Daithí Regan: ‘If Carlow beat us, we’re finished’

Daithí Regan played golf with Johnny Flaherty a few weeks ago and the plight of Offaly hurling dominated the conversation as they negotiated 18 holes.
Daithí Regan: ‘If Carlow beat us, we’re finished’

Flaherty was the hero of the breakthrough 1981 All-Ireland senior win and Regan, a 1994 medallist, asked him a straight-up question.

“Johnny, could you ever foresee that it would go to the level it has?” Regan enquired.

“No, I never saw it coming,” Flaherty admitted.

It’s an “astonishing decline,” Regan insists, but one that hasn’t happened overnight.

He’s advocated for many years that Offaly should follow the lead of Dublin and enter a single colleges team to represent the county at post primary level.

They wouldn’t have needed one back in the days when Regan was strutting his stuff at schools level. His alma mater, St Brendan’s Community School in Birr, won the Croke Cup in 1986 and also contested a final the previous year.

In 1985, they lost by 17 points against North Monastery, Cork, but beat the same opposition by four goals a year later.

A host of future Offaly senior stars passed through the doors of the famous nursery.

Regan was one of them but the Dooleys went there too, the Pilkingtons, Cahills, Brian Whelahan, Joe Errity, Kevin Kinahan.

The starting point was the arrival in Birr of Brother Denis Minehane in 1961, to work in the Presentation Brothers’ primary school.

There, it was hurling or nothing.

“Our success stemmed from the Presentation Brothers arriving in Birr,” Regan says.

“They were ruthless when it came to hurling.

“They wouldn’t allow any other sport be played.

“I hear this shit about being all inclusive but Kilkenny can get the bollocks knocked out of them by 100 odd points in football and there’s not so much as an eyebrow raised. When I went on to the Community School in Birr, we played hurling and nothing else. If you wanted to play another sport, then you had to go to another school. Was it an all-inclusive thing? No but tough titty, go and play the piano.”

If you hurled for St Brendan’s, you were treated as a hero.

Regan remembers maybe a couple of hundred students being brought into the canteen to chant and sing songs, wearing the college colours.

Regan and his peers were cock-of-the-walk and they were beating the big teams from other counties with ease, the likes of St Kieran’s from Kilkenny and St Peter’s of Wexford.

St Brendan’s was merely an extension of what Regan had become accustomed to with the Presentation Brothers in primary school.

After a big win at the Brothers, a boy would be nominated to visit the local shop for a big bag of bulls-eye sweets.

The members of the school team helped themselves from the bag while those who didn’t hurl watched enviously.

“We had a belief going into secondary school that we were as good as Kilkenny, better than them,” Regan says.

He was a regular underage winner against Kilkenny teams and that carried on into Regan’s senior days.

The style of hurling was constant and rarely deviated. Even when outsiders like Eamonn Cregan, Michael Bond and Diarmuid Healy came in to manage Offaly, they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel.

There was something unique about Offaly during the glory years, innocent almost.

In 1994, Cregan masterminded All-Ireland senior glory against his native Limerick but when he first arrived, he was amazed by what he saw.

“When we took over, what we found was unbelievable,” Cregan smiles.

“Number one, they didn’t have a pitch of their own so they had to go Birr or Tullamore, the Offaly County Board didn’t have their own field for training.

“Number two, they didn’t know what physical training was all about.”

Regan says that while Cregan might not have been liked by every member of the panel, he was just what they needed at the time.

Cregan counters: “I would claim that Derry (O’Donovan) was what they needed.

“The first night we went training in Birr, Derry asked some members of the county board if they had any cones. ‘What do you mean, cones? Ice-cream cones?

“Derry explained to them what he needed. He wanted to know if they had flags to put on the field to mark out a running area.

“They had those somewhere and then he asked if they had bibs. One person replied that his wife had a bib, for working in the kitchen.

“The two of us looked at each other and said ‘oh my God.’ Then we said we’d do a warm-up. It lasted six minutes, they couldn’t run beyond that.”

There was another time, at a different venue, when a car-park light had to suffice as it shone across the field.

But what Cregan had to work with was a talented group of players and when O’Donovan had them running 18 minutes non-stop, they knew they were in business.

They were great, if slightly unconventional, days for Offaly and one wonders now how it’s reached a stage where they lost by double scores to Westmeath last weekend.

Cregan, who guided Mary Immaculate College to Fitzgibbon Cup glory earlier this year, remembers playing Offaly in a challenge at the start of the year and not being impressed.

But there’s nobody like Brother Denis in Offaly anymore and Regan agrees that underage structures are the pressing concern.

He also remembers the Offaly Hurling Open Forum in September 2014, headed by Healy, but laments the fact that there’s been no solid follow-up work since.

He notes how clubs from traditional football strongholds in Offaly are now “beating the shite” out of clubs from South Offaly.

“Donkeys years ago, we didn’t play against these clubs,” Regan says. “We didn’t even know they existed. That’s not being snobby, that’s the reality.”

Offaly’s problems are multi-faceted. Some players don’t want to play for the county, and while that’s their prerogative, Regan would prefer if they were more up front with their reasons why.

“That’s the third successive manager (Kelly) they haven’t played for,” Regan says.

“The county board chairman said he was going to meet all of these players, said it publicly, but nothing since.

“It’s not a quick fix and we’ve got to go back to the schools,” Regan adds.

“Get together a group of people with the well-meaning of Offaly hurling. I’m involved with Ballinamere-Durrow with Michael Duignan, we took the minors and U21s this year. We played the Birr minors four or five weeks ago and had to give them three players. We hammered them…my own club.”

He’ll still be in O’Connor Park this afternoon, when Offaly host Carlow in the second round of Leinster SHC round-robin fixtures.

And he’s expecting Offaly to win. The consequences of another defeat? Dire, in Regan’s view.

“If Carlow beat us, we’re finished, just finished, we’re Christy Ring.

“If we don’t get out of that group…those teams have all competed in Christy Ring.

“If they beat us and we don’t get out of it, that’s where we are, and where we should be.”

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