Offaly’s Niall Furlong is suspended in the air as he solos towards goal with Laois’s Hugo Emerson chasing back as referee Patrick Coyle looks on last Wednesday evening. Photo: Ger Rogers.

Offaly minor hurlers take centre stage after big win for footballers

- Kevin Egan Column

Had things worked out differently, it could have been Offaly, and not Kildare, preparing to do battle tomorrow evening in Cavan for a place in the All-Ireland U-20 football final. Kildare were strongly fancied going into this campaign but their supporters would freely admit that Offaly had them on the rack that fateful Thursday evening in Tullamore, and a couple of bad breaks, like the bounce of the ball for the first-half goal and the injury to Keith O’Neill, proved crucial to Kildare’s two-point win.

However, there’s still a very big game down for decision this weekend, and it’s the Offaly minor hurlers taking on Dublin in Tullamore tomorrow (Saturday, 12.00) seeking to get back to a Leinster final.

Offaly may have reached the 2020 Leinster minor final, but they did so without beating any of the “big three” in Leinster, namely Kilkenny, Dublin and Wexford. Wins over those counties at any level have been very rare over the last decade and more, and the potential that exists within this current Offaly minor group has been flagged from a long way out.

A three-point win over Laois dampened enthusiasm a little bit, as did a rather one-sided challenge match against Galway, but Laois went on to knock out Wexford, so that hasn’t done the form any harm. There actually was very little to call between Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny in the tier one round robin stages, so for that reason both Offaly and Laois are optimistic about their games tomorrow. Laois v Kilkenny throws in at noon in Portlaoise, just as the action gets underway in Tullamore.

There’s no doubt that Offaly hurling could really use this boost. The recent upturn in underage fortunes has been welcome, but development squad results have been either mixed or downright disappointing so far this year, so it could be a couple of years or more before an opportunity like this presents itself again.

The inherent volatility of underage performances means that anything could happen, but if ever there was a minor game where it would be great to see a large Offaly crowd in attendance, this is it.

Minor footballers produce remarkable display

The aforementioned volatility of minor team performances has been very much in evidence with Ken Furlong’s minor footballers this year, as they have now gone from a quite underwhelming group stage performance to winning two knockout games with plenty to spare. A moderate Carlow group wasn’t expected to offer too much resistance, but Laois had shown signs of having something about them this year, so a 2-20 to 1-6 win on Wednesday evening is a fantastic result.

Niall Furlong, Luke Kelly and Donal Shirley were the scoring leaders but in every facet of play, Offaly were fast, skilled and a joy to watch. They exerted huge pressure on the Laois goal and got scores from all over the field, so there is plenty of momentum on their side in advance of what will be a very different type of contest next Wednesday evening in Parnell Park.

From a very long way back, at least two years ago, this Dublin minor group has been marked out as exceptional. It’s not a grade that has seen Dublin dominate the province to the same extent that they have at other levels – since their last All-Ireland win in 2012, they’ve won two out of nine provincial titles, behind Meath (three) and Kildare (four).

It looks for all the world as if Kildare and Dublin are likely to meet in this year’s decider again, as they did in that memorable 2-21 to 1-19 thriller in 2019, but Offaly will hope to just stay in touch, keep pace in terms of scores, and if they can get to the final quarter with the game still up for grabs, who knows. However in terms of likelihood of victory, the hurlers are probably no worse than 50/50 to prevail, while next Wednesday’s game in Parnell Park will be close to 90/10.

Ladies face a huge test in Kildare

Because of their decent scoring difference, Offaly qualified for the knockout stages of the Leinster intermediate championship despite winning just one of their three group games. A late comeback against Louth wasn’t enough to snatch victory on the day, but it was the difference between being knocked out and setting up a tilt at Kildare in Hawkfield on Sunday afternoon (2pm).

On paper, a test like this should be a bridge too far for this Offaly group. Kildare went through a huge rebuilding process under Ballinasloe native Daniel Moynihan, and now have a group that are almost exclusively aged from 19 to 23, and ready to take the next step forward. Despite their shock defeat to Roscommon in the Division Three league semi-final at Parnell Park earlier this year, they’ll still go into the TG4 Intermediate championship as one of the clear front runners, and their relentless running game will be a huge test for Offaly, particularly on what’s likely to be a very dry surface at the Kildare COE.

From early on, this championship looked like a shootout between Laois and Kildare, with Wexford the only team that looked capable of upsetting the odds. In terms of development, the Offaly management will be very happy with how things have gone – a very competitive showing against a good Laois team, a solid victory against Wicklow and then retrieving a very poor situation against Louth.

Another good showing against Kildare, even if it’s not quite enough to extend the championship out another week, will be a huge boost in advance of the summer. And for those who haven’t been able to see this group in the flesh yet, Sunday’s game will be streamed free of charge, simply log on to Leinster LGFA social media pages for details.

Camógs back in action but fixture under the radar

It’s been a month now since the Offaly camógs rounded off their National League campaign with a sensational win over Limerick to stave off relegation, and they finally get back into action tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon in Birr (2pm), when Kilkenny come to visit for the Leinster senior semi-final.

Offaly’s fortunes have slipped a bit from the days of realistically entertaining the likelihood of winning games against the top teams in the country, and Kilkenny definitely are in that category at the moment. However it’s still a glamour fixture and a valuable outing ahead of the summer, not to mention a game that would be very handy for a lot of local supporters to attend.

Yet it’s notable that there is no mention of the fixture on the national camogie website or on social media, or on the Leinster Camogie Association pages. That there are structural factors holding back both camogie and ladies football (the latter to a lesser extent) from reaching their full potential is not in doubt, and everyone involved in sport needs to keep pushing progress on that front, but situations like this are so clearly avoidable.

Games are better occasions for having supporters in the door, and while the Leinster LGFA promotes their games in advance and offers streaming coverage, fixtures like this pass by with huge swathes of people – supporters, sponsors, media outlets – all unaware that they’re taking place.

It's not the biggest problem facing the Camogie Association, but it’s one that’s entirely in their control to address, should they wish to do so.