Rhode’s Darren Garry gets his pass away under pressure from Tullamore’s Luke Plunkett during the 2021 Offaly SFC final replay. The sides will do battle again in this year’s decider on Sunday. Photo: Ger Rogers.

Tullamore bid for slice of history as Rhode stand in their way

Kevin Egan Column

There are clubs that live by the spirit of the old Saw Doctors anthem, “to win just once”. Whether due to population, or fighting for their corner in a community where other sports take priority, they live for the dream of one day coming out on top.

But then there are those clubs where success is expected, and where the question when you retire is not if you won a county title, but how many of them you accumulated. Of course, there was a 20-year period between Tullamore’s county title in 1977 and Rhode’s victory in 1998 when neither of those two traditional powers lifted the Dowling Cup, a spell during which Walsh Island first, and then Ferbane, lorded the local football scene.

Yet in the usual run of things, ‘The Town’ and ‘The Village’ expect to win with regularity. Rhode have certainly done that, while Tullamore have all the ingredients in place to go on a similar run to that which their rivals enjoyed from 2004 up until a couple of years ago.

That’s not a certainty, however. For that ‘succession’ to take place, the torch has to pass permanently from one side to the other. Tullamore need to firstly prove that they are able to defend a championship, which they haven’t done for the best part of 100 years now, while Rhode will feel that if they can find a way to stay in touch through the first 55 minutes, their superior know-how and self-belief will carry them through the last five.

Even last year, the manner in which they first salvaged a draw, and then found a way to stay close to Tullamore even when comfortably outplayed in the replay, only served to prove that. If corroboration were needed, then you have this year’s semi-final against Ferbane which Rhode won on a penalty shoot-out.

In a purely footballing sense, Ferbane might have given Tullamore a tougher test this weekend. Ferbane have the physicality and the athleticism to knock Tullamore out of their stride, while Rhode are making do in that regard, doing just about enough to hold their own and then hoping that their class and style will shine through.

Yet if this game does go down to the wire, Rhode will spook the Blues in a way that no other team could. Former Kerry midfielder Darragh Ó Sé spoke about how Kingdom sides used to believe in the logic of “hammer the hammer”, as in to take out the pillar around which the opposition had built their team, and thus to watch fear spread through the opposition like a virus.

What if Niall McNamee gets the jump on Declan Hogan and starts knocking over trademark points in a fixture that he has dominated for two decades? What if Ruairí McNamee starts getting possession and controlling the game, thus forcing John Moloney into some tough tactical choices?

Tullamore have grown used to building victories on the foundation of their defensive axis dominating games. That there are other match-winners in Niall Stack’s side is not in doubt, but it’s one thing to try and be the one to take the baton for the last leg of the relay and finish it out when the work has been done up to that point – it’s quite another to make up a deficit when your star men haven’t quite dominated as expected.

On current form, Tullamore still should have four or five points in hand, and that’s assuming that Anton Sullivan is fully fit. Give them a dry day and a solid start, and that’s the most likely outcome.

Where it will get interesting is if Rhode are still right there well into the second half. That’s when we’ll learn if this Tullamore group has the mentality to dominate for a long period of time – that they have the talent to do so, is not in doubt.

Bracknagh, Raheen and K/K tipped to win finals

The different plot lines running through the other finals over the weekend are fascinating. At senior 'B', there is the parish derby aspect, the fact that both clubs stumbled rather than marched through their semi-final contests, and of course the possibility that Clonbullogue are about to reach top tier status in the Offaly championship for the first time in their history.

Logically, this still should be Bracknagh’s game to lose. They can hardly have as poor a day in front of the posts as the yhad in the semi-final. While Jamie Guing will undoubtedly start for Clonbullogue and will be a big factor in the game, Keith O’Neill looks like he needs meaningful rest and recovery time before he’ll get back to his best. Joe Kilmurray’s side is likely to enjoy some spells of supremacy over the course of the hour’s play, but we’d still take Bracknagh to earn their way back to senior 'A' level for 2023.

Raheen and Ballycommon have been the class acts at intermediate level all year long, and for Ballycommon to make their way up to senior B would be almost as remarkable, if not more so, as Clonbullogue making their way into the top 8 in the county.

Unfortunately for Ballycommon, they look like they might have a bit too much to find. Raheen play a very simple, solid brand of football but they have impact players in every sector, and in Dylan Hyland, they have a star forward who could and should light up O’Connor Park.

Richie Dalton has done excellent work to rebuild the team after their desperately disappointing county final performance last year, and this looks like it should be a case of Raheen losing one final (in 2021) in order to learn how to win one on Sunday.

Finally, the clash of Ballinagar and Kilcormac-Killoughey in the junior A decider tomorrow (Saturday) is fascinating. As we’ve seen before, if Kilcormac-Killoughey choose to focus on football, their natural level is somewhere between senior B and intermediate, so they won’t lack for talent or ability, even allowing for the distraction of a senior hurling final eight days later.

Ballinagar are clearly upwardly mobile themselves, with a significant number of young players who have represented Offaly at various levels. There are a couple of those big names not available this year but they are a club that is moving in the right direction, while there’s no doubt that winning this junior championship means the world to them.

In contrast, it’s fair to say that Kilcormac-Killoughey’s season won’t be measured by how they got on in this fixture. Yet the old GAA wisdom that whoever wants it more invariably wins, doesn’t always ring true. In terms of physicality, athleticism, depth of numbers, familiarity with the county final experience, K-K have a lot going for them here. They should still prevail.