Tullamore joint captains Michael Brazil (left) and Declan Hogan lift the Dowling Cup after their team's win over Ferbane in this year's Offaly SFC final. Photo: Ger Rogers

Tullamore on top as Ballycommon enjoy fairytale rise

By Kevin Egan

Get your laminators ready, make a spot on the dressing room wall, because motivation is at hand!

It’s that time of year when we get around to ranking all the football clubs of the county, largely based on their performances in 2023, but with some consideration also to the overall health of the club as a footballing force, including second teams, underage and more.

There are no surprises with the top few spots in a county where the ‘shortlist’ of championship contenders hasn’t changed much for some time, but down the pecking order there are a handful of clubs making huge progress, with newly crowned Senior ‘B’ champions Ballycommon leading the charge.

(1) Tullamore (up 1): The town rode their luck against Edenderry, they relied heavily on a few key players to carry them through a dour county final, and what looked like a glorious opportunity to pick up a win in Leinster ended in both disappointment and controversy. Yet for all the concerns about their lack of firepower close to goal, they are clearly the most well-balanced side in the county, and their underage results suggest that they will continue to improve over the coming years. They’re not so good that they’re immune to a sucker punch at some stage, but it’s hard to foresee a championship race in the next five years where they don’t start as favourites.

(2) Ferbane (up 1): The semi-final win over Rhode felt seminal, both in terms of the quality of the contest, and that it was the type of tight game that they had struggled to win in recent years. Then the rain came on county final day and a forward line that was heavily dependent on several light, fast players couldn’t overcome that challenge. In terms of their system and collective play, Ger Rafferty and his management team did a lot right, and they’ll find it hard to find improvement in that sector. If they are to get better, it will come from certain key individuals taking it on themselves to push on to a higher level.

(3) Rhode (down 2): A lack of depth was their biggest weakness in their semi-final defeat, as Ferbane were able to go to the bench and find game changers, while Rhode weren’t to the same extent. After a lengthy run of down years when it came to underage, there were a lot more green shoots of recovery this year, but their problem now will be that the players that need to be replaced are generational talents. Ruairí McNamee, Anton Sullivan and Jake Kavanagh will be dominant forces on the club scene for a long time to come, but they will need more stars around them.

(4) Edenderry (no change): They just about scraped over the line against Durrow, and just about fell short by the minimum against Tullamore. It wouldn’t have taken a lot for them to either slip down the rankings, or to pull off a famous shock and completely shake up the local landscape in the process. In player terms, there’s no doubt that they have the raw material to win the big prize in 2024, but they need to shake things up in a lot of sectors, with midfield, half-forward and goalkeeping all somewhat inconsistent in their displays.

(5) Durrow (up 2): It’s looking more and more like Ballinamere will be the most obvious threat to Kilcormac-Killoughey’s dominance over the next few years on the hurling front. Now that may not happen, but there will surely be a temptation among some of the leading players to put a disproportionate amount of their focus on that prize, since it seems to be just that little bit more attainable than the Dowling Cup. From a purely football perspective, it’ll be a pity if things play out that way, because they have so much to offer. Kevin McDermott and Billy Fogarty didn’t catch fire this year, but a Durrow team with those two at their best, backed up by a middle third full of athletic dual players would test any team.

(6) Shamrocks (down 1): For Shamrocks to be as competitive as they were, with their team as depleted as it was, should arguably be seen as a success. Winning a relegation play-off might not be the kind of thing to stir the blood, but they’ll look back at their August game against Edenderry and wonder what might have been achieved if they had anything close to a full panel, with proper preparation behind them.

(7) Bracknagh (up 2): Once their team was named for the Ferbane game, there was no doubt about the result of that game, and it’s likely that a lot of their players took to the field with a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that they were on a hiding to nothing. Even so, the manner in which they failed to raise a gallop that day was a disappointing end to an otherwise good year, with even a lot of positives to be taken out of their game against Rhode.

(8) Ballycommon (up 8): There can’t be too many fairytales in the GAA across the country like the one that they’re living through in Ballycommon at the moment. Had they scraped over Clonbullogue by a single point in the original county final, we’d actually have been tempted to rank the Kildare-border club above them, but instead they came back, took the right lessons from the draw, and showed immense character to score three goals into the wind in a thrilling replay. With the absentees they had, the Leinster championship was a non-runner, but it won’t have taken them long to get over that. An incredible 2024 lies in store for the club now.

(9) Clonbullogue (up 1): 2023 will feel like a missed opportunity, as they had the county title there for the taking, or so it seemed. In the long run, losing that final might be no harm at all, as the age profile of this team is such that they should continue to get better, if they can apply themselves in the right way. In Jamie Guing, Keith O’Neill, Jack McEvoy and others, there is a core group of players here that can drive this club to real success, and an extra year at Senior B could be the extra ingredient that hardens them up for Senior A when they get there. The challenge now is to make sure that they do.

(10) Clara (down 4): Their relegation three years ago was supposed to be their low point, and the springboard for the revival of Offaly’s oldest GAA club. It looked like that as they duly picked up a Senior B title, reached a Leinster final, and played quite well in the 2022 senior championship. That was all a distant memory this year as they started their championship with an anaemic performance against Durrow, and it all went downhill from there. There are good players in their early 20s in the club that haven’t kicked on as people would have hoped, and until that crop delivers on their potential, they’ll struggle to escape from Senior B.

(11) Cappincur (down 3): The fear was that coming out of a much weaker group in the Senior B championship, they were untested. Their performance in the championship semi-final against Ballycommon was so poor that there had to be more to it than that. At a time when the demographic debate is a big one on the national GAA scene, Cappincur’s numbers issue looks like it might come back to haunt them, because it’s hard to imagine that they’ll ever have so many players that have recently been involved with Offaly senior panels, or are there at the moment. That said, on the basis that 0-6, and nothing from play, against their neighbours is too bad to be true, they should still be in the mix next year.

(12) Gracefield (up 2): We said last year that they had steadied the ship, but were still a long way off winning a Senior B title. They’re getting closer, and while it may have caused chaos within and outside of Offaly, their DRA appeal win could even be something of a rallying point for a club that hasn’t had a lot to celebrate. There’s still a lot of work to do at underage and the three Senior B teams ahead of them on this list will be hard beaten, but the overall verdict is still positive.

(13) Ballycumber (no change): In a championship where each tier is only eight teams deep, it shouldn’t be possible for any team to be a long shot for both championship success, and for relegation – and yet Ballycumber tick that box. In terms of physical infrastructure, the new astro training facility will be a huge boost to the club and there are more eye-catching young players coming up through the ranks than there has been for some time, while at senior level, there’s enough depth there to challenge for a championship. Without any star quality players, however, their ceiling is just too low.

(14) Tubber (down 3): At the start of the championship, with a league title secured and teenagers Pauric Robbins and Pádraig McLoughlin going very well, there was no sign that things were about to go off the rails so spectacularly. Yet that’s exactly what happened, and they were fortunate that when they got as far as a relegation final, there was a team in even more disarray waiting for them. All logic suggests that they’ll be a lot more like themselves in 2024.

(15) Daingean (up 4): This year’s intermediate final was a very enjoyable game, and Daingean produced some wonderful attacking football, moving the ball slickly and getting the ball into the hands of their key players, most notably Shane Tierney. Leinster was something of a missed opportunity as they were very close to Glyde Rangers away from home, and the Louth club are now an hour away from provincial success. Daingean need to channel that positivity and if they do, they’ll be very competitive in Senior B football next year.

(16) St Brigid’s (up 4): Defence was never a problem for the Croghan men, but in 2023 they found some attacking rhythm and consequently were both a joy to watch, and a formidable force at intermediate level. Ben Kennedy looks like a potential star in the making and he’ll be a valuable weapon for the Offaly U-20s next year, and suddenly the loss of David Egan doesn’t look crippling after all.

(17) Walsh Island (down 5): In hindsight, given everything that went on in Cloghan, their landslide win over St Rynagh’s has to be put in context. They were some way off being competitive in their other three games, and the issue of the age of some of their leading players is as much of a red flag as it ever was. On paper, avoiding relegation in 2024 would be a real success.

(18) Erin Rovers (no change): It wasn’t the immediate return to Senior B football that they would have hoped for in Pullough, but their semi-final battle with St Brigid’s was on a knife edge throughout, and, on that basis alone, they will go into next spring with plenty of optimism. Nathan Poland is part of the Offaly panel now and if that helps him to bring his game to a new level, that will make a big difference to Rovers.

(19) Raheen (down 4): Lost out in a tight finish against Tullamore and so ended bottom of the group, but if the 2024 structures were in place and they went into a quarter-final with St Brigid’s, no-one would have called that game one way or the other with any great degree of confidence. Didn’t get the rub of the green this year, and have to be respected as real championship contenders again next summer.

(20) Ballinagar (up 1): Not the fireworks of 2022 by any stretch of the imagination, but still a good year of consolidation at a higher level, with a squad that should only get better. They got a bit of luck in that they played Daingean when the maroons were past the post and certain to top the group, while the one-point margin in the quarter-final against Erin Rovers flattered them, but there’s still a lot of cause for optimism here.

(21) Kilcormac-Killoughey (up 2): Given the unique GAA landscape in Kilcormac-Killoughey, it would have been easy for them to fold up the tent after they lost their first two games by a point each, particularly since every one of their adult hurling teams was in the mix for championship glory. They stuck with it, however, and got their reward when they picked up a junior title. If K-K really wanted to put their full heart and soul into football, with the quality of young players they have coming up, they could easily reach Senior B standard in a few years, and maybe more. One suspects that a Leinster club hurling title is likely to be a bigger priority, however.

(22) St Rynagh’s (down 5): This may seem like an incredibly low ranking for a team that played Senior B football in 2023, but their results were an absolute horror show, even allowing for the personnel losses they suffered. There is hope on the horizon in the form of the excellent Cloghan minor team, and while there are several of those players who will go on to play for different clubs, it still gives them plenty of reason to believe that they might be able to stop the rot at intermediate level before maybe challenging for silverware again in a couple of years.

(23) Shannonbridge (down 1): Perhaps a little unlucky to find Raheen on the other side of the relegation final, and they might have fancied themselves a little bit more against Tullamore or Ballinagar – but their defeat in that game was so comprehensive that our hunch is that they would have gone down anyway. Regardless of demographics, Shannonbridge should not be down at junior level, there is too much interest and too many good players in the club for that to happen. As their neighbours Doon will testify, however, if you don’t bounce back up straight away, it gets much tougher in subsequent years.

(24) Clodiagh Gaels (no change): They were desperately uncompetitive in 2022 at intermediate level, so if nothing else, winning three games, including a victory over Rhode, will have made for a much more enjoyable year. Losing by three points in the knockout stages to the eventual winners will give them plenty of hope too.

(25) Doon (up 1): Made a dismal start to the championship with an anaemic showing against Tullamore’s third team, before pulling it together, to the point that they went into their semi-final against Edenderry as favourites to progress, and with real championship aspirations. It didn’t work out as they would have hoped, and they continue to be a few players short of what’s required to get over the line and win this championship.

(26) Kilclonfert (down 1): A dreadful, out of character showing against Clodiagh Gaels meant that they didn’t just miss out on top spot in the group, they also went into their quarter-final with Kilcormac-Killoughey under a cloud. They competed well on that occasion and there’s nothing to call between them and Doon really, but by a very small margin, the west Offaly club trade places with the Daingean parish side.

(27) Ballyfore (up 1): They marched into the Junior B knockout stages on the back of three good wins in a row, two that showed their ability, and then a two-point scrap against Gracefield that showed their battling qualities. They stepped up in class against Raheen and also failed to produce, so those two factors led to a heavy defeat at that stage. In a notoriously unpredictable championship, they should be in the mix again in 2024.

(28) Clonmore Harps: Their league form was uninspiring, offering little or no evidence that the Meath border club would have the wherewithal, particularly defensively, to put themselves in the mix in the summer. However there was a turning of the corner, and two wins and a one-point defeat to Daingean left them in good shape going into the knockout stages. Eventual county finalists Raheen were just too strong in that fixture, winning by three, but they’re not that far off the standard needed to give themselves a big day out

(29) Lusmagh (re-entry): Two championship football wins in the one year is pretty good going for a club that no doubt debated long and hard whether to go back in as a standalone entity, particularly since a lot of their most committed football players were getting games with St Rynagh’s. That said, conceding two walkovers and exiting the championship without losing a game on the pitch is peculiar, and will surely be the source of debate at the club AGM.

(30) Ballyskenach-Killavilla (new entry): A spectacular debut season for the county’s most southerly football club, and one that saw them go all the way to a county final. Add in the Carneys next year and they will be a real force to be reckoned with, the clearest of favourites for the Junior C title and with plenty of scope to go even further after that.

(31) Kinnitty (re-entry): When Kinnitty choose to field teams, they’re always well able to play football, and this year was no different. They fielded in two games, losing by one point and three points, and scored 4-17 in those matches. Like Lusmagh and Birr, walkovers were a factor, so perhaps it might be the case that regionalizing the Junior B championship might be the way to go?

(32) Birr (down 4): :It’s a far cry from the glory days of when Birr were serious contenders for intermediate honours with the big ball. There have to be people around the town that have moved there from football areas, and they could bolster a panel that still has plenty of players that have played football for Offaly at one level or another. Whether the will is there to make that happen is another matter.

(33) Crinkill (down 3): Since first doing these rankings, we’ve never had 33 different clubs field adult teams in the county before, so Crinkill’s “drop” is only due to other clubs coming in ahead of them. Based on their two games, however, Crinkill would surely be extremely competitive if they met their neighbours Birr. And if the town team doesn't get their act together, Crinkill could easily climb off this bottom spot next year.