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Tough start for Offaly as key positions remain up for grabs

Friday, 31st January, 2014 2:53pm

Tough start for Offaly as key positions remain up for grabs

KEVIN EGAN looks forward to Offaly’s Allianz FL clash away to Wexford, and also previews the action in the Offaly U-21 FC

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte said before that his team would never win an All-Ireland if they were coming from division two and certainly the facts would appear to bear that out in recent years. Down did reach an All-Ireland final coming from division two in 2010, but since the turn of the millennium, the first step towards securing the big prize has always been to play against the best teams in the spring.

Counties like Offaly, however - who have a lot of ground to make up on the market leaders like Dublin, Kerry and Mayo and so have more humble goals - don’t have to be as worried about league status, as long as they stay out of the basement section. Whether you play in division 1, 2 or 3, you’ll get seven competitive games that should give the extended panel plenty of opportunities to prove whether or not they are worthy of consideration for the big summer occasions. Even in division four, you’ll get several good games, though the general standard is often not good enough to really expose players that aren’t quite up to the mark.

Consequently, the goals for Emmet McDonnell and his selectors this spring are to pick up enough points to stay out of the bottom two, and ideally to identify the majority of the starting fifteen for the summer, with particular attention needed around the diamond sector. Right now Offaly are unusual in that with the possible exception of Peter Cunningham at centre-forward, no player is an obvious championship starter in any of the four central spots. The absence of Richie Dalton, Ross Brady and Brian Connor from the 2014 squad has left something of a gaping hole in the centre of the team and while there are plenty of candidates to fill those key positions, the process of elimination has to start immediately.

As we saw in the O’Byrne Cup, Gaelic football has changed considerably since the introduction of the black card. It’s now vital to be able to cover a lot of ground and also curtail and contain opponents’ runs from deep in order to prevent the inside defensive line from being exposed to marauding hordes of fast moving attackers. Mobility and strength in the tackle are the key attributes now, far more than the ability to deliver an accurate long ball – a skill that has been rendered far less useful due to the constant use of sweepers in the modern game. The ability to break even with a team like Wexford under the kickout would be a bonus, though the evidence from the O’Byrne Cup meeting between the two counties would suggest that this will prove to be a very tough task to master.

Sunday’s game at Wexford Park will be the least pressurised fixture of the campaign, unless the final round against Fermanagh turns out to be a dead rubber, simply because expectation levels are so low. Wexford, along with Cavan and Roscommon, look to be a class apart from the other teams in the division and away trips to Wexford Park rarely end well for any team – unlike the other two stronger counties, who are often just as vulnerable at home as they are away.
Nonetheless it would still be hugely encouraging if Offaly could at least come close to getting a result, if only because the closing stages of a tough game like that would tell a lot about some of the younger players on the field of play.

Under-21 FC
There will also be additional pressure on some of the younger footballers in Emmet McDonnell’s squad this week, since they’ll be playing very soon after lining out for their clubs in under-21 championship action. It remains to be seen if Eoin Carroll (St Vincent’s), Joe Maher (Wheery) and Joseph O’Connor (Shannon Gaels) will be asked to take part in Sunday’s tie, though it would be no surprise if they weren’t on account of their exertions later tonight (Friday).
At the time of writing, the venue for tonight’s fixture between Wheery and St Vincent’s is yet to be decided; however, whatever field is chosen to host this fixture could be the setting for one of the best games of the year. These two clubs were closely matched at minor level three years ago, they both have some of the finest young prospects in the county right now and both would have entered this campaign with a real ambition to win the title.
Both sides look very well matched on paper. Wheery arguably have more potency in their forward line while the likely St Vincent’s midfield partnership of Eoin Carroll and Jason Gethings should be dominant in general play, but it’s hard to look past St Vincent’s critical advantage, that of having a game under their belts already.

At this level, the first round is often the toughest of the competition, as clubs struggle to get their best XV on the field and to understand who works best in each position. This is particularly the case in amalgamated outfits like Wheery, where the Ferbane players might know very little about the handful of Birr players that are available. No amount of training is able to compensate for the run out that St Vincent’s got against Na Fianna already, so on that basis, the Daingean parish club look far better poised to advance here.
It’s good to see that Durrow are fielding by themselves this year but there were plenty of wry smiles in the O’Connor Park dressing room when it became obvious that they were likely to face Tullamore in their first outing. Tullamore might not have many star names but they do have great depth, while players like Nigel Bracken and Ciarán Moloney have improved immensely over the past couple of years. They should be good enough to advance with a bit to spare tomorrow afternoon.

The toughest tie to call could be the meeting of Gracefield and Shannon Gaels at the home of the Blackthorns tonight, also at 8pm. Shannon Gaels have plenty of high quality footballers and while there aren’t too many Shannonbridge players to add to a decent St Rynagh’s group, Darragh Corbett alone will be a significant factor in the game.
Home advantage and the fact that all the players will know each other well should keep Gracefield in this tie but, in this instance, Shannon Gaels might be capable of doing enough to get through. If they do, they could be a force to be reckoned with in later rounds.