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'Time for Results' - Baker

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 16th January, 2013 9:30am

'Time for Results' - Baker

Ollie Baker says there's no quick fix for Offaly's senior hurling team, but is hopeful of results soon.

Kilcormac-Killoughey's success in the Leinster club hurling championship was a boost for the Offaly hurling cause, but for the first eleven months of the year, good news stories were few and far between.

The National Hurling League saw Offaly play three very tight games against Wexford, Limerick and Clare, yielding only a solitary point in those three games, while a heavy beating at the hands of Galway and a first time exit to Cork took the sheen off of a good win over Wexford in the championship.

As the clock ticks towards the start of the Walsh Cup, Offaly manager Ollie Baker spoke to the Offaly Independent about the challenge facing him and the players as they try to restore the county to relevance on a national level.

"Look, we're all aware of how Offaly have slipped to the tail end of the hurling world. That view isn't a fair representation of the work being done in the county or of the players that have worn the jersey in recent seasons, but the results haven't been consistently good enough to warrant any other view," said Baker.

A lot of inter-county managers are keen to lower the expectations of the public in an attempt to take pressure of the players, but the Tullamore-based Garda feels otherwise and thinks now is the time when the public should start to expect more of him and his team.

"Joe Dooley brought in a lot of new players in his time here and the players now know the levels of commitment and effort that are required from their work over the last four or five years. Now we need to get results on the field and to start putting in consistently strong performances. That's my biggest challenge, since the technical ability is there in the players in the county," declared Baker.

"It takes time to make real progress and you have to start by becoming competitive before you'll really start to believe in yourself. Slowly players are starting to take pride in being part of Offaly inter-county hurling, to realise that there are expectations that come with that, but that's how it should be. We want the supporters to expect us to win, we want the local media and the county board to call us to account, and we want players to relish the prospect of getting involved.

"If we as a county set-up can't match that expectation, then we should move aside. There are no quick fixes, no short cuts and no soft games but the players should let their chests swell a bit as they appreciate the importance of hurling for Offaly and the responsibility that comes with that."

Comparisons with the golden years of the 1980s and 1990s can be something of a millstone around the necks of the modern generation of hurlers. But Baker is very keen to point out to his players and to the wider hurling public that hurling in Offaly is not quite as badly off as some results would illustrate.

"When Coolderry won the Leinster championship last year a lot of club hurlers in Offaly should have taken heart from that, just as they would from Kilcormac-Killoughey's win this year. They know that these guys are beatable, they play them every year within the county and they need to take the attitude that these guys are Leinster champions and yet we can take them."

Baker has seen a lot of club hurling all across the country and he's adamant that the standard of play in the Offaly SHC stands par with anything that's on offer elsewhere.

"I'd say that a lot of Offaly people don't realise how good the hurling is in the county, since they're judging things by the results of the inter-county team. Admittedly those county results haven't been good enough but domestically the standard of hurling is as good as anything you'd see in Kilkenny, in Tipperary, in Galway. It's a great time to be a club hurler in Offaly now as the overall standard is good and so many teams are competitive. There have been four different championship winners now in five years, while at underage Ballinamere won a great under-21 championship last year and the final between St Rynagh's and Birr was a cracking match this year too."

"Even at minor level, while the county results were disappointing, the final between Kilcormac-Killoughey and Shinrone was fantastic. There was skill, fitness and real honesty of effort on display and these guys are the future of Offaly hurling. That match was genuinely as good as a lot of senior games that I've seen and these players need to realise that and to appreciate what they have, while still looking to build on it and improve. Overall the standard of club hurling in the county is very good and that's the real barometer of the strength of a county. We now need to produce results for Offaly that match up to that."

It's a natural instinct of any supporter to compare their county's standing to their peers, but that's a line of thinking that Baker would prefer to avoid.

"If you start defining yourself by where you are in relation to Kilkenny, Wexford, Galway or anyone else, you're fighting a losing battle straight away. Our responsibility is to be completely committed and wholehearted every time we train and play, and to make sure we're as good as we can be. Of course we have targets, some of which are internal. Certainly we want to go that extra step and get to a league final after we were only a puck of a ball away from getting there last year.

Then we've a massive fixture in the championship against Kilkenny but it's a home game and we'll be hugely motivated to welcome the All-Ireland champions but to hurl a hard game against them as well. We'll have our own targets for that but that's six months away, so we've a lot of hurling to do between now and then."

As a member of the Clare team of the 1990s, many expected that Baker would look to impose a more "Munster" style of play when he came to Offaly, but instead he's been happy to adopt a more direct, traditional approach with the Offaly hurlers.

"Down the years the only style of hurling that has endured has been direct ball, get the sliotar from one end to the other quickly and that's how I would like to play. I don't like overplaying the ball in defence and while it's very important that players work hard to give the man in possession options, the most important thing is that players make the right decision on the ball. Give the short ball if it's the right option, but only if it maximises the chances of getting the ball into the scoring zone effectively. Don't take pot shots from bad places but take the right decisions to get the ball into that area and in space, as fast as possible. Win your personal battles and if you don't, put pressure on - we want the mistakes to be made at that end of the field."

The ongoing debate in Offaly about ground hurling rages on and Baker, showing a little bit of the peacemaker's diplomacy that may have influenced his career choice, suggests that there are specific times when 'traditional' Offaly hurling is appropriate.

"Offaly hurlers all seem to be naturally strong at ground hurling, it seems to be part of their DNA. We do work on it but of course there's no point trying to work the ball from one end of the field to the other along the ground. For me the important thing is to use it when it's the right time, and in the right area of the field. It should be done at half-forward always at pace and always to get the ball into the danger area quickly."

That 'Offaly DNA' is also something that used to be apparent in the mindset of county GAA teams and that's something that Baker feels is crucial if he's to make real progress.

"Since I was stationed here in Tullamore I got to know Matt Connor very well, while I've also got to know players from the '80s and '90s teams as well. All of those guys shared one trait that was uniquely Offaly - if you told them that they couldn't do something, they didn't stop until they proved you wrong by going ahead and achieving it anyway.

"It was a critical aspect of their mentality and if I can just get that belief and that single-mindedness back into this current generation of hurlers, I'll be very happy," added the Clare native.

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