Excitement mounts as Offaly minors gear up for Clare clash
By Kevin Egan
Last year, for the first time in two decades, Offaly GAA got to take a seat at the business end of one of the main football and hurling championships.
Once the U-20 footballers won their Leinster final against Dublin, they had earned their place in the All-Ireland semi-final and broken the county’s dreadful run of results in Leinster finals across both codes.
That whole story had a magical, happy ending, but there was also something special about the journey, and those big days in Portlaoise and Croke Park. Offaly were Leinster champions again, competing with the best that the rest of the country had to offer, and it was a joy to be part of it.
Competitions like the Joe McDonagh Cup and the Tailteann Cup could be perceived as stepping stones, or ‘B’ competitions, and they have their place in the GAA’s competitions structure, but there is a very different vibe to competing and thriving against the best counties in Ireland.
That will be the feeling tomorrow night (Friday) along the N62, when Offaly supporters make their way to Semple Stadium for the All-Ireland minor semi-final with Clare. Not since the infamous third chapter of the 1998 trilogy between the two counties have Offaly played such a significant game in Thurles, and there will be electricity in the air as the clock ticks down towards the 7.30pm throw-in.
That excitement will be exacerbated by the sense that this is a game that looks for all the world like a coin flip, where both sides have a glorious chance of reaching an All-Ireland final. Offaly have passed every test put in front of them so far, and it’s entirely possible that Leo O’Connor’s group could raise their game another few percentage points if they are asked tougher questions.
Clare, on the other hand, are much more battle-hardened, and can be in no doubt about how good they are. They played a round-robin series in Munster and had to bounce back from losing to Tipperary the first time out. Their semi-final win over Cork was a massive upset against a county that was earmarked as the strongest in the competition, then they played their part in a thrilling Munster final against Tipperary.
After losing that decider on penalties, Clare then endured a chastising day against Galway, before putting in a solid performance against Laois in their most recent fixture to secure their progression to this stage of the competition. They’ve had to bounce back from setbacks, they’ve played plenty of high quality opposition, and at this age grade, that type of experience can be transformative.
As any minor manager will tell you, there’s simply no substitute for good quality games to develop a team, and while Offaly have done their best to secure good challenge match fixtures in recent weeks, it’s impossible to replicate the type of environment in which Clare overcame Laois in what was effectively a knockout quarter-final.
Simply put, it’s a lot easier to trust Clare to deliver a competent performance, at the very least – in as much as it’s ever reasonable to expect consistency from players of this age.
For Offaly, there is a bit more range in how good or not-so-good a level they might hit. There is every chance that, like an underexposed horse, there is five or six lengths of improvement waiting to be found. Alternatively, a combination of the occasion, and a touch of ring rust, might be tough obstacles to overcome. It won’t be for the want of support, however, with another huge crowd expected to make their way south for the game.