Offaly’s Luke O’Connor is tracked by Antrim's Eoghan Campbell during the Allianz Hurling League Div. 1 relegation play-off at Pairc Tailteann, Navan last Saturday.

Double relegation a reality check for Offaly

- Kevin Egan

The kindest way to describe the last few weeks from an Offaly GAA perspective might a word like “sobering”, or “disappointing”. To be more accurate, it has been a huge reality check for the supporters of the county, and for the administration, which has so far enjoyed little but praise, given the dramatic turnaround that we’ve all seen in the past couple of seasons.

Obviously, the credit for those achievements remain in the bank. Whether that’s the improvement in on-field results, new sponsorship deals, or the crowning achievement that was last year’s U-20 All-Ireland title, none of that should be forgotten. However we’ve now seen the footballers fall through the relegation trapdoor – albeit in the most honourable fashion imaginable, following last Sunday’s remarkable game in Tullamore – and the hurlers also suffered relegation, by a much more comprehensive margin.

Then the minor footballers endured a chastening outing against Kildare, adding fuel to the widely-held rumours around the county that the good work that was done with development squads prior to Covid has not resumed at the same standard. And there is the disappointing trend of clubs offering far too many walkovers in the adult leagues that have started recently, particularly in hurling. Of course, the dispute surrounding the ownership and rental of Bord na Móna O’Connor Park hasn’t gone away either.

On the face of it, these issues are all somewhat unrelated, and many are the result of actions taken a long time ago – most notably the poorly-negotiated deal in Tullamore. However just the same as a general feel-good factor became the rising tide that lifted all boats, it’s equally true that just a few signs of rust around the edges will suddenly cause people to believe that the whole vehicle is unlikely to pass through an NCT.

Aspects such as the hurlers gasping for air at the higher altitude of Division One hurling won’t be easily addressed, and it was natural that out of the group of younger players who excelled against weaker opposition in Division 2A and the Christy Ring Cup, some would be able to step up to a higher mark and some would struggle to do so.

However, issues such as the plethora of walkovers in club games needs to be tackled head on. Gaelic games is only ever as strong as the local club scene in any county, and if ordinary club players aren’t getting games, they’ll walk away to other sports and the knock-on effect will be significant.

Undoubtedly, fielding teams will prove much tougher this year. The world has gone back to something approximating normality, so there will be players gone travelling, players able to pursue other indoor sports that were hitherto shut down, and of course everyone’s social scene is livelier once again. Most Irish adults aged 25 to 45 and even a bit either side of it are staring down the barrel of a summer filled with stag parties, hen parties and weddings, the majority of them postponed from 2020 and 2021.

Add in greatly increased fuel costs, which may prove to be a factor in some players choosing not to travel from places like Dublin, Galway and Limerick back to Offaly for training and games, and the simple fact is that clubs have to adjust to different panel sizes this year. None of that excuses first teams failing to field – but don’t be surprised if it becomes a factor in even more players choosing to walk away, if action isn’t taken immediately.

Tailteann Cup

While theoretically, Offaly are still in the race for the Sam Maguire, the path to even getting into the competition now runs through Dublin, and it’s realistic to assume that even if one or two key players make their return to the county colours this summer, that would be a bridge too far.

This column has spoken vehemently and frequently about how this competition is likely to lead Gaelic football down a bad road, but for good or for ill, it is part of the landscape now, and all that counties like Offaly can do is make the best of it.

The fear from the very start has been that once the system has been voted in, all the vague, empty promises about promotion and status will quickly be forgotten, like any other commitments from politicians.

Games will be played at bad times that don’t suit supporters, or else always up against big games on TV, so supporters won’t go, and lazy pundits and Croke Park bean counters alike will assume that it’s because of a lack of interest. Offaly vs Carlow at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon will become a dreary, dull encounter with no excitement whatsoever, there will be no media coverage and no live TV; while just down the road in Kildare, the Lilywhites will welcome teams like Mayo and Dublin to a packed St Conleth’s Park, the noise and atmosphere will be electric. Kids from Johnstownbridge and Carbury will be energised by the whole event, while their neighbours in Edenderry will be deeply underwhelmed.

It is now that counties like Offaly need to lay down on paper exactly what parity of esteem means for these games, in order to ensure that they aren’t disadvantaged any more than is necessary.

The sheer volume of games dictates that it’s impossible to give everyone a unique time slot, but a repeat of the hurling scenario – where the big games in Munster take the plum slots at 2pm and 4pm every Sunday, while the Joe McDonagh matches get played early on a Saturday afternoon when huge numbers of people are still at work, can’t be repeated. Obviously there will always be some games at those times, but Kerry and Tyrone should be just as likely to land in them as Tipperary or Antrim.

Of course the big counties will kick up a fuss, to which the simple answer should be – ye voted for this, we promised to share the coverage around, so that’s what we’re doing.

It’s in the GAA’s gift to ensure that the TV coverage is equitable too. Obviously there will be more Sam Maguire games than Tailteann Cup games broadcast, but this is a new competition, with nothing set in stone. It should be very easy to insist that for every two live games shown from the big show, there should be one from the Tailteann Cup.

Friday night is there for the taking. It would only suit specific games or counties, and could only be done with agreement, but imagine Laois vs Offaly under lights on a Friday night? Or Cavan hosting Fermanagh?

This is where Offaly need to break from the usual GAA tradition and shout from the rooftops now, as opposed to waiting until the fixtures are made, and then complaining. Now is the time to stake the claim and lay out, in public, what would be needed to make the Tailteann Cup as much of a success as it can be.

There’s certainly no point waiting for GAA authority figures to do it – rest assured they’ll be very happy to let it wither on the vine, and keep it out of the way of the series of glamour games they wanted all along.