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Seriously skilful but oh, so human

by Dermot Crowe was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 10th of September 2000

THE popular caricature portraying Offaly hurlers as being poorly disciplined, lazy and slightly hedonistic is grossly misleading.

"That's the way we do things in Offaly" Brendan Ward, county board chairman, November, 1999

IT is Offaly press night in Tullamore and outside the dressing-rooms another blow is being struck for caricature. Johnny Pilkington faces an RTE camera but it appears that he may have been taken by surprise; a cigarette is stored in one hand behind his back, awaiting oblivion.

The popular interpretation of Offaly is based on snapshots like this one, all stitched together in the subliminal to the extent that it is now virtually impossible or unfashionable to protest. But the view makes for a gross distortion. Pilkington, irreverent, unconventional and clearly unbound by abstinence or censorship, has largely perpetuated the myth on his own, with some help from a few others.

They are in the minority; the larger percentage more in keeping with formal role models. Offaly aren't holy Joes by any means but neither are they the hurling equivalent of the Kennedys. Most managers who have worked there regard them as loyal, unassuming, and prepared to do what is asked of them.

"There is a perception that Offaly like to burn the candles at both ends," admits John McIntyre, their manager for the 1997 championship, while the man responsible for starting the entire phenonemon, Dermot Healy, explains that they could hurl and let the hair down "with equal success."

Even Pilkington is frequently misunderstood and given simplistic labels like `rebel' and `troubleshooter' when there is a much more complex dynamic at work. There may be no finer distillation of the Offaly caricature than Pilkington, but he continues to defy his critics with consistently high levels of performance.

Anyway, it suits Offaly to be regarded as an almost horizontally laid-back sort that only appear driven when sufficiently goaded. "Johnny Pilkington has done the best marketing job in underselling Offaly," states McIntyre wisely. "Every interview he does gives the impression that it's no big deal (hurling) in his life."

It was Healy who sowed the seeds of ambivalence for which Offaly are renowned regarding the national league. The county's springtime ennui is palpable and fuels the public impression of a dozy, cynical race. When summer arrives no one knows quite what to expect from them.

In 1981 they reached the league final without really stretching themselves, having won their first ever senior provincial title the summer before. Healy treated the prospect of a league win with utter trepidation.

"The way I looked at it in the eighties was that Offaly had a limited amount of hurlers and I definitely took the view that we would not take the league seriously. I felt that winning the league would be their first national title and, with the celebrating, that would be the end of us for the year.

"Before the early league games I might not say a word and then we would start shouting around April. Offaly got a name for not taking the league seriously and that, I suppose, continued into the next generation. Other counties like Kilkenny could play one team in the league and a different one in the championship. If Offaly had gone for it they would have been spun out in a year or two."

Healy remembers how in those years Offaly were often written off on the basis of their poor league displays. They won All-Ireland finals in 1981 and 1985 against the odds and lost to Cork in '84 when they were fancied. Recent history also shows some of their best hurling came when least expected.

IT is, like Pilkington's laissez-faire style, a feature that can work to their advantage. Never, in all their famous wins of the last 20 years, was it more startlingly exhibited than in the All-Ireland semi-final dismissal of Cork. All GAA teams realise the motivational value of being written off; Offaly are professors of this school.

The generally accepted view of Offaly is that if they are motivated enough they will beat anyone. Even back in 1980 there was a magazine headline that predicted `Easy for Kilkenny' ahead of their Leinster final clash which brought less than 10,000 souls to Croke Park to see history in the making.

On another occasion in recent seasons they were incensed by a newspaper article that had seeded All-Ireland champions of the previous 25 years and placed them near the bottom. "They ripped it apart in the dressing-room," one witness said. Behind that laid-back exterior, that generally demure demeanour, lies a competitive animal as fierce as any in the field.

"Offaly don't really rely on speed and fitness," states Clare hurler Anthony Daly. "Look at the full-forward line; what speed is in it? They don't go in for that. They play to a gameplan and they're intelligent enough to know what to do on their own. The half-backs try to pull their men in and the midfielders play as defenders. The half-forwards come out and leave the space inside."

He accepts that Offaly milk the underdog role to its limits, and even the system, but quickly adds that none of this would be remotely possible if they did not possess the talent they do. "As regards stickwork," says Daly, "they are probably better than most counties."

Would they be so successful if they were playing in the Munster championship? "I would say that they'd still have won a couple of All-Irelands; they can put their minds down to it when they want to," he responds. "I wonder would they be in this final though?"

Their indifference to the league did not prevent McIntyre, anxious to make an early impression as manager, from chalking up two good wins over Tipperary and Wexford in his season in charge. They were on the brink of the semi-finals when they met Limerick, but the league was interspersed with the championship and they got sandwiched between the two goals.

Faced with an upcoming championship game, McIntyre chose to pick an understrength team. Limerick won by two points and qualified at Offaly's expense. In the championship, McIntyre's side went on to beat Laois but lost narrowly to Wexford. After just one shot, he was asked to leave.

"I know that in retrospect the players felt that we put too much into the league, but the fixtures just clogged up. You felt it was almost the same build-up for the league as the championship, but I was anxious to get some early wins under my belt."

At training in Banagher the night the team for the Limerick match was announced, Martin Hanamy said in a rare intervention that he felt it was the wrong decision. "We should keep winning," he argued, and McIntyre was tempted to take his advice.

He remembers the county board being quite thorough and professional at the original interview. A seven-man panel sat before him in Tullamore that included Pat Fleury and the IFA President, Tom Parlon, an Offaly native. "They were determined, in so far as it was possible, that whoever they got was not going to be someone for the sake of it," recalls McIntyre.

"You wouldn't expect to be grilled as much if you were going for a salaried job in the workplace. But they were open and you could see that it was all above board. They were anxious that I would be hard on discipline and that I had man-management qualities." Within 48 hours he had the job.

THE board was extremely sticky when it came to rules and regulations, insisting that he wore the official manager's sweater as the GAA had requested, and later refusing Babs Keating permission to take along a young supporter to the dug-outs on big match days. "We're only allowed members of the offical party on the sideline," explained county chairman Brendan Ward. "It's the way we do things here."

At a meeting with officers before he left, McIntyre was told that he had not been hard enough on discipline, players were cited for playing soccer and rugby, while there were always stories circulating about drinking sessions. Living in Galway, he was "cocooned" from most of this.

He heard stories after he left which disappointed him two players went on a drinking session the day before the Limerick league game, for example. McIntyre had heard of Offaly's reputation before taking up the post, of course, and he hails from Lorrha in north Tipperary which is only six miles from the Offaly border.

He arrived with no pre-conceived notions and they went into heavy training in early January. No one demurred. At different stages he held back some of the players for extra training on Wednesday nights if he felt they were carrying excess poundage but he had full co-operation then too.

"Maybe I saw the human side too much. I remember once asking them at a meeting were they happy, inviting them to talk, and they just looked at me in surprise. I tried not to behave like a schoolteacher with them."

One schoolteacher, Michael Bond, established an extradordinary rapport with them when he came from virtual anonymity to lead a deflated side to the 1998 All-Ireland. He dismisses the conventional stereotype as just that and insists that he never encountered any disciplinary problems during his stay.

"My biggest problem was to ensure that they were all injury-free. A few injuries would have you in serious trouble. That happened early in the season in the last few years but, injury-free, the more hurling they got the better they got."

Injuries have been largely overlooked in Offaly's case but their limited resources mean that even one or two can be potentially devastating. Hubert Rigney and Kevin Kinahan have missed big championship matches in recent seasons and Rigney did not play at all this summer, while wing-backs Brian Whelahan and Kevin Martin are both injury prone.

The mileage is also high, exacerbated by Birr's success (two All-Irelands and one Leinster club win in the past six seasons). These factors may explain some of Offaly's erratic form more reliably than any flaws in their attitude or temperament.

There were problems during Keating's tenure that much was evident. After they lost the '98 Leinster final to Kilkenny, Brian Whelahan spoke frankly in the dressing-room of a suspect "attitude and approach" among some players. "I did not think the commitment was there," he said later. Despite the violations, Whelahan's was the majority view.

In any event, Joe Dooley hurling senior championship since 1984 and racing around Tullamore Harriers' track in his spare time is a potent antidote to those recurring Roman themes.

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