KEVIN EGAN looks back on Offaly's Walsh Cup game against Galway and argues against the old chestnut that Birr should be the venue for Offaly’s inter-county hurling matches.
Offaly's recent defeat to Galway in the quarter-final of the Walsh Cup was undoubtedly disappointing, all the more so since a tremendous effort over the first three quarters of the match had put Offaly into a very strong position in the tie.
A late surge from the Tribesmen turned out to be too much to resist, but already there are very encouraging signs for management, players and supporters in advance of a formidable set of league fixtures in the coming months.
Above all, the fixture against Galway was the first time in several years that an Offaly side shorn of so many frontline players was able to compete with a strong opponent. Even in the county’s halcyon days back in the 1980s and 1990s, strength in depth was never something that was associated with Offaly teams. All too often, once any more than a handful of players were absent from the best XV, the standard of play dropped considerably. Certainly relative to counties like Galway, Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny, Offaly tended to struggle badly in fixtures at this time of year.
Yet, last Sunday week, Brian Whelahan started just five players that played in the Faithful County’s last championship game of 2013, while Galway took the field with seven players who started their All-Ireland quarter final defeat to Clare last summer. Thi result illustrates that there are plenty of hitherto unconsidered hurlers in the county who have the potential to push for a place in the starting fifteen in the league.
Without doubt there were areas of concern too. Kevin Connolly struck 1-1 in the space of sixty seconds at the start of the second half, but for the other 69 minutes plus injury time, the inside forward line was held scoreless. Admittedly Seán Gardiner’s role at the edge of the square is not that of a scorer, yet in the modern game, it’s impossible to win matches regularly by only scoring fourteen times, almost all of which came from out the field.
Clean catching in the Offaly forward line was a rare spectacle too, something that has actually been a strong point of Offaly teams in recent years, though much of this is down to the absence of traditionally strong aerial hurlers such as Colin Egan, Dan Currams and Conor Mahon. No-one would expect players like Connolly and the Geraghty twins to dominate in the air, but we saw last year against Waterford what happens when the forwards struggle to win the puckout – relentless pressure on the backline soon follows and the root of Galway’s resurgence lay in this sector.
Nonetheless it wouldn’t be January if there weren’t problems to be addressed and overall it was immensely satisfying to see an Offaly hurling team play with the commitment and the intelligence that was always the hallmark of both the manager and his two selectors. If Whelahan, Ger Coughlan and John Troy can continue to impart that much to this young group of hurlers – though after Clare’s win last year, we may be forced to re-evaluate what counts as young – then we could be in for a very encouraging spring and summer ahead.
At a time when the senior hurling squad are showing clear signs of progress, it was all the more disappointing to see the old chestnut of the hosting of Offaly hurling games rear its head at last week's Offaly county board meeting. For too long now this issue has lingered in the air and while disagreements are healthy in any democratic organisation, this particular discussion has the potential to do considerable harm to the cause of hurling in Offaly if it’s not resolved.
While Padraig Boland’s words at the county board meeting made it patently clear that Offaly’s main hurling fixtures will continue to be played in O’Connor Park for the foreseeable future - at least until the outstanding health and safety issues are identified and addressed to the satisfaction of everyone - there are several red herrings that need to be stripped away from the discourse.
(1) That there would be larger attendances if games were held in Birr.
Quite simply, the facts do not bear this out. Of course Offaly games in Birr were much better supported from 1980 through to 2001 or so. However, at that time Offaly had a team that was capable of winning the All-Ireland at any time, a team that never went more than four years without reaching an All-Ireland semi-final, and a team packed with All Stars. Comparing attendances at Offaly league games now to Offaly league games a little under a decade ago gives broadly similar results.
Underage inter-county games have been attended by slightly smaller crowds since moving to Tullamore, though this again corresponds with Offaly’s decline at underage level. Equally, club championship semi-finals and finals have actually seen larger crowds attending since the move to Tullamore, though here it should be acknowledged that the absence of one dominant club in the SHC title race has been a factor.
(2) That the field in St Brendan’s Park is superior for hurling purposes
Again this is a contentious point, though one that is being uttered by St Brendan’s Park advocates quite frequently as if it were indisputable. There are different views out there; however, all can agree on this: if somebody was to come home to a burst pipe and a flooded kitchen in their home, they would call a plumber and repair the damage – they would not move out of the house. If work on the field in O’Connor Park is needed, it should be done; it’s not an excuse to move all home ties and leave a fine stadium unused.
(3) The atmosphere in St Brendan’s Park with a small crowd is better, while facilities are better in Tullamore, both for supporters and players.
On both of these points there is widespread agreement. Most would say that they balance out.
(4) That Offaly hurling has historically been stronger in the south of the county, and so games should be held there.
There is no doubt that Offaly hurling teams have tended to be made up either largely or exclusively from hurlers south or west of the Blue Ball, or that there is a long tradition of playing Offaly games in St Brendan’s Park. However, no club is automatically entitled to have county games played on their doorstep. Big matches are a vital promotional tool and they have to be used in the best possible way for the county as a whole.
This writer is not a believer in the concept of mentally splitting up Offaly into north and south, as if there are two distinct entities and neither do I believe that hurlers are somehow formed by the landscape around them and the ghosts of great hurlers past that dwell in their hinterland.
Good hurlers are made by a natural athletic ability (equally likely to be present in any child, regardless of birthplace) as well as the encouragement and instruction they get from their family, their club, their school and ultimately their county. Whatever town hosts big matches certainly benefits from doing so, but Birr and environs have benefited for generations – quite why that is an argument to retain that advantage is unclear at best.
(5) That financially, the right thing to do for the county as a whole is retain the status quo.
As things stand, Birr is capable of hosting crowds of up to 5,800, with additional work needed to raise that capacity. It’s easy to see why Birr as a club would wish to raise that number, though it’s not apparently clear why Offaly as a county would benefit. Already there is a considerable debt to be paid off from the O’Connor Park project and games in Tullamore go towards that, while there is no need for additional capacity in the county as a whole.
If Birr wish to fundraise themselves in order to upgrade St Brendan’s Park, then they are to be commended for their commitment; however, there is no justification for any county board support for the project.
Offaly doesn’t need more supporter capacity; it needs a floodlit venue capable of hosting inter-county games at night, it needs a modern training facility for senior and underage teams and it needs to reduce the debt burden on O’Connor Park and so ease the pressure on clubs. Spending money on St Brendan’s Park at the expense of these more worthwhile projects would be a poor decision and would in turn reduce the income of the county board. Consequently, this shouldn’t even be countenanced.
The financial argument is not the only or the primary one to be considered, but neither can it be ignored.