KEVIN EGAN previews this Sunday’s Allianz League action involving Offaly, with the footballers hosting Longford, and the hurlers travelling to Páirc Uí Rinn to face Cork.
So far this season the Offaly footballers and hurlers have posted five defeats in five ties between them and with the possible exception of the footballers’ trip to Wexford, there was little or no encouragement to be taken from any of the quintet of games. Indeed, Wexford’s footballers have since lost both their subsequent ties in a comprehensive fashion, so it may be the case that even that form was deceptive.
Consequently, both Brian Whelahan and Emmet McDonnell are in real need of some good news this weekend, just as supporters could really use a boost and something to hold onto in advance of the summer.
For McDonnell and the footballers, it isn’t difficult to quantify what would constitute a successful Sunday in O’Connor Park. A win would be fantastic and anything less would be a real disappointment and would almost certainly make relegation inevitable.
Right now, barring a very unusual turn of events, Roscommon will be overwhelming favourites to comfortably beat Offaly in round five. Consequently, any points that are to be harvested will have to be collected in the three ties against Longford, Limerick and Fermanagh, the three counties that Offaly need to target as the ones that can be overtaken in the relegation battle. Since head-to-head records could yet be important, two victories in those three games could give Offaly a fighting chance of survival, even though a fifth point may be necessary.
Considerable improvement is needed however in all three sectors of the pitch. Defensively, Offaly need to do a better job of closing down space and making sure that any sweepers who are dropping back do so in a purposeful fashion. Marking space is of little use to anyone and too often, Offaly have had nine or ten defenders inside their own 45m line, but nobody within two yards of the player who has the ball for the opposition – with predictable results.
At midfield, Sligo became the latest team to dominate Offaly in the battle for primary possession, while the low tackle count in this sector is also a worry. Longford are one of the few teams that look equally bereft of obvious starters in this sector and given the incredible form that Eoin Carroll showed on Wednesday night, this could be a really good opportunity for him to start to make a midfield berth his own. Admittedly, Carroll is already well ahead of where he would be expected to be as a future inter-county midfielder.
As Dublin proved last year, it’s entirely possible for a young player to be a leading contributor to your team’s cause, up to and including All Star level, while playing in attack or possibly even on the flanks of the defence. At midfield, maturity and accumulated strength is key – Carroll has all the raw ingredients required but only time will round him off properly.
Up front, the Sligo game again proved that Offaly’s attack was entirely dependent on Niall McNamee and once Ross Donovan was moved onto the Rhode attacker, scores at the Sligo end almost entirely dried up. Wednesday night’s fixture has proved that there are scoring forwards in the county who are capable of sharing the workload, even if there is a big jump from under-21 to senior, but it’s notable that many of current senior forwards have never really moved on to another level since playing U-21 football for the county. That progression needs to be handled better.
As one would expect after three comfortable defeats, there are problems all over the field right now – but on Sunday, Offaly will play one team that has plenty of problems of their own. With second chances running out fast, they simply need to find a way to win this one.
Cork v Offaly
For the hurlers, the goals might be the same on paper but in reality, no supporter and probably no member of the management team would be disappointed with 70 minutes of hurling that at the very least put Cork under pressure and perhaps keep the result in doubt for as long as possible. A three or four point defeat would keep Offaly rooted to the bottom of the table, but with players coming back gradually, it would at least be a sign of progress and of the potential for improvement once there is a full squad to pick from.
Cork’s early draw with Limerick has left them needing to win and win well in every game they play, since the most likely outcome now is that the division will be decided by scoring difference. That’s not an appealing vista for Offaly, who will have to hurl for every moment to be sure not to let Cork get away from them.
A key aspect that Offaly will have to work on based on their first two games is the quality of delivery into the forward line. When Kilkenny were at their most dominant, Brian Cody made a virtue of how their backline simply cleared the ball, and how it was the forward’s responsibility to win possession at the other end, regardless of what way the sliotar was sent forward. That may be admirable and noble, but Clare and Cork have moved the game onwards and now it’s crucial that deliveries are played with the forward in mind.
Blind hits in the general direction of the full forward line were the dominant feature of the league opener against Laois. Seamus Plunkett had worked all this out in advance and so Dwayne Palmer ended up putting in a man of the match display as an extra defender, thanks in no small part to the amount of thoughtless deliveries that he was able to mop up.
Cork, too, are known to play a very deep lying game and while the re-introduction of players like Seán Ryan, Damien Kilmartin and Rory Hanniffy will be a huge help, everyone needs to be on their guard to ensure that Offaly don’t just hand possession to the Rebels – if the 2013 All-Ireland series taught us nothing else, it showed us that Cork under Jimmy Barry Murphy don’t concede possession easily.
This league is already tough going for this Offaly team, they don’t need to make it tougher by spending huge chunks of Sunday’s tie at Páirc Uí Rinn chasing shadows.