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Offaly brothers in arms

by Vincent Hogan was published in the Irish Independent on Saturday the 26th of July 2003

GARY HANNIFFY lives just a field away from Tipperary.

Actually, he lives in a mixed-up little village. Riverstown marks the end of South Offaly and the beginning of North Tipp, a narrow, quirky bridge stitching the two together. The postal address is 'Birr, Co Offaly.'

But most of the village sits south of the bridge, putting it in Tipperary.

The Hanniffys, mind you, reside just north. And that's important. In the GAA, sometimes the width of a tree might as well be the breadth of an ocean. From the elevated porch of his family home, Gary could drive a sliotar deep into Tipperary pasture.

But he is captain of an Offaly hurling team on which his younger brother, Rory, plays alongside him. And, tomorrow, the Hanniffys' proximity to that bridge in Riverstown will be about a good deal more than geography.

Offaly play Tipp in an All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park that has been stoking the strangest energies. All week in Birr, people have been shrugging a little resignedly at Gary. "Almost apologetic" as he puts it.

And, sometimes, he finds himself thinking that last Sunday night's draw might as well have pitted them against some awful force of nature. People are coming across all doomladen. "Well" they chuckle. "What did you make of the draw . . . "

And, from their voices, he senses they might as well be asking what he thinks of famine and disease.

Except, Gary Hanniffy thinks the draw is fine. Tipp? Yeah, fine. He's not being disrespectful. It's just the way people talk you'd think Tipp and Offaly had a history like the mongoose and the snake.

But their history, in Championship at least, amounts to one mediocre game. Portlaoise on a Saturday evening last July. Tipp won by 13 points. Offaly were awful.

And that's it. One game, one regrettable mis-match. Cause to man the Offaly bunkers?

"I would have no qualms about meeting Tipp now," says Hanniffy. "When you're trying to win an All-Ireland, who are you fooling by hoping to get easy teams? Look, losing a game like we lost last July goes straight to your heart. It takes a long time to get over it.

"But last year was just a disaster from start to finish. Everyone was just glad to get away from it. So, to get a crack at Tipp again after losing to them by that margin, there is huge motivation. But I'm not going to stand up and start breaking tables to prove it."

Smashing timber has never been a Hanniffy trait.

There is a calm, thoughtfulness to the Offaly captain. He is 26, in his final year of a PhD in chemistry at UCG and armed with gentle self-possession. In March, he captained Birr to a record fourth All-Ireland club crown. He doesn't shout about that, but the town is more to him than just a homeplace.

Though Gary was born in Athlone, his father - Declan - is a Birr man who also hurled for Offaly. And Gary's two older brothers, Conor and Darren, were both members of the Birr team that beat Sarsfields in the '98 All-Ireland final.

So the Hanniffys are Birr and Offaly to the bone. In history and colour.

There was little bunting through the county this week. But, then, this is not a place noted for hype or brashness. Offaly people don't express themselves in extremes. Good days and bad days are just part of the natural flow. Hysteria and grief belong to foreign cycles.

And, in some ways, Gary Hanniffy could be a whetstone for the county mood. When they went to play Limerick in Thurles recently, the entire team reputedly under a cloud, Gary found himself watching the players closely and chuckling. They went into that game so bonded, so united, the notion of disharmony seemed absurd.

He doesn't discuss the specifics of the Whelahans' spat with management, save offering the "party political line, if you want it." The point is, Offaly were never facing crisis. They deal with things in an adult way. And Thurles just saw them move on.

He remembers Brian Whelahan gathering the players in a circle beforehand, watching his animation. When Brian speaks, people listen. Same thing with Joe Erity. Another captain might have been troubled by the clutter of voices. Hanniffy felt only contentment.

"You would be crazy not to take advantage of their kind of experience," he says impassively. "They have an incredible amount of respect within the county. Sure, I'm captain and I'll say my few words too. But I don't believe in speaking for the sake of it.

"And I just felt the spirit was absolutely right that evening."

So Offaly fooled the pundits and are heading back to Croke Park. Better still, the sense of team is growing. There were surreal days in winter when Birr would go down to train in the local community school and find Mike McNamara already there with Offaly.

Birr's sessions were light and tuned to immediacy, Offaly's heavy and strictly long-term. And the Birr lads would filter away after maybe 40 minutes of snappy movement, winking at the county boys as Mike Mac horsed them up the hill.

It was April before Pat Joe Whelahan's boys rejoined the county panel but, when they did, they sensed a substance to what they found.

McNamara had given them three weeks off after the All-Ireland club final to recharge mentally. And that was crucial. They had a team holiday to undertake. But, before they went, Gary decided to go in for one session. "Boy was I sorry" he chuckles now.

McNamara assured him it was the last of the really "heavy" nights. And so it proved though they would never have classified a Mike Mac session as "light". Without the Birr contingent, Offaly had had a reasonable league campaign, beating Cork and Limerick in the process. With their return, club rivalries needed to be sedated.

That's the funny thing about Offaly hurling. Birr have won the last four county championships but it's never been a glide on a lake. Two years ago, Coolderry took them to a replay. Last year, St Rynaghs did the same. Both campaigns brought Birr all the way to All-Ireland glory.

"We've actually got our toughest challenges within the county," says Hanniffy. "So it's never been about us being ahead of the others."

Still, there was also the need to mentally re-acclimatise.

Birr's regime is pretty personal. The closeness of group is cultivated by unorthodox managerial gambits. Essentially, Pat Joe's family extends way beyond the holy trinity of Brian, Barry and Simon. It goes through the dressing-room. And his style is built on trust.

"There is this myth about Offaly hurling," says Hanniffy. "And it probably goes back to Johnny Pilkington, this idea that we're all smoking in a dressing-room at half-time. But, with Birr, it's actually not too far from the truth. We've amazing characters in the club, characters the like of you wouldn't see anywhere else.

"I mean last year we went up to check on the Cavan pitch two weeks before our All-Ireland semi-final against Dunloy and we stayed overnight in a local hotel. We had a right feed of pints that night and it was brilliant.

"Pat Joe had the foresight to know that that was going to bring the team together. It had a brilliant effect on the whole thing.

"This year, we did the same before our semi-final against Athenry. Spent a great weekend in Cork. Pat Joe would be encouraging us to have the few pints. Definitely. And that's why it's such an enjoyable environment.

"We all know each other so well. Everyone's very laid-back. I mean we train hard, awful hard at times. And people don't realise that. But we have our pints too.

"And that's the real essence for me of what we've done with Birr. Not so much the trophies won. But the quality of the friendships made."

Still, he likes McNamara's toughness too. Describes him as "a fairly unique sort of guy."

And he welcomes the fact that the Scariff man has three years in which to build a new Offaly. Too much of the county's recent planning has been too short-term and too feckless.

He points to Colm Cassidy's brilliance against Limerick in Thurles and wonders how such a player could have been allowed "disappear" for the last two years. Cassidy was, after all, a county panellist in '98. "I suppose you hear stories like that in every county," says Hanniffy. "But, in Offaly, we can't afford to let people like that slip away."

For Hanniffy, though, the hurling future is tomorrow, not beyond. Tipperary in Croke Park. After eight years as a student, he will soon be looking for a job in the pharmaceutical industry. Where that takes him is anybody's guess.

So this game matters quite a deal to Gary Hanniffy. He's been hurling with the county seniors since '97, making his National League debut (a winning one too) against Tipp in Nenagh under John McIntyre. Then 'Babs' came and left in the "rollercoaster" summer of '98. And Hanniffy found himself "tagging onto" the team that won the Liam McCarthy for Michael Bond.

Things have drifted since, though Offaly had two rip-roaring Championship contests with Cork in '99 and 2000, winning the latter.

We can take it that Tipp won't find the Offaly captain thumping walls. He'll just hurl as he always does, with honesty and intellect. Pushing that gloved hand towards the sky like a catcher's mitt. Picking his passes and, hopefully, a few scores. Oh, he'll be wound up too, but in a private way.

"I'd be very proud of where I'm from," says Gary Hanniffy. "And, when it comes to a game like this, you want to put one over your neighbour, don't you? Trust me, I'll get wound up once the game starts. When the whistle goes, it'll be a different Gary out there."

Hurling for his side of the bridge.

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