The fast surface of Croke Park should suit Offaly's attacking talent
By Kevin Egan
On Sunday, Offaly, Westmeath, Sligo and Cavan travel to Dublin for the semi-finals of the Tailteann Cup. Much has been made this year of how Croke Park has been overused and how some games might be better played elsewhere, away from Dublin 3. This is a little bit different.
The point of this competition was to give the big day experience to counties that don’t get those occasions as a rule, and while it so happens that both Cavan and Westmeath have played in Croke Park over the past few months, there is still a logic to having these games here, even if some supporters might have preferred to toss a coin to decide if the game should be in either Tullamore or Mullingar.
Around the county, it’s hard to accurately gauge the feeling of ordinary supporters when it comes to this competition.
On the one hand, wins over Wexford, Wicklow and New York have added some positive momentum, and it’s been particularly gratifying to see players like Jack Bryant and Keith O’Neill use the experience to take further steps on the road to becoming the elite, inter-county forwards that they have the potential to become.
That being said, that mood could change very easily if the result goes the wrong way on Sunday, and on the face of it, Westmeath are possibly that little bit more grizzled and mature, and ready to perform at a higher level in Croke Park.
Their three-point defeat to Kildare in the Leinster semi-final is a little bit misleading in that Kildare had the game won before Jack Cooney’s men rallied late on, and there was never a sense that there was going to be an upset in that game, but it was still a competent showing against a side that is has enjoyed some good days against elite opposition this year.
The knee injury suffered by Niall Darby this week is particularly disappointing, both for the man himself, and in a strictly footballing sense and the impact it will have on the Offaly team.
Niall is a universally popular figure within the panel and in wider GAA circles generally, while on the field his experience and his ability to drive forward and add to Offaly’s attacking play, usually with a score or two, will be missed on Sunday afternoon.
Looking further ahead, yet another serious injury to add to the litany, is further cause for some level of examination as to whether or not there might be some element of causation within the type of training that is being done in this group.
It may be coincidence, and certainly this columnist doesn’t have any medical expertise, and isn’t about to speculate. However, there are plenty of people out there who do have this know-how, and the least that should be done should be to ask the question.
As to Sunday’s game, the fine weather and the naturally fast surface of Croke Park should suit Offaly, even allowing for the injury issues. There is still plenty of natural attacking talent in the panel, players that will relish the chance to take part in a shootout.
Westmeath’s response to that will be that John Heslin and Luke Loughlin are well able to rack up scores themselves, while it’s a close call between Sligo’s Seán Carrabine and Westmeath’s Sam Duncan in the race for the most impressive midfielder in this competition so far.
Let’s hope a bit of feel-good factor from the minor hurlers’ All Ireland semi-final appearance on Friday carries over to Croke Park, and that it’s a positive weekend on both fronts.
Maybe it’s just the sunshine, but there’s optimism in the air right now.