and met the boys outside O’Connor Park. I was proud that day watching our lads descend from the bus and march into the ground looking like a well-oiled machine. At the same time, the Offaly lads were arriving in dribs and drabs, half-appearing like a crowd more interested in going to a rock concert than playing a match. I noticed a couple of players carrying just one hurley.
When we were pucking around beforehand, I nearly sensed an attitude from our players of ‘Look at the state of this crowd, we’ll bate them in first gear.’ But we didn’t. They came out and gave it to us between the eyes. Offaly ended up winning 3-19 to 1-18. We ended up on the same points at the end of that league but Offaly were placed ahead of us on the head-to-head rule. It was soul-destroying for us but, deep down, i knew we were on the right road. And I knew that Offaly couldn’t keep codding themselves.
And yet, they continued to try. It almost appeared like an attempt to continue to try and defy the establishment. For years, Offaly nearly seemed to scoff at Development Squads. In 2016, it was revealed that county board officials blatantly ignored a report for 13 months, which was aimed at reviving hurling in the county.
A 39-page document titled 'Offaly Hurling Pathway', was prepared by the Offaly Hurling Review Committee but it wasn’t acted on in any meaningful way. It was no surprise when the report was leaked to the media the following year after Offaly's record 14-point defeat to Westmeath in the Leinster Championship round robin section.
Managers were doing their best but once a culture of indifference sets in, it can be very hard to change it. At least now, they’re trying. Beating Dublin in the Leinster U-20 championship last year was a solid sign of some resurgence.
Duignan was the right choice in selecting a figurehead to try to lead the renaissance but even trying to get Duignan into that position seemed like an ordeal, where he had to negotiate his way through a political minefield.
Changing such a deep-seated culture won’t be easy but Duignan will know what needs to be done. The building of their ‘Centre-of-Excellence’ in Kilcormac was at least one piece of positive foresight during the dark years.
Offaly are having some success at colleges level again, even if it is at a lower grade than what Birr Community School managed 35 years ago.
Over two decades on from when they ruled the hurling world, it will be a long journey back for Offaly. But it’s the only road they can travel now.