Tullamore’s Harry Plunkett in possession as Ferbane’s Stephen Wren tries to close him down during the 2021 Offaly SFCsemi-final between the teams. Photo: Ger Rogers.

Ferbane will need a bold approach to beat the Blues

Kevin Egan Column

TG4’s cameras are all set to roll into town for Sunday afternoon’s senior football decider between Tullamore and Ferbane (2.15pm) and while the fixture doesn’t exactly score highly in terms of novelty, it should still make for good viewing and ideally present Offaly football in a positive light around the country.

Nobody would dare to suggest that the Offaly club football scene is laden with depth, and the lack of variation in teams contesting finals makes for stark reading in that regard. However, the other side of that coin is that at the top end of the senior championship, there is real quality there, as evidenced by two thoroughly enjoyable semi-finals.

A relative lack of depth proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for both Edenderry and Rhode, but it’s equally true to say that Tullamore overcame a couple of significant injuries, including one to joint captain Michael Brazil, and they didn’t lose a step.

Ferbane, for their part, went to their bench early and often, and every time Ger Rafferty switched things up, it seemed to have a positive effect. What that guarantees is that while it might be a stretch to suggest that Sunday’s decider will be end-to-end – very few successful club teams allow games to evolve that way these days, and Tullamore certainly won’t – the game will be played at a very high tempo, with lots of pressure on the man in possession, even outfield. Both clubs know that they can afford to burn off a lot of fuel, knowing that they have strength in reserve.

Since Tullamore’s football is that bit more meticulous, with a very low error count, Ferbane desperately need to move the Blues out of their comfort zone, which will undoubtedly involve pushing out beyond their own 45 to try and force turnovers. There is a risk element to that, particularly with powerful line-breaking runners like Cormac Egan and Luke Egan on the Tullamore side, but as Ferbane learned against Rhode, playing overly patient, alternating-possession football where kickouts are conceded and defensive pressure only starts within 40 metres of your own goal, simply doesn’t suit them.

At the risk of unnerving Ferbane supporters, one could easily draw parallels between this fixture, and another fascinating rivalry from recent years, where a group of westerners in green took on the boys in blue from the capital; Mayo versus Dublin.

When Jim Gavin’s side was at their peak, they knew that against Mayo, the key was to colour within the lines, play high percentage football, and trust in their process. Mayo needed chaos and carnage to thrive, because if it was just a case of the two sides taking 25 shots each, the likelihood always was that Dublin would create the simpler, better chances, and so they would take more of them.

In the semi-final against Edenderry, that was how it played out for Tullamore – they created better chances, but Cian Farrell’s ability to land really difficult strikes over the crossbar kept the Reds in the game.

For all the varied talent and potential in the Ferbane forward line, there is no Cian Farrell there. They need to break the tackle, disrupt Tullamore’s set defence and force the cover to come out and block rampaging runners from deep, ideally to win frees. They need to go through phases of winning three, four and five possessions in succession, in order to create a higher number of scoring chances, to counteract Tullamore's incredible ability to patiently probe and stretching until eventually they get a good look at the sticks from no more than 30 or 35 metres out.

Like Dublin and Mayo, if these two teams both end up with the same amount of attempts on goal, then barring Ferbane turn at least two of those attempts into green flags (from an umpire, not their supporters), Tullamore look like the more likely winners. But unlike Mayo, who seem destined to always find ways to fall short, Ferbane have found a way to prevail on the biggest day in Offaly club football just four years ago, so whatever other similarities they share with Mayo, they at least won’t have that hang-up.

So who gets the vote? Well, this writer is from Ferbane, so let’s just say that it’s only natural to get more optimistic as the big day draws in ever closer.