KEVIN EGAN discusses the protracted process of appointing a new Offaly hurling manager, and reflects on Tullamore’s stunning win over Rhode in the county senior football final.
By next Wednesday, the Offaly senior hurling manager position will be vacant for exactly eight weeks, while it will be almost twice that since Waterford eliminated Offaly from the 2013 All-Ireland championship in Tullamore. In that time, senior, intermediate and junior hurling champions were crowned in the county, a hugely entertaining minor final was played featuring several players that will undoubtedly be involved in Offaly senior panels in the medium term future and Offaly under-21 panels within a matter of months, and the vast majority of the hurlers in the county have shown their ability and now slipped back into soccer, rugby, or whatever else the winter holds. Without doubt, an opportunity to survey the breadth of talent in the county has been missed.
The old adage “marry in haste, repent at leisure” exists for good reason, but last week’s unseemly process when it was suggested that an appointment was imminent did the county no favours and there now exists a real fear that the final solution may be the worst of both worlds. At this stage, the absence of clarity regarding 2014 and beyond is a national story, while the manner of the process so far may have scared off several candidates who might have considered taking on the role. Nobody likes to be second choice. As a result of all that, it’s eminently possible that the next Offaly manager may have to be recruited quickly, yet still will miss out on the shop window that is the club championships.
It is particularly disappointing that no manager is in place right now since Ballinamere will be in action in the Leinster junior championship this Sunday afternoon, and these new kids on the senior block are undoubtedly something of an untapped resource when it comes to county hurlers at adult level. Trials in December and January are all very well, but it is now, when these players are in peak fitness and playing for something meaningful, that they would ideally be judged.
Offaly aren’t alone in their current predicament by any stretch of the imagination. Waterford have not yet appointed a successor to Michael Ryan, while Limerick too have yet to unearth the man they want to carry on the work done by John Allen. Nonetheless, this predicament is far from ideal and one of the first acts after the role has been filled should be an internal inquiry to examine what happened and what changes can be made in order to have a streamlined and efficient process in place for the next time this situation arises.
Last week, in this column, we spoke of how Offaly football badly needed a good final after what had been an eminently forgettable championship thus far. One would imagine that a final featuring just 18 scores wouldn’t be the type of game to tick that particular box, yet Tullamore’s victory was a fascinating and impressive as it was unexpected.
Even though this writer would love to revise history and say that the rising of the Blue tide was foretold on these pages, honesty demands that the truth is admitted – I did not see that coming. They more than adequately delivered on the three key points we identified in last week’s Offaly Independent (Paul McConway containing Niall McNamee; a high workrate and intensity in the tackle; and at least one forward starting well and forcing Brian Darby to be withdrawn from centre back). Overall, the manner in which Tullamore controlled the game and dictated the tempo was quite surprising and hugely impressive.
All along the spine of the team Tullamore had a definite edge, while John Rouse’s fingerprints were all over the intelligent and purposeful approach that his team brought to O’Connor Park.
In the modern game, where scoring rates have never been higher and the rules are constantly being criticised for not protecting attacking players enough, there is a tendency towards presuming that all freescoring games are “classics”, while intense, low scoring battles are some sort of blight on the Gaelic football world. In the perfect rebuttal to that line of thinking, last Sunday’s game contained everything that was good about the game of football, wrapped in a tight film of determination, will and physical resolve. Progress up the field was hard earned at all times, the competition for possession was utterly absorbing and the scores that were taken were doubly impressive, as they were forged in the white heat of a truly tempestuous battle. We weren’t watching two times saunter up and down the field kicking points for fun, but nobody looked away for a moment.
When the nettle was there to be seized, Tullamore were usually the team that stepped up and that’s why they’ve won back the Dowling Cup. Moments like the 15th minute were microcosms of the game as a whole. A high ball was sent into the Rhode penalty area and started to drop down towards the 13m line. Shane Sullivan got out in front and fielded the ball, but John Moloney refused to accept defeat and he harassed and tormented the Rhode defender into spilling the ball, before getting a foot to it along the ground in the face of pressure from two Rhode defenders. Shane Dooley snapped up the loose ball and instantly went for goal when others would have taken the handy point. Intensity, honesty, precision and self-belief, all displayed in the space of five seconds and combined to deliver a critical score.
It would be easy to point to Niall McNamee’s off day and say that Rhode were always likely to struggle in his absence, but one county player getting the better of another was hardly big news. However when two other county players in the full forward line were also shut down by relatively unheralded players like Dean Carroll and Mark Conlon, that’s when Rhode were really in trouble. Even when Rhode had possession at the back, Tullamore’s ability to put them under real pressure and force turnovers high up the field was vital.
There was so much to learn for many clubs last Sunday, but perhaps the greatest lesson of all was on page 18 of the programme, where details of Rhode’s 2-16 to 0-7 win over Tullamore in the group stages of this season’s championship were laid out. How many clubs would have the confidence to agree to play a game like that in Rhode (who asked for it to be a home game as part of their anniversary celebrations), and to use it as a stepping stone? How many teams would have the mental strength to see a result like that for what it is, and to be able to shut out self doubt?
In a stale and predictable championship, Tullamore were the wild card that saved the day. They delivered a stunning performance on the big day, catching our eye with an enthralling effort that was defensive and still perfect. It was forged on the field and off, with good defence up front and well planned attacking forays from the back, and it demonstrated that no team is unbeatable.