The stand-off comes amid speculation that less than one year into his three-year term, senior football manager O’Kelly is to be dismissed at tonight’s meeting of the board.
“I’ve heard the rumours,” county PRO Pat Teehan confirmed last night, “but what’s happening is that a Review Committee was set up some time ago and they will be presenting their report and recommendation to the meeting. I don’t know what those findings are, but they will then be voted on by the delegates. The final decision rests with them.”
According to reports, however, that recommendation is that O’Kelly should be dismissed, a proposal that does not have the backing of many of the senior players on the Offaly team.
“How can you judge a person on one year?”, asked team captain Cathal Daly. “I knew Paul from when he was a selector under Tommy Lyons but the younger players didn’t, and that takes time, for everyone to get to know each other, get a good balance going. He knows, we all know, there were mistakes made, but we know they were made, we’re not going around blind to them. We’re not too happy about it, but what can you say?
Are we going to have to start from scratch again with a new manager? I thought we made progress last year, brought in a lot of good young fellas. Obviously we didn’t win anything, but we weren’t disgraced either.”
Veteran centre-back Finbarr Cullen, a clubmate of O’Kelly’s in Edenderry and one of the long-time stars of the team, blasted: “I’ve heard the rumours, spoken to a number of players, and we’re all taken aback, to be honest. I don’t know what the agenda is, but I do know that the players were very happy with the progress made this year, were looking forward to the next season. We have a good quality manager who’s put a lot of his personal time and effort into this. The Offaly job is an unpaid job, we all know that, so who are you going to get now to put in that effort? Paul had big plans for Offaly football over the next few years, has already done a huge among of work for the coming season. The impression I had was that he wouldn’t take the job initially unless he got three years, to give him a chance to work with players, come up with a system that suits us. He’s involved with the U-21’s as well which is a great idea, keeps him up to date with the form of the younger players, and already this year he’s brought a lot of them onto the panel.
“There’s a feeling of disbelief among the players at the moment, general surprise, and a lot of disappointment. We don’t know where the county board are coming from, whether they already have another manager got and just want to get rid of Paul. I don’t know.”
Midfielder Ciaran McManus, currently in Finland with ESB International, with whom he works as an electrical engineer, added: “It’s difficult to comment when I’m so far away from what’s happening, but it was quite a shock to me. He’s only been in the job eight months, and I was under the impression he was on a three-year term. I wasn’t consulted on this, I’ve also spoken to Cathal Daly, Finbarr Cullen, Vinnie Claffey, Barry Mooney, none of them were consulted either. It seems ridiculous that there was a review but none of the senior players were consulted, especially if they’re about to make a decision like this. If it was just an ordinary review where they were looking at areas that needed to be improved you’d understand, and I was one of those very disappointed at the way we lost this year.
“You can always improve, and I had my own reservations, had recently actually had discussions with Paul on what we needed to do next year to improve, especially on the fitness levels. He agreed with me but explained that he wasn’t in long enough at the start to get things right, and that was fair enough. I know about all the work Paul has been doing off the field since we were beaten in the championship, a huge amount of his own personal time gone into it. For next year he had a programme set up where we were supposed to be starting in a few weeks time, and if we weren’t fit after that, there’s no hope for us. It’s very hard for me to digest at the moment.”
What most angers the players are suggestions that the rumoured decision by the Review Committee was taken in consultation with them, had their backing.
Cullen: “I was told that, so I rang around a few senior players and none of them was contacted. If the Review Committee are claiming that this is coming from the players, and I’ve spoken to Paul O’Kelly and he said they told him the players had been consulted, that’s wrong, and it’s an absolute disgrace. The way it’s been handled is very, very poor.”
McManus added: “That’s something I’m really annoyed about, because I wasn’t consulted anyway, and neither were any of the lads I talked to. Cathal was the only one they rang, but he wasn’t told it was an official review, he was just asked for his summary of the year, where we could improve on it.”
That was later confirmed by Daly. “I don’t know in what context that approach was supposed to have been made. I had a chat with the chairman on it, but it was informal.”
All in all it adds up to a very difficult situation for the Faithful County, with all the hallmarks of the crisis that so beset Cork last year and culminated in a players’ strike, a parallel not lost on a very reluctant McManus.
“We’ve been put in a very difficult position now, it’s starting to look like the Cork thing”, he said, though without threat of an actual strike. If the O’Kelly rumours are true, however, and his fate does hang in the balance, how secure is senior hurling manager Mike McNamara?