Underage footballers and senior hurlers show the way forward

With an incredibly busy weekend of fixtures at all levels looming, it's interesting to note the sharp contrasts that currently exist between the fortunes of Offaly football and Offaly hurling. At adult level, the hurlers appear to be moving in the right direction and could finally be poised to make the all important transition from "moral" victories over good opposition to actually securing real and meaningful success. There is of course a long way to go but Ollie Baker appears to have developed an excellent rapport with the squad, there is more depth in the senior squad than has ever been the case previously and there are plenty of leaders coming into the prime of their hurling careers. This weekend's trip to Wexford will tell a tale since it looks like the Model men are struggling to find some form and historically "killer instinct" is not something that would be associated with Offaly hurling, but generally the signs are good that this current crop of players are being well guided by the All-Ireland winner from Doora-Barefield. The senior footballers, on the other hand, appear destined for relegation to division four, with little or no chance of meaningful championship success and potentially staring down the barrel of a very heavy defeat to Kildare in the Leinster championship next June. Antrim manager Liam Bradley won't have made too many friends in Offaly with his assertion that Antrim should have won by 29 points instead of nine last Saturday, but the league table doesn't lie and three defeats from three games with a scoring difference of minus 25 tells its own story. This is an unfortunate consequence of the radical overhaul of the team that was undertaken over the winter, however improved performances need to start happening soon or those at the heart of it all - the players - will start to lose faith very quickly. However at underage level, the tables have turned entirely. Offaly underage hurling has been a disaster for several seasons now, to the point that Westmeath were worthy victors over Offaly in last year's Leinster minor championship, Dublin absolutely demolished Offaly's under 21 hurlers, while at academy level results are little or no better. Birr failed to deliver on their potential in the Leinster Colleges Hurling championship, while at Vocational Schools Level both Kilcormac and St Rynagh's failed to make any impression either. But then we look to football, where the under-21's once again put in a wonderfully committed, disciplined and skilled performance last Wednesday night against Kildare. The 0-8 to 0-7 victory was enough to secure Offaly's passage into a Leinster semi final tie against Louth, scheduled to be played in a little under a fortnight. Paschal Kelleghan was blessed to have some fine individual talents to work with when he took over this job, but he and his selectors have created a team that is performing fantastically well as a unit and in doing so they've restored a lot of pride to Offaly football. Their deep-lying, fast-breaking style hasn't won a lot of friends with traditionalists who like to see half forwards playing football on the opposition 45 metre line, but it has also illustrated the importance of playing with a clear tactical approach and maximising the talents available to you. It's no coincidence that the under-21s have played so well after so many competitive minor teams in the past few years, albeit without a Leinster title to show for their efforts, while at schools level there have been plenty of success stories and hopefully a couple more this weekend. Today at 2pm Gallen Community School face Coláiste Bhríde of Carnew in a repeat of last year's Leinster Vocational Schools final and tomorrow St Mary's of Edenderry take on Coláiste Eoin in the Leinster colleges final. This high level of achievement from 17/18 year old footballers has come about due to a lot of good work from all those involved in county development squads, several clubs increasing their efforts at underage level and some good guidance at county minor level. There are issues with regard to developing talent from the age of eighteen onwards, issues which need addressing urgently if Offaly's fortunes are to turn around at adult level, but neither should it be ignored that there is a lot of good work being done. However at the risk of returning to a frequently aired topic, the whole issue of player burnout remains crucial and one which isn't being well handled within the county. The success of the under-21 footballers so far means that those players will be looked after to a certain degree at least, though a lot of those players are serving several task masters at the moment. However the real concern has to be around footballers and hurlers at minor level who are being asked to do way too much at the moment. Between county and school commitments, several young players are already being asked to live semi-professional lifestyles and they need a lot more protection from club managers who are expecting many of these players to turn around and take part in club leagues, challenge matches and training sessions. While on the one hand it's understandable that club managers want to put their best foot forward at all times, many are taking advantage of the fact that as teenagers, these players often don't have the confidence to tell a club manager that they are unavailable and that they will be happy to return when their other commitments have subsided somewhat. At a time when senior county footballers are well protected, even though they often have less arduous playing workloads than their minor counterparts, the time has come for the county board to intervene and to ensure that minor county players aren't being asked to do too much for their clubs at a time of year when club sides should be looking to give playing time to all those twenty and thirty something players who may not have the same long term potential, but who need club games much more than a teenager who already has a full week of training and matches on his plate.