Offaly U20 football manager Declan Kelly has said their recent Leinster final win is vindication of the approach being taken within the county to develop emerging talent and he wants his young players to now seize the “huge opportunity” before them.
Keith Ricken’s Cork stand between Offaly and a first All-Ireland U20 final appearance in 33 years, with Kelly urging his team to put their best foot forward in Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final (MW Hire O’Moore Park, 5.15pm).
“Saturday is a huge opportunity,” said the Offaly manager.
“The one thing you'd say to the lads is you only get one shot at this. This group won't be able to come back next year as many will be over-age. Cork are favourites and rightly so, but you want to give it a good crack and see where that takes you.”
Their 0-15 to 3-3 Leinster final win over Dublin was the county’s first piece of provincial football silverware since the senior victory of 1997, while it was the county’s first Leinster title in either code since 2000.
Borrowing the 20x20 campaign slogan of 'can’t see it, can’t be it', Kelly said it was hugely important for a group of Offaly players to taste Leinster glory and for the county’s other panels, from development squad level right the way through to senior, to witness a Faithful team get over the line in Leinster.
The hope is that the result will inspire greater buy-in from those already involved in an Offaly set-up and a greater want to be involved from those on the outside, he added.
“In both hurling and football, Offaly has been competitive for the last number of years, but to win something says to the clubs, to coaching and games, and to the county board that we are doing things right.
“We now have something to show and can say, we won a Leinster so we are on the right road. We are far from the finished article, that's for sure, but it is going the right way and you would be hoping there would be more buy-in from younger kids who have seen this, if they get a call up to an U16 or minor squad, and that they’d try and put their best foot forward to get themselves on these squads.”
Contributing factors to the U20 success, as well as the recent Leinster MFC final appearance, according to Kelly, is the central base provided by the Faithful Fields centre of excellence and the co-ordinated approach to strength and conditioning.
“Training on a pitch next to the senior hurlers and footballers and using the same gym as them fosters a greater level of professionalism among the younger players. Players want to be out there because if you are out in the Faithful Fields you are in a top-class environment.”
The manager concluded: “What you are beginning to see is that players coming through, they know what is required in relation to commitment and how they have to live their lives to play inter-county.
“Players coming out of minor are mad keen to get in with the U20s and play. They are coming in with a very good base and a very good attitude. We would have worked very closely over the last couple of years with John Maughan and the seniors, there would have been in-house senior games where he would have brought a couple of our guys in so lads are beginning to see now that there is a very clear pathway for them and they want to travel that path.”