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Pilkington: `It was sad but Babs just had to go'

by Vincent Gribbin was published in the Irish Independent on Friday the 11th of September 1998

LOOKING back, Johnny Pilkington takes no pleasure in what transpired between Sunday, July 5 and Tuesday 7 last.

However, only the manner of Babs Keating's leaving of Offaly in the aftermath of their Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny plays on his conscience.

His departure, says Pilkington, was born out of necessity.

So, maybe neutrals who rue Clare's exit from this year's Guinness All-Ireland hurling championship with the logic that a great fairytale was interrupted by Offaly in Thurles should take time to ponder how their conquerors have written a fresher fable.

Those who marched behind The Banner have justifiable claims that their's is the best team in the country and any real protestations at the side's controversial demise will doubtless grow louder if there's a drab decider on Sunday.

Pilkington knows this, and there are those who believe that for a man who has publicly wondered about the level of commitment required from modern-day inter-county hurlers, he probably knows too much, and talks too much, for his own good.

In a county where application, not least his own, had been questioned, Pilkington's public shot at Keating appeared a risky exercise, but according to the player, the manager's media outburst against his own side after the Leinster final was a just the spark which exploded a powderkeg.

TWO days later Keating was gone, after the Offaly county board had stepped into the debate and Pilkington had rebutted the manager's comments in the Irish Independent.

``I said what I said in the wrong place,'' Pilkington says now. ``It should have been done privately, but looking back at it, I don't know how that would have worked out.

``If it had been done behind closed doors a row would have started, one of us would certainly have walked away and I imagine it would have been the manager. He would have had to go.

``There are lads here who aren't eejits. We talked on the Monday night before my comments appeared and none of the players I spoke to were happy with the way things were. It was coming to a head, something had to give.''

Keating's fate was sealed by a phonecall to Pilkington from this newspaper's GAA Correspondent, Liam Horan, at lunchtime the day after the Leinster final.

``He got me in the right time and place from his (Horan's) point of view. Later that day, well, you can imagine the way it was.

``We'd lost the match and you knew people were going to be talking about what you've said and you think `Jeez, maybe it was the wrong thing to say.' But he asked me a question and I answered it.

``Next day at 3.45 I heard he had resigned. I didn't feel good about it.''

It was later stated by county Board Chairman Brendan Ward that Keating had been asked to go, something Pilkington is reluctant to comment on. ``I don't want to go much deeper than what I've already said. Maybe sometime later on, if I ever write a book.''

If there is a book in Pilkington, this year's three-match saga with Clare, as well as his role in the unprecedented departure of a manager mid-championship, is also certain to feature.

``We had to beat them. We weren't doing ourselves justice at all and were in danger of being a skilful team with nothing to show for it.

The third day we had to do it for the people of Offaly after the way they had come on to the pitch after the short game. We owed them that, and we owe them more. If they hadn't done it I don't think we'd have got the replay.''

CLARE are still on his agenda, in fact, they are his principal thought going into Sunday.

``If we don't win they're always going to be questions. Would we have beaten them if they had Colin Lynch? Would we have beaten them if Ger Loughnane hadn't said this or that?

``Would we have beaten them if the first replay hadn't been blown up short?

Without Babs, there was a line of thinking that with new manager, Michael Bond in situ, Offaly would destroy Antrim at the quarter-final stage after less than inspiring performances against Wexford and Kilkenny and the farce of their one-sided first round Leinster tie against Meath. It didn't happen.

It was Bond's first game in charge and his record since absolves him of blame. Nevertheless, the notion persists that his biggest challenge is getting his side's application right.

``That's said,'' says Pilkington, ``but this is our third All-Ireland final in four years ... maybe there is a bit of an attitude here, but I don't think it's any better or worse than any other county.''

But their determination to beat Clare, and the impact of Bond, has been clear.

``For the first day, I suppose it was the fact that we had been written off over the past three years or so.

``The fact that Clare beat us in the 1995 All-Ireland final, the fact that we felt we were as good as them but weren't getting the credit maybe we didn't deserve it and the fact that they were late out on the field in Ennis for a league game that was fair motivation.''

Bond's arrival has been well chronicled, his psychological impact perhaps less so.

``When he arrived he talked to us for five minutes. He told us who he was and what he had done; what he thought and expected of Offaly hurling; to get out and train ... and that's been done.''

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