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Aiming for a repeat offence

by Ian O'Riordan was published in the Irish Times on Friday the 2nd of June 2000

Three years ago, Offaly rattled the stands of Croke Park with a shock Leinster football final victory over Meath - the then, as now, All-Ireland champions. Despite coming off an anonymous league run in Division Four that season, a stirring display brought them the provincial title after 15 barren years.

On Sunday, the sides renew their rivalry with an early Leinster championship meeting. But while the bones of Offaly's line-up of three years back remain, fortunes have gradually turned. Meath slipped past them at similar stages with relative ease in the last two years, and, for this outing, will be as strongly fancied as ever.

The question then is whether or not Offaly have the ability to cause another surprise. Sean Grennan, this year's captain, played a crucial role at centre forward in the 1997 win and on Sunday will line out at centre back. Still at the fore of his playing days, Grennan nonetheless expects as demanding a game as anything he's been through.

"It's a bloody hard draw," he admits. "And I suppose we could be going better ourselves. Sunday is the first step in Meath's All-Ireland defence, and they have such strength and depth that it's going to be a very tough game for us.

"But like any championship game, we've done our work over the winter and this is everything we've geared for. We'll have to get all 15 players producing their best on the day, and be inspired by the fact that we're coming up against the All-Ireland champions. Everybody has us written off by now, so we've certainly nothing to loose."

Grennan knows better than anyone what this Offaly team is capable of. The Ferbane clubman debuted in the senior championship in 1991, starting out amongst the half forwards, then midfield, before settling at centre back this season.

"From playing at midfield, I know a bit about what it takes to hold up the defence. Playing here does mean that you have to be a lot more aware of tight marking, and not letting your man get away."

Despite going through Division Two of the league unbeaten up until the final loss to Louth, Grennan refuses to read too much into that form. "You have to remember that it was a lower division, and for the most part our league form wasn't lighting up the place. And we've been struggling with a few injuries since. What we do have is the experience." In fact, there are eight players from the victorious side of three years ago going to Croke Park on Sunday - including the influential corner back Cathal Daly and veteran forward Vinny Claffey. Even still, manager Padraig Nolan has also no hesitation in throwing the highly-fancied tag at Meath.

"They've been the most consistent team in the country for the last 10 or 12 years. And even if they play poorly they're a difficult team to beat."

Nor is Nolan under any illusions about the challenge that lies ahead. Some of the Meath talents played under his guidance while he taught at St Patrick's, Navan - including Trevor Giles, Hank Traynor, Barry Callaghan and Donal Curtis.

Nolan also sees Offaly's league run as providing limited indications of their true winter form. "I wouldn't have considered all our games to have been that impressive," he says, "and the final against Louth was a major disappointment. But we had a great training session the following Tuesday, and put it all right behind us."

Still, there were further setbacks to follow. After a full round of the county championships, the injury list grew and the likes of John Ryan and John Kenny were forced out of the action. Yet the biggest blow of all came when Ciaran McManus - the leading scorer across all divisions of the league - was handed a two month suspension for his sending-off in a club game.

His absence, admits Nolan, is a massive loss: "It is very unfortunate for the guy, because he is Offaly football to the core. He puts his heart and soul into the game, and it's so disappointing that he will miss the occasion."

Meath, of course, will be missing a similar key man through the suspension of Graham Geraghty. "He's the probably the most talented footballer in the country, so obviously he'll be a huge loss for them," adds Nolan.

And despite this being the first championship test for Nolan as a manager, he sees no reason to get over-excited. "To be honest, I'm so busy getting everything right for Sunday that I haven't had time to get nervous. I expect it doesn't really hit you until just before the game, and anyway, it's much worse for the players.

"But of course we believe that we have the ability to win, otherwise there's no point in playing, is there?."

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