Winning smiles... Offaly senior hurling manager Johnny Kelly (left) is congratulated by All-Ireland winning U20 manager Leo O’Connor in Croke Park last Saturday. Photo: Ger Rogers.

Kelly hails Offaly players who battled on the bleak days

By Kevin Egan

Croke Park in summer is very different to bleak spring days in Blessington or Bekan, but Offaly manager Johnny Kelly wasn’t about to forget where his team has come from, or the players that were there all along the way, when he reflected on last Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final win over Laois.

“I have to talk about Ben Conneely, David King, Jason Sampson, Cillian Kiely, and I’m leaving out a couple of guys there. These guys have soldiered down through the years, they’ve been to places all over the country. What they’ve done for Offaly today has been outstanding, and not just today,” Kelly said, as he reflected on his team’s 2-23 to 0-26 win in a fixture that continues to throw up memorable contests.

“It’s been over the last number of years, it’s not easy to keep coming back in every October in the mud, the wind and the rain and face into another challenge. For that alone, I’m entirely grateful to the effort they put in, and how they supported me over the last two years.

“I’m just happy for the older guys who went to Ballycran, who went to Castlebar, and to previous management teams who put their shoulder to the wheel and it didn’t work out. It’s been a long, hard road, but I hope the journey is only beginning.

“It was hugely important for Offaly that we put back-to-back wins together. Obviously the U-20s was a brilliant last weekend, but to do the senior today has copperfastened everything that everyone is doing in Offaly over the last two, three years, and maybe before that. Everyone in Offaly needs to take a bow today.”

Kelly cited players such as Kiely - who returned to the panel this year and has been a rock for the team at centre-back - and Oisín Kelly, who bounced back from consecutive cruciate ligament injuries, one in each knee, to come off the bench and score what proved to be a vital goal at the start of the second half.

“To get Cillian back on board was absolutely vital to Offaly’s chances of regaining Liam MacCarthy hurling, he’s such a big, stout-hearted guy,” said Kelly.

“Oisín, being such a proud hurler who lives for the game, it (his injury-enforced absence) absolutely devastated him. I can’t speak highly enough of him and his display today when he came in.”

Kelly spoke of his belief in the Joe McDonagh competition, while also citing Carlow’s relegation one year after last year’s thrilling final win over Offaly as evidence of the need for more support for what he termed the “squeezed middle”.

He also pointed out that many previous Offaly stars could just as easily have found themselves in a similar situation, if they played under modern structures.

“It’s not to say that the previous Offaly teams of the past weren’t outstanding players that will go down in history, but there may have been times in the past when teams would have been in the Joe McDonagh if it was out at that stage. So for these lads who have ploughed that furrow for the last six years and to come back again, it’s been really tough times.”

So are the good times here to stay? “I don’t know,” was his honest reply. “It’s a great competition, the Joe McDonagh, I agree with it, I think there has to be a tiered structure. But I’ve said it before, the GAA has to do more for the squeezed middle, it’s just not making sense. We had a tremendous battle with Carlow last year, and now they’re back down again. What good is that to Carlow?

“If we don’t succeed next year and we’re back down again, yes, it’ll be a downer. But for now, we’ll just concentrate on today and enjoy this moment,” he added.