To Nowlan Park, we go with hope
By Kevin Egan
It’s not quite the same as last year, when it felt like decades of pain and anguish were vital ingredients in the build up to the U-20 football final against Roscommon in Croke Park, but this is still a great and special week to be from Offaly, as the clock ticks down towards Sunday afternoon’s All-Ireland minor hurling final against Tipperary.
However while last year’s run to Croke Park was a sensational one, there is arguably that bit more tension this time around.
Last year’s U-20 footballers gathered momentum as the year went on, and it was never in doubt that it was a very talented group, but not too many people came away from the team’s one-point win over Wexford thinking that an All-Ireland title, or even a Leinster title, was there to be won.
This minor hurling group was different. Before a ball was pucked in 2022, these had been earmarked as a group with the potential to do something very special.
Championship is obviously a world away from development competitions, but since they first showed their potential in the 2019 Tony Forristal tournament, there was a quiet but palpable sense that this might be the group to break Offaly’s long drought in Leinster hurling competitions.
There was fear going up to Dowdallshill to play a quietly-fancied Antrim side, there was excitement when Dublin came to Tullamore, there was frenzy in Portlaoise for the Leinster final, and the bandwagon kept rolling through Thurles, when Leo O’Connor’s players showed incredible composure to overcome their poor start and get back in control of the tie.
Even now, facing into yet another step up in class, it’s hard to be anything other than optimistic about Sunday. Obviously with players of this age, there is incredible volatility and range in performance levels. Some players can take huge steps forward in their development with every big game they play, while others can just inexplicably freeze on the big day.
It’s not in the nature of Tipperary teams of any age to freeze, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be in the make-up of this Offaly group either, but it’s always a possibility all the same.
The stadium will be packed, the occasion is massive, and all week the excitement around the county has been palpable.
In hurling terms, it looks like an incredibly close contest between a Tipperary team that doesn’t lack firepower, and an Offaly side that has a couple of star players in the top half of the field but probably has a touch more strength on the defensive side. Certainly it’s hard to argue with the concession of just two goals in six championship games so far.
By beating championship favourites Galway, Tipperary have probably taken over the mantle of the most likely winners in the eyes of a lot of neutrals, though again, form at this age is notoriously unreliable.
In this week’s Offaly Independent, selector Johnny Pilkington speaks of how he can get over a defeat but struggles to handle the idea of not performing. Based on their big-game temperament so far, it’s reasonable to expect that Offaly will put their best foot forward in Kilkenny. Hopefully that will be enough.
There was a welcome update from Nowlan Park Stadium during the week, pointing out that 25% of the seats in each stand have been held back for children attending with parents, while a block of 2,500 capacity has also been reserved for juvenile groups.
Standalone underage matches with large attendances are not unprecedented, the most obvious one coming to mind being Roscommon’s All-Ireland minor final replay against Kerry in 2006, which saw huge numbers of Roscommon supporters fail to get into Cusack Park in Ennis until well into the first half, and even up to half-time.
However the model that the Offaly clubs and county board have followed with this team – to actively encourage and help the children of the county to get to the games – has been incredibly positive, but it also creates difficulty as it throws out the usual expectations of the number of children in attendance, which might normally be of the order of ten to twenty percent for a game of this nature.
Add in that this is a Sunday afternoon, as opposed to a Monday or a Friday night as was the case for the last two games, and there could be huge numbers of small children at this fixture, particularly on the Offaly side.
Encouraging everyone to arrive incredibly early only creates an arms race where no-one wins, particularly when it involves some younger children that might now be able to stay interested for a full hour before the ball gets thrown in, but equally, this is not the type of game where it’s realistic to expect to arrive at Nowlan Park with 15 minutes to go and expect a seat.
Equally, unreserved seating is likely to cause some issues as well, so there’s no doubt that some forbearance and patience will be required on the part of all supporters at the game. On the plus side, there aren’t many provincial venues in Ireland that can match Nowlan Park for organisation, but even so, this is certainly one game where it’s worth being prepared.
Competitive start to Offaly senior hurling championship
Four games were played in the first round of the Offaly senior hurling championship at the weekend, and it bodes well for an enjoyable summer of games ahead that all four were close and competitive games, with three of them decided by one point or less.
The quality of the hurling wasn’t anything to write home about in Birr, where Belmont held off a late Seir Kieran fightback, while Shinrone were short a lot of players but still took a point against Ballinamere, albeit Ballinamere will feel a little bit better about the quality of their hurling.
With Coolderry yet to make their first appearance, this group looks incredibly tight, and while Seir Kieran will feel they missed a chance to gain ground, the other four clubs look like they all have the potential to make the knockout stages.
On paper, Kinnitty edging out Clodiagh Gaels looks huge in the context of the relegation battle, though Kinnitty will feel that they might yet have a bit more to offer. There were a few interesting positional moves, most notably James Dempsey lining out up front, but even in his absence from the back – and with Conor Hardiman at midfield – they looked tidy in defence.
Kilcormac-Killoughey showed incredible grit and focus to pick up a vital win against Birr, but when the dust settles, Brendan Bugler will feel that he has the raw material of a decent side their too.
There is much more scoring support for Eoghan Cahill, Oisín Murphy was outstanding at full back, and he’s now able to use some of his more mature players as impact subs, rather than depending on them for a full hour. Despite the torrential rain that fell, this had all the hallmarks of a contest that could easily be repeated later in the summer as a county semi-final or final.