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Worth his weight in gold

by Denis Walsh was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 4th of July 2004

Brian Whelahan came close to leaving a glorious Offaly career behind, until he realised Offaly just wouldn’t leave him.

Two years ago Brian Whelahan thought the dance was over. He could still hear the music but his feet didn’t move to it like before. In the Leinster semi-final Kilkenny beat Offaly by three goals at their ease and Henry Shefflin filled his pockets against Whelahan: seven points from play. Whelahan tried to hold the centre and read the breaks; Shefflin paid him no heed and everywhere he wandered the ball followed him.

During Whelahan’s career there had been days when teams targeted him as a point of strength and bowed to his pre-eminence with a strategy of containment; that day, however, it was as if Whelahan had been identified as an exploitable point of weakness, a point of access. And though he fumed, there was nothing he could do to refute their plan. Somehow, and in a way he’d never been before, he was defenceless.

“At one stage there was a sideline ball and Henry (Shefflin) starts calling for it,” says Whelahan. “I’m standing there and he’s calling for this thing. I said to myself, ‘F****** hell, anyway I’m going to win this ball.’ I was still beside him when he got the ball, pucked it over his shoulder and over the bar. It was like, no matter what, the ball was going to come into his hand. I just said, ‘Well, that’s it’. He ’s confident enough to call for this ball while I was standing next to him. It was just a sign of the times, that there were new men on the block.

“My confidence was shattered. I made a switch myself with about 10 minutes to go. I said to Joe Brady, ‘You go in centre-back.’ I don’t think he knew that it was me making the switch and not the sideline but it didn’t matter, I wasn’t staying there any longer.”

They stumbled over Meath in the qualifiers and haplessly flew into Tipperary like a bird into the propellers of a plane. Restored to the wing, Whelahan played better but that wasn’t how it felt. The team was a shell; the 13-point hiding another slur on their name.

“I remember coming off the field that day against Tipperary totally dejected. I was in bits afterwards. There was no fight and there was no huge sense of disappointment in the dressing room. That was the killing part. I definitely thought that was going to be it for me.”

He didn’t make any announcement. His father, Pad Joe, didn’t want him to return for another year; he said it to Brian and repeated his view in public when asked. Brian said nothing. Birr plotted another winter campaign that ended in triumph on St Patrick’s Day. It bought him time and distanced the despair of nine months before. The longer he dithered on the ledge, the less chance he was going to jump.

“I had my mind made up, I’ll go now winning a club All-Ireland, sure what more could be done? Went away with Birr on holidays and thought about it and thought about it. Then my own young fella (Aaron) asked me, ‘What are you going to do Da?’ He was adamant that he wanted me to play on. Thought about it for a little while and then I said, ‘To hell with it, sure what harm is another year?’” Another year became two. Of the Offaly players who won minor All-Irelands in the 1980s Whelahan and Joe Errity were the only ones left on the senior panel and then for 2004 Errity didn’t return.

For Whelahan there was nothing left to be done that he hadn’t already achieved. There was nothing left to prove. His presence wasn’t going to be the difference between Offaly winning an All-Ireland and losing it. In the championship’s great casino they weren’t sitting with the high rollers any longer. His presence alone wasn’t going to protect these young players from a hiding if a hiding was coming. At the beginning of 2003, Offaly couldn’t have hoped for success, only the evasion of failure. By staying, he risked another crash somewhere along the championship highway and another nick on his reputation.

And yet he stayed.

WHEN HE first started playing for Offaly Pad Joe was always around, which didn’t make it hard and didn’t make it easy. Brian was still under 16 when he made the minor panel in 1987; his father was manager of the team heading for two All-Irelands in a row. For the first round of the championship Brian expected to play against Wexford but they picked one of his clubmates instead. Another lad would have brushed it off and consoled himself with the certainty that time was on his side but it wasn’t in his nature to tolerate second best. Seventeen years later, so many other experiences have shaped his career and still that one has survived every audit, stored and quoted.

“I was gutted. I made up my mind after that game that I was never again having the feeling of being a sub on a team. It wasn’t going to be my fault that I wasn’t picked. I was going to do everything I could and that’s why every time I went out on the field I was very hard on myself.”

Two years later his father was manager of the seniors when Brian was sent on late in a doomed All-Ireland semi-final against Antrim. Still a minor, they pitched him into the half-forward line to fight a blaze that was already out of control. People said he was only there because his father was the trainer but when the switch was made Pad Joe was at the other end of the field.

The fact was that Whelahan didn’t need anybody’s patronage. His status came directly from his talent and the values that governed it. He didn’t need influence to mediate his case. He was captain of Birr by the age of 20 simply because he was already the dominant influence in the dressing room. Precocity had wiped away the usual conditions.

With the county it took a little longer but not too long. On the Offaly team of the 1990s Martin Hanamy and Joe Dooley and a couple of others sat at the top table, but Whelahan was always in the chair. On match days he never stopped talking from the moment they stepped into the dressing room to the moment they left it. Every Offaly manager expected the benefit of his opinion and there was nothing to be gained from setting down limits to the dialogue. When Eamonn Cregan was looking for a centre-back in 1994 it was Whelahan who convinced him of Hubert Rigney’s worth. Others may have thought it but it was Whelahan who made it happen.

That Offaly team developed a reputation for hard living which has survived despite acknowledgments that it was only strictly true about a handful of players. Whelahan bristled at some of the stuff his teammates did. Other players would just quietly look after themselves but that wasn’t his way. He was the conscience for the group.

“Down the years I was the one that it would never be said to until after a match that something had happened because I would go totally spare — I wouldn’t care who he’d be. If I found out that somebody had acted the s**** before a match I couldn’t handle it, no way. I wouldn’t do it. My attitude was that the night of the match and the following day were yours. I enjoyed myself them couple of days. But not before a match.

“There were a couple of incidents that I didn’t hear about for about a year and a half afterwards. Nobody would say because they’d know my reaction. I would have challenged lads on different issues but only in the context of the good of the team. Having said that, the group of players we had were the players that we were going to have success with. Whatever was going on in-house I would have tried my best to make sure whoever was involved was still back in training. We all knew what we could achieve when we were right and that’s why maybe more stuff was tolerated than in other counties.”

As a player Whelahan bestrode the 1990s. In its laziness the mind’s eye has discarded many days and dates and still it couldn’t forget them all: the second half of the 1994 All-Ireland final; all of the 1995 Leinster final; the third Clare match in 1998; the second half of the All-Ireland final that year; the All-Ireland semi-final a year later; a League quarter-final in Thurles nine years ago when Whelahan and Brian Corcoran traded pucks, up and down, as if it was a clay court rally at Roland Garros.

Offaly players will tell you that John Troy was the most gifted ball player on their panel but on the field Troy couldn’t give the team what Whelahan did. “When he was hurling well,” says one former teammate, “I didn’t think we could be beaten.” By 2000 Troy was gone, with six or seven uneven years at the top behind him. Whelahan ploughed on.

Because he was so good people looked for holes. Centre-back was his position for Birr but he was never really comfortable there with Offaly and that was held over him like an asterisk: “Offaly always had a strong physical presence at centre-back. People like Pat Delaney and Hubert Rigney. I wouldn’t have anywhere near the physical presence of those fellas. Nothing was coming through the centre while Hubert was there. I wasn’t that type of player.

“But I went in centre-back during the All-Ireland final in ’94 and that worked out and I’ve always regretted not going in centre-back in ’95 (against Clare). Hubert was injured going into the game and for the last 10 minutes he was in agony — though Hubert would never tell you. Fergie Tuohy got a few points and if Offaly had re-jigged it a bit I maintain that wouldn’t have happened.”

When hurling’s Team of the Millennium was picked in 2000 the asterisk meant nothing and he was the only current player to be named. The selection was an honour but the garland wasn’t weightless around his neck either: “The following year, 2001, I started to think about it a little more and I said to myself, ‘You’re going to have to pull your socks up.’

“I remember coming off the field after the 2000 All-Ireland final and a supporter from Kilkenny lambasting me over being picked on the team. I was bad enough after being beaten by Kilkenny by whatever it was but to be met by this coming down the steps to the dressing room, I was fit to hit him. He was probably hinting at the fact that DJ wasn’t on the team.”

It was an extraordinary co- incidence that Carey and Whelahan should make their first start in the senior championship on the same day in 1990, one marking the other. Offaly were rampant that day and Carey was taken off before half-time, scoreless: a footnote now. They both became superstars, though their stardom was forged on different templates. Carey was the GAA’s first celebrity player, the first to realise the value of his image and make it count; the first really to suffer tabloid intrusion into his private life.

Whelahan went in a different direction. When he was in school he didn’t really know what he wanted to do but he reckoned that if hurling worked out he wouldn’t be short of a job. After his Leaving Cert he spent a summer as a helper on the lorries with Tullamore Frozen Foods and soon his fame sent him onto the road as a rep. At 23 he opened a pub and last October he acquired a newsagents in the middle of Birr. Hurling gave him a chance and he had the guts to take it.

Responsibility wasn’t something he was afraid of. He was only 17 when Aaron was born and suddenly life had thrust the ultimate responsibility on him and Mary: “It was a huge thing at the time. It’s something that you never legislate for. Mary (his wife) obviously was the person affected most at the time. We were lucky enough that we clicked and hit it off. At the end of the day, whether we got married or not, Aaron would have been a major part of my life one way or the other.”

Three daughters have expanded their brood to four, the youngest just two years old, the eldest eight. Aaron is 15 and already towering a couple of inches above his father. Birr have him training with the senior team and his vision of the future is no different than his father’s would have been at his age. “His big goal is he wants to make the (Offaly) minor team. I would put no pressure on him at all. He’d speak to me about hurling before I’d speak to him about it.

You don’t want that type of pressure on him. He has enough of it without me saying something to him.”

After the Leinster semi-final against Dublin, Whelahan brought Aaron and his friend into the dressing room in Croke Park. They had a puck around in the warm-up area while Dad caught his breath and then Aaron got serious: “He says to me, ‘Jesus Dad, what were you at today? What was wrong with you?’ You’re saying to yourself, you know you didn’t go well but how obvious was it? He’s very quick to let you know how bad you’ve been.”

Aaron might not remember 1995 and Kilkenny, the last time Offaly won a Leinster final. In all of the 1990s there were only half a dozen matches as good and maybe none so intense. In Offaly minds this was the game that would validate their All-Ireland from the previous September. Looking back Whelahan would say that the Clare trilogy in 1998 was the only other time that Offaly team was so focused. It was one of their greatest symphonies.

“I’ll never forget, we went back to the Aisling Hotel afterwards and there was only a handful of people there. There were more players than anybody else. This was a county that had won its first Leinster title only 15 years earlier. That has always stuck in the back of my mind. It was our best performance. It should have been a huge thing.”

It would be now, today. For Offaly and for Whelahan. This is why he stayed. For a day such as this. To roll the dice again.

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