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'I'd Fear We Could Drop Off The Radar' - An Offaly Hurling Legend Ponders Shocking Decline

'I'd Fear We Could Drop Off The Radar' - An Offaly Hurling Legend Ponders Shocking Decline
By Conor Neville Updated

Irish Daily Mirror journalist and Offaly fan Pat Nolan suggested that those who claimed that Sunday's defeat represented 'rock bottom' for Offaly hurling were being hopelessly optimistic.

In support of this, he went on to detail the exhaustive list of 'rock bottoms' Offaly have allegedly suffered in the last decade.

It's quite possible that the Westmeath defeat could merely be another staging post on the long road to rock bottom.

And that the view from rock bottom may be even bleaker than the scoreboard at Cusack Park on Sunday evening.

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The result caused many baffled neutrals to try and wrap their heads around Offaly's shocking decline in the past twenty years. It's a slowly evolving story but it's become increasingly gory this decade.

Only four teams have won the All-Ireland since Hubert Rigney let a holler out of him about walking in back doors and leaving via front doors eighteen years ago. And yet, now their less pollyannaish fans are bracing themselves for life in the Christy Ring.

It's 21 years since Offaly won their last Leinster title, humiliating Kilkenny 2-16 to 2-5. The scoreline would have looked more arresting had DJ Carey not snaffled two late goals.

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Over two decades. But sure they went almost a century before winning their first ever Leinster title.

Maybe the question is, not how are Offaly gone so bad now, but how were they so good between the years 1980-2000? Perhaps it's the 80s and 90s that are the historical aberration, not the present day.

Padraig Horan, an experienced member of that first wave of Offaly hurlers to raid the top table in the early 80s, fears that Offaly hurling is returning to the minnow status it occupied during his youth.

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That's my biggest fear. I remember the first game I was at as a child, Kerry beat Offaly in Birr. And my biggest fear is we're gone back to that again. And I'd be worried about it. Laois, for instance, it was always touch and go between ourselves and Laois.

I was on the last Offaly team to be beaten by Westmeath in 1975. That was seen as a freak but again we were well beaten on the day. But out of that we got our act together. But I couldn't see the same happen now. I'd be fearful of Offaly hurling dropping off the radar altogether.

Offaly beating Kilkenny in 1980 was a hugely emotional moment, celebrated well beyond Offaly. Hurling historian Norman Freeman wrote 'Offaly's victory was one for the disadvantaged, for the good hurlers who had never played in an All-Ireland, let alone won one, for team from counties that were always championship fodder - Clare, Westmeath, Roscommon, Antrim, Down, Dublin, Kildare, Kerry, Waterford, Carlow'.

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Horan made his senior Offaly debut in 1969, the year of a prior watershed in Offaly hurling in which they beat Wexford. Throughout the 70s, they battled an especially strong Kilkenny side, failing to achieve the breakthrough. How does the Offaly team that Horan soldiered for in the first decade of his career compare with the present side?

I came into the Offaly team out of minor in 1969, we had at least four or five players that would have made it onto any team in Ireland. Now, I'd say if we'd one, we'd be doing well. If there was one criticism, we were probably too aggressive, we lost games through lack of discipline. But that changed when Dermot Healy came on board. There was more emphasis on hurling and playing the ball and less on playing the man. But now you wouldn't know what the emphasis is on. There's no aggression, there's no passion, there's no self belief, the skills don't seem to be there.

In the course of Daithi Regan's 'state of Offaly hurling' address on Off the Ball this evening - in which he labelled exiled players 'gobshites' and suggested that there are members of the Offaly Co. Board who have a thing or two to teach Michael Corleone in the skullduggery department - he alluded briefly to the loss of a 'certain type of coaching' in the schools in the early-to-mid nineties.

There was little time to elaborate. As a retired teacher and a former Offaly hurling manager has Horan any insight? What is the difference between the type of coaching that produced the sides of the 80s and 90s and the type that has led them to this pass?

There's no obvious formula or magic explanation. Offaly's success wasn't a masterpiece of strategic planning. It was a mixture of a coming together of good players, energetic people landing in important roles, and a very strong schools game. The collapse of the latter has been ruinous and the reasons for the collapse are hard to identify.

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You go back to the 70s. There was a lot of reasonably good hurlers in Offaly that hadn't been organised up until then. Club hurling was quite strong but there was no unity among club hurling. We were fortunate that without any planning a number of good people got involved.

For instance, Br. Vincent in Birr was a man who did tremendous work for underage hurling in Birr. We were fortunate we had John Dowling at Co. Board level with Fr. Heaney and in the late 7os they put together a really good underage team. People like Paudge Mulhare, Charlie Daly, Tommy Errity, Mick Spain and Andy Gallagher and then brought along Dermot Healy in the very late 70s.

They were steeped in Offaly hurling and ones people looked up to. They knew their hurling...

After Cork were garroted in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, Ger Cunningham attributed the senior team's failings to the decline of hurling in their once powerful secondary schools, now more tolerant of sports which do not include a hurl.

Likewise in Offaly, their once mighty schools are swimming among the minnows. Birr Community School now play in the B-championship.

Then in the late 80s, we had the very good minor teams and they were the product of schools that were working hard at underage. Bannager school, Kilcorman school, Birr college. You had the clubs, the teachers in Sinn Rowan were doing a lot. That seems to have gone. It's hard to know why. Birr Community School are in B-hurling now, Banagher have amalgmated with the convent. When they were seperate schools they were performing very well. Now, they have come together and they're not performing well at all.

In one way, when you look back on it, and sit back in the cold light of that day and think about it, it was a freak thing to happen. Employment and population wasn't any bigger than it is now. Just a good bunch of players came together. It was three schools, they came together and won three All-Ireland minors and out of that minor team, we got three Leinster titles and two All-Irelands. It was a freak thing when you think about it.

Since their abrupt decision to vacate their chair among the game's elite in 2001, Offaly have won just a smattering of championship games against serious opposition. And even then it was often serious opposition in severe turmoil.

They've beaten Limerick three times (2003, 2008, 2010), the last of which came against a hastily assembled team of novices and second stringers. They've beaten Wexford (2012), pre-renaissance Dublin a bunch of times, and Laois consistently up until last year. The uncharitable might be inclined to label the latter two sides as semi-serious opposition during the period when Offaly were beating them.

There've been a few moral triumphs, taking Galway to a replay in 2010, losing by a point to Cork in 2011, losing respectably against an off-colour Kilkenny in 2013.

All through it, hammerings have been a grim fact of life for Offaly hurling and these have coming thicker and faster in the past three years.

Horan says he saw days like last Sunday coming. They are an inevitable result of the county board failing to invest properly in the underage system.

He keeps the Godfather references to a minimum (zero) but still holds to the analysis that a hidebound and unimaginative are largely to blame for Offaly hurling in the 21st century.

I could see it coming. I remember when the team of the 90s was going well. At that stage, we had a hurling development meeting in Tullamore and I proposed that we would get those players involved at weekends, coaching young people. I didn't want them to be paid. I wanted them to be compensated for loss of earnings. At the time, I suppose, the county board were horrified at the suggestion....

There's not enough emphasis on underage hurling. The county board wouldn't have as many people that people would look up to. They seem to be there a long time. They seem to moving around the table, like the deckchairs on the Titanic. They don't seem to have done very much with regard to underage hurling. Maybe it's not their fault but I wouldn't be very happy with what's been done with regard to underage.

Leaving aside the suits and the failure of long term planning, Horan, like Regan, can and does fault a number of players for a lack of effort.

We wanted to play at the high level but we didn't want to put in the same effort that other counties are putting in at that level. We wanted to be getting all the plaudits but we weren't prepated to put in the mileage or make the sacrifices. As I said, these players that are not playing at the moment, they're hiding a bit and they're making excuses. It was Brian Whelehan last year, it's Eamon Kelly this year, it was someone else the year before. They're not prepared to do it.

When you look at what the Clare players, the Waterfords, the Galways, the Kilkennys, the Tipperary lads put in, you'd have to ask, 'do our lads put it in?'

I don't think they do. Some of them our very committed but not all of them. And then there are nine, ten players who are not prepared to come into the county (setup) and give it their best shot. It's very difficult to understand.

Read more: Compelling Evidence That Hurling Is Heading Down The Very Same Route As Football

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