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Lovely enigma that is Offaly

by Tom Humphries was published in the Irish Times on Monday the 12th of July 1999

This is a funny business. In theory, there is no cheering in the press box, but things colour your prose some colour other than purple. Some teams you detest. Some teams you respect. Some teams you develop such a big soft spot for that it makes your keyboard go mushy if you aren't careful.

Every journalist I know likes the Offaly hurlers. If you've a romantic bone in your body you'd have to. Take yesterday. Fed up to the gills with Babs Keating pulling across their shins with his accusation that they have nothing filling their jerseys number eight to 15, they go out and make an ape of Babs by demonstrating they'd nothing from numbers one to eight. Only Offaly would have the sense of humour to do it.

It was an Offaly hurler, indeed, who told me in response to a question once that, yes indeed, he had come from a GAA-orientated family: he had an uncle who played for Galway. And what was his name, I asked. Pen poised. Uncle Frank he said.

I think it's because things in Offaly are so dishevelled that we like them. We've had All-Ireland press nights down there where the players have wandered out onto the field like 15 black sheep, taken a look around and ambled back in again. There's never a press ban or a shortage of good talkers; it's just a question of finding the lads in the right mood.

In the era when the fitness Nazis run hurling, Offaly is the only county where an exasperated player will grab you by the lapel and say, listen, we've been training two nights a week for this and some of the lads are off the drink since Tuesday.

It was a strange experience watching them be dismantled by a Kilkenny team which seemed to grow an inch taller with every ball that hit the net yesterday. Offaly are a team with no medium setting. They either run full throttle or they don't run at all. Yesterday they didn't really run at all, but their crowd in the sun-kissed stand were hoping till well into the second half that somebody somewhere would flick a switch.

Nobody did, and in the last five minutes the Offaly people got the message and decided to make the best of it and leave early to beat the traffic. The old hatreds that consume other teams wash over this Offaly side. Most teams are at their best when it's payback time. Offaly are at their best when they feel like it.

Yesterday's second half had little spells of listlessness which allowed the mind to wander. Looking across at Hill 16 it scarcely seemed 19 years since I stood there with my best friend watching Offaly win their first Leinster title in a mostly empty stadium.

We had just done the Leaving Cert and were waiting for the results to detonate our lives. My mate had captained the school hurling team to a Dublin championship not many weeks previously, and I remember him looking across as Offaly got the cup and wondering what it must be like to end a famine like that.

That was the end of schooldays and pretty much the end of going to matches together. The hurling world changed pretty much as drastically as our own after that. I can remember myself and same mate blagging our way into the Cork dressingroom after the 1977 All-Ireland and executing a pincer movement on Jimmy Barry-Murphy in order to beg, steal or borrow one of his hurls from him.

I'm not sure how much dumb gall it took to climb through the barbed wire which fenced off the terraces and get into the Cork dressing-room, but on my part at least the charm offensive on JBM was slightly hypocritical. He was a superstar whose eminence raised him above the business of county affiliations, which was lucky because I had come to Croke Park as an ardent Wexford fan that day. If JBM had just yielded his hurl or his jersey I would have gone home happy in the knowledge that I had the souvenir of an icon and that Wexford would be back.

It was that sort of perspicacity which cut me out for my present profession.

After Offaly shook the world three years later  or the 9,500 or so of its population who bothered to turn up  my mate and I went home like satisfied young men who had seen something freaky at the circus and never expected to see such a thing again. But Offaly never stopped coming back, and the eight Leinster championships they have filched since that day put an end to the notion of there being a big two in Leinster.

You could have taken us for a fair few shillings that afternoon if you told us that Offaly and Kilkenny would be meeting in the last Leinster final of the millennium, as All-Ireland champions playing Leinster champions, and we wouldn't see Wexford win another Leinster title until 1996.

By then I'd come to respect the unlikely sophistication of Offaly civilisation. I lived two years in Ranelagh in a flat below three Offaly men, and I remember the night of the 1985 All-Ireland final as being full of brutal reminders about how highly evolved society was in Offaly and how Neanderthal we Dubs were. The point was amplified by the means of a drunken puc about on the middle of Beechwood Avenue. Great men.

It seems fitting  if baffling for Darwinians  that out of the hard-working, mullocking team of the 1980s that Offaly should have bred the lithe wonders who populate the present team. On the days when they feel like playing there is no team in the country like them. Picking those days is like winning money against a three-card trickster.

Last summer I found myself in Johnny Pilkington's office just outside Birr listening to him yarning on about hurling and its Offaly hinterland. Pilkington should have his own radio programme; he's one of those characters you could listen to all day.

Anyway, I had it in my head to explore the issue of the Offaly team's cordial relationship with the demon drink. In the era of fitness fanaticism, Offaly have a nuanced standpoint on this business. Johnny has thoughts on this matter which should give dieticians bad hangovers. In short, he feels that he plays an amateur game and there are some things he'll sacrifice for that and sometimes a couple of pints might be one of those things and sometimes not.

Ain't nobody's business but Johnny's, of course, but that doesn't make good copy, so I pressed him until eventually he asked, not unreasonably, if the piece was going to be more about my attitude to drink than his. And I apologised and said sure the theme on fitness etc had gone off the rails and Johnny sat back, waved his hand and said no, not at all, don't worry. And with a little grin he lit up a fag in the afternoon sun.

Yesterday was a little jolt for Offaly, but the dressing room was open for callers as usual and the chit chat was about what was further down the road.

Maybe they'd ride their luck and get Antrim in the quarter-final. And lo, it came to pass.

Jaysus, you'd have to like the hoors.

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