Johnny Pilkington, second from left, celebrates with the rest of the management team after the final whistle in the All Ireland semi final. Photo Ger Rogers.

Pilkington adds that little extra element to a successful mix

by Kevin Egan

As the Offaly minor hurlers prepare for a training session at the Faithful Fields facility last week, everyone sets about their job meticulously. Coach Hughie Hannon takes drills and certain exercises are being recorded for analysis. Nutrition expert Colin Kenny was drafted in after some players suffered from cramp in the closing stages of the Leinster final and he’s preparing a presentation on the ideal way to be ready for Sunday’s big game, and it’s all being overseen by manager Leo O’Connor, who was at the heart of the success story that was Limerick underage development.

But every mix of ingredients needs a little bit of stardust, and that’s where Johnny Pilkington comes in. Pilkington, who was part of the 1987 Offaly minor team that beat Tipperary in an All-Ireland final, then also played in the memorable U-21 final between the two counties two years later, was added to the management team this year, and while O’Connor is wholehearted in his praise for the former All-Star midfielder, the man himself is not one for overstating what he adds to the group.

“I’m trying to give these lads tips in what to do, but then, I ask myself did I listen to anybody either?” he asks. No doubt a few of his coaches from all those years ago might be quick to answer.

“Really most players don’t so they go out and do their own thing. You’d love to be able to tell Dan (Ravenhill, captain) don’t be shooting from the wings all the time but if you tell him that he’s not going to get the inspirational scores. You just do your own thing and develop as a player”.

With the Tipperary border on his doorstep, Pilkington is well aware of the traditional divide between hurling’s aristocracy, which includes Tipperary, and counties like Offaly. He recalls how that 1987 minor defeat didn’t sit well with one of his former UCD colleagues.

“I was sitting with Conal Bonner after that match, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. He was there for the whole entire senior match, ‘I can’t believe ye beat us, I can’t believe ye beat us’. Eventually I just said ‘ye weren’t good enough, get over it’. I met him in UCD then. Same bloody thing, ‘can’t believe ye beat us’. I met him on holidays then in France about five years ago. Same thing. I never mentioned ’89 of course.”

That 1989 U-21 final in Portlaoise lives long in the memory of both counties. 30,000 people crammed into O’Moore Park for a contest featuring future legends of the game, including Pilkington, Michael Duignan, Brian Whelahan, Johnny and Billy Dooley, and on the Tipperary side, there was Bonner, John Leahy, Declan Ryan and others. Tipperary won a memorable contest by 4-10 to 3-11, and Pilkington argues that this year’s Leinster minor final in the same venue will be no less of a milestone for this minor group.

“I was fortunate to nearly relive that 1989 experience in the Leinster final,” he explained.

“The crowd in Portlaoise that day, the atmosphere, the type of game. That was relatively similar to the Leinster final and it was a marvellous experience to go through. Granted we lost in ’89 but it was still a marvellous occasion.”

And so another big occasion beckons – Sunday’s final in Nowlan Park. His verdict on that is as you might expect.

“From a management point of view, the team we will pick to start will be wrong, because it always is. As long as we are right at the end of it then and we have the right team on it then,” he quipped.

“Diggy (Daniel) Hand came back in there for the semi-final and it was a fabulous performance, we needed him. We were very fortunate Cathal Robinson had done a fine job in his place, both against Dublin and Laois. This is after broadening it for us. Then a few more lads came on there as well that we can throw in.”

“I don’t mind losing but I hate performing badly. I think in a lot of situations if they play well at all it takes that sting out of it. If you play well what can you do? Hopefully it won’t affect them and they can go out and hurl to their ability and I think they have that willingness and drive to do that.”