Offaly's Anton Sullivan in action against Dublin's Conor Tyrrell during their recent O'Byrne Cup match at Parnell Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Offaly footballers maligned for no show but it wasn't an easy decision

By Kevin Egan

Martin Breheny in last Wednesday’s Irish Independent was the latest pundit to take aim at Offaly for failing to fulfil last weekend’s O’Byrne Cup fixture against Louth, following on from other criticism that arose from various sources, both inside and outside the county.

All around the country, following fixtures in the pre-season competitions, managers were asked about the future of these tournaments, with Offaly and the other counties who withdrew from games cited as having called the whole structure into question.

This reporter was in the Connacht GAA Air Dome for the two FBD Connacht League semi-finals, and even there, the response was mixed. Galway’s Pádraic Joyce and Mayo's Kevin McStay both spoke highly of the value of the competition, while Roscommon manager Davy Burke said that it would have suited his team better to play challenge matches on their own schedule. Is that related to the fact that Burke is a Leinster man, as opposed to someone who played in the FBD League himself? That’s hard to know.

What we can say is that the respective situations are not remotely comparable. Firstly, no team in this year’s FBD competition will play more than two games. Secondly, the games take place on Friday nights, in a novel venue when managers can use their Sigerson Cup players if they wish. Thirdly, the venue is in the centre of the province so the level of travel wouldn’t be anything like as high (notwithstanding any players based in Dublin etc.) and very few players would have work to go to the next day.

Offaly’s situation is very different, for a host of reasons. Parnell Park is a long trip to take on a midweek night, and Dowdallshill would have been even farther away again. Liam Kearns and his management team had seen Offaly play two games in the O’Byrne Cup already so there wasn’t as much to learn, and they felt that the players needed rest.

Moreover, Offaly have a disproportionate amount of players involved in Sigerson/Trench Cup football, competitions which are even more demanding now that a back door structure has been introduced.

It's easy to say that Offaly should have played the game, but many of those Sigerson players may remain unavailable through the early stages of the league, and the team that lines out in Belfast on January 29 is unlikely to be a whole lot different from the group that played in the O’Byrne Cup. In what is sure to be a fiercely competitive division where both promotion and relegation are on the table, nothing that could happen in Dowdallshill was worth the risk of another key player or two sustaining an injury and missing the game against Antrim.

In response, some people have claimed that the Offaly management could have drafted in some strong club players to make up the numbers. Yet the risks attached to a strategy like that would be considerable.

While some club players would make sure to keep their training up over the off-season, very few – if any – would be working as hard as those who are actually in with Offaly, doing the full pre-season programme. The risk of injury in springing a guy who is “just ticking over” into a full contact game in winter conditions would be high, which would be unfair to both the player and his club, and arguably it could also cause problems with insurance as well.

These competitions are about preparation, and if they cease to be of value for the management, or they get to the point where the risks and the negatives greatly outweigh the positives, then no other argument should trump that one.

Would the argument be different for a county like Kildare, who conceded their final round game against Westmeath? Quite possibly on the basis that, firstly, the fixture was set for Kinnegad, which should be as convenient a location as there is for them. Secondly, there is a much deeper playing pool in that county, given their population and their consistent track record at underage level for the last while. Even so, there’s no doubt that if Glenn Ryan made the call that there was no value in the game, there was no way that anyone on the Kildare County Board was going to go against him.

Liam Kearns obviously doesn’t have the same stature in Offaly as Ryan does in Kildare, but the principle should be the same. The county has entrusted him to drive the bus, and it wouldn’t be right to do that and then for Michael Duignan or anyone else to sit in the passenger seat and steer for him. Once Kearns made his call, he had to be backed.