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Cold nights in Birr

by Christy O'Connor was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 23rd of January 2005

By 8pm in Birr on Tuesday, the temperature had dropped to 3C and the threat of the icy rain which had been falling in sporadic bursts all day still hung in the air. The expanse of St Brendan's Community College was black, dank and silent, save for a small corner where floodlights had carved a bright rectangle out of the darkness and the stillness was disturbed by the sound of Offaly hurlers going to work on the all-weather surface.
Nine of them wore hats to insulate themselves from the chill but they also warmed themselves with the incandescence of John McIntyre's drills. The session was sharp and snappy, concentrating on the primacy of first touch and quick striking. After the third drill, McIntyre called them into the centre for a water break and told them to wrap their arms around one another. '

Get in a link because we're going to recover together,' he said. 'Take a deep breath and hold it for 10.'

On the brink of a new season, Offaly hurling is taking a deep breath of its own. The county has been adrift and buffeted since the break-up of the team of the past decade and now they are gasping for air. They play Down today in the Walsh Cup knowing that their opponents assume Division One League status, while Offaly prepare for Division Two. Welcome to reality; cold, hard reality.

When they were relegated last April, they had no time to dwell on the ramifications. The Leinster championship was in their faces and only Laois and Dublin stood in their way of a Leinster final. The summer was pregnant with promise but they blew a glorious chance of a Leinster title and they bombed in the qualifiers against Clare. Ever since, they have tried to wipe the disappointment from their hard-drive but they couldn't delete the bottom line.

'We knew what we had to do in the League last year and we couldn't do it,' says Brendan Murphy. 'We're paying the price now but what can you do only bite the bullet. Things couldn't get any worse than they are, but we're building from scratch now. When you make a mistake, you have to make up for it. That's what we're going to try and do.'

They were victims of the system last year. They defeated Tipperary, Antrim and Wexford and missed out on progress to the top phase of the League only on points difference to Limerick. When they played Kilkenny in the second phase, they picked up six injuries and at training the following week there were 11 players injured on the sideline and a couple more unavailable due to exams. The slide came, the slope caught them and the wheels came off. Dublin hammered them by 18 points and when Laois buried them six minutes into injury-time, they debunked the myth that Offaly couldn't lose such a high-stakes game in their backyard to a team they didn't rate. That defeat and the dawning of Division Two hurling has drawn up a vision of the imminent arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

'If I was to heed all the negative comments I've heard since I was appointed manager, I could be excused for walking away from the job,' says Mc- Intyre. 'There is a perception out there that Offaly are going nowhere. We could extract comfort from that, sit back and win the matches we can and then, if we're not disgraced in the Leinster championship, people would see it as progress. The easy thing would be to use that as a crutch but that's not the way it's going to be.'

This is McIntyre's second time with Offaly. He was in charge in 1997 when they lost the Leinster semi-final by three points to Wexford and he wasn't asked back. McIntyre was disappointed but he admits that he was flattered to get the job back then and that he was probably too eager to impress.

Last October when they offered a return, he declined. When they rang him a second time, he hesitated and agreed to meet a six-man selection committee. He was offered the position a month later.

'Straight up, I haven't gone back to Offaly with the blinkers on. There's no easy ride but nobody is under any illusions about where Offaly hurling is and where we have to go.'

Which is just as well, because this is new territory for Offaly hurling. In 1977, they defeated Wicklow in Aughrim by 0-3 to 0-1 en route to securing promotion from Division Two and that team departed with a promise never to return. Offaly spent three seasons in Division Two between 1992-95, but the structure and make-up of the League then was entirely different to what it is now.

The top division was condensed with fewer teams and Division Two was littered with quality sides. In their last League game in 1993, Down beat a Kilkenny side in Nowlan Park with 12 of their All- Ireland winning team on board and packed them off to Division Two. In the following year's League, Offaly beat Kerry by just a point with nine of the side that would go on to win the All-Ireland in September. Offaly reached the League semi-final through Division Two in 1995 but not before Meath had scalped them.

That Offaly team was always able to surf the tricky waves, and had a worldliness that this young side couldn't expect to have. After they became a force in 1980, Offaly teams were not always universally good but they were always supremely proud and confident. But at half-time in last year's Leinster final against Wexford, heads went down after Damien Fitzhenry had denied Offaly four goals. They panicked in the second half and drifted from the gameplan but more than anything else, that lack of confidence railed against the culture of Offaly hurling.

'The way we lost that game is still haunting us,' says Murphy. 'You could see why the confidence was seeping out of fellas at half-time but then at the back of your head, you were thinking, 'we're better than these fellas'. It just all went wrong.'

The loss of Brian Whelahan 10 minutes into that second half was a significant blow and they won't know until next month if he is returning. They need experience and physical strength but while they might be waiting a while to get a better chance to win a Leinster title, Division Two doesn't represent the Armageddon that some have predicted.
'People are saying that Offaly are bet and that we're gone and are finished for years,' says Colm Cassidy. 'But we were only a puck of the ball away from winning a Leinster title last year. We gave that game to Wexford. Fitzhenry was excellent but the balls were hit at a perfect height for him.

'On any given day, I still think we're as good as anybody. We need to be more professional and ruthless and when we get a chance like that again, we need to take it. We were punished last year but we still have young hurlers with loads of skill. If we can get the minds right and get focused, I think we could ruffle a few feathers before the year is out.'

As the session drew to a close on Tuesday night, McIntyre handed out a penance to his players for their imperfections in his final drill. After they had completed five press-ups and 30 squats, McIntyre addressed them with his rasping voice piercing the cold air. 'Ye are Offaly and ye are proud. But we're in the line of fire now and unless we fight, we'll fall like everybody expects us to.'

The fight starts today.

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