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A bitter end to my time at Offaly

by Babs Keating was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 12th of July 1998

IT HAS been a sad and difficult week for me. I have a lot of respect for Offaly hurling people and for the most part I enjoyed my time as the Offaly manager, so it's a terrible disappointment to me that it ended the way it did. A couple of years ago, when I helped Johnny Pilkington with some personal problems, little did I think that he would betray me, but that's the way things have worked out.

I left Croke Park on Sunday determined to get an Offaly team right for the All-Ireland quarter-final. The selectors and I knew we had problems to address and so too did the players. After the match I made a short speech to the players reminding them of how well Tipperary did last year after losing the Munster final and saying that Offaly could still win the All-Ireland.

As captain for the day I asked Brian Whelahan to respond. In the course of his speech he said that there were players in the dressing room who were not showing the commitment needed and whose behaviour in the week of the match was deplorable. Brian knows that it wasn't me or him who was drinking until 12.30 on Saturday night.

I had been dying with the 'flu for a couple of days and didn't feel well enough to go to the Poitin Stil for the team meal on Sunday night. I guessed that a certain amount of talking had gone on when I got a phone call the following morning from Brendan Ward, the county board chairman, looking for a meeting. I had an appointment with the doctor at six o'clock so they offered to travel to the Spa Hotel in Lucan. The other selectors, Paudge Mulhare and Pat McLoughney, were present, along with county secretary Christy Todd, hurling secretary Tony Murphy and Brendan.

The meeting lasted three hours and I came out of it thinking that it had been very positive and constructive. We sketched out the team for our next game so that we could train players in their positions for the next three weeks and we set plans in motion for two challenge matches.

My after-match comments were raised, but it was an insignificant part of the meeting. Paudge made the point that he interpreted my remarks about our fellas bunching on the field and playing like "sheep in a heap" as a criticism of myself and my failure to get them playing the way I wanted. He said he had shown my comments to a friend of his and he interpreted them the same way. From my point of view that's how my comments were intended. In fact I said much the same thing after the Wexford match, but because we won nobody paid any heed to them.

I have also been criticised for singling out players and I have already expressed my regret for any hurt I may have caused to any Offaly player. But as a manager that is a calculated judgement that you make. After the 1988 All-Ireland final I criticised Pat Fox and I felt that the criticism was good for him. Three years later he was the hurler of the year.

At the meeting on Monday night we discussed the behaviour of some players and we decided that two of them would have to be spoken to before training on Wednesday night. One of those players was Johnny Pilkington. Then I open Tuesday morning's Irish Independent and there was Johnny condemning me.

I was prepared to confront Johnny and I was fully prepared to continue as Offaly manager, but around lunchtime I got a phone call from Brendan Ward. I knew from his tone that it wasn't the Brendan Ward I had spoken to on Monday night. He said the mood in Offaly wasn't good. My response was that we discussed all this last night. At the end of our conversation I realised that I couldn't defeat the mood in Offaly and I gave him my resignation.

Things had come to a head but, to be honest, I hadn't been happy in the week before the match. On the Tuesday night the other selectors put it to me that we wouldn't bother with a pre-match puck-around on Sunday morning. When we put it to the senior players that's what they seemed to want. I had never put out a team in an important match without a puck-around that morning, but I accepted it.

Then, at the Offaly supporters' club golf classic on Thursday, I was saying goodbye to Tony Murphy, the hurling secretary, when he said he'd see me at the team meeting that night. I had to bite my tongue. I was manager of the team but I knew nothing of a meeting that night.

I went along to Dooley's Hotel in Birr that evening at eight o'clock and they were all there, players and selectors. I handled it as best I could and put on a brave face. It wasn't the time for fall-outs so close to a big match and for the good of the team I made nothing of it.

I've depended on the loyalty of people around me in everything I've taken on in life, but I wonder if I got it from all my fellow selectors in Offaly? I didn't agree with certain aspects of the team we picked for the Kilkenny match, but majority rules and once it was picked I stood over it in public.

I remember the night below in Clonmel, when I resigned after we had to borrow players for a challenge match against Tipperary. Paudge agreed with me that night that I should resign and walk away from behaviour like that. I didn't see eye-to-eye with Paudge and Pat McLoughney about some things, but we agreed on a lot and I always gave them the respect they deserved. It's amazing then that they should step back and allow me to take all the flak this week. I don't believe I got the loyalty I deserved from them.

I went into Offaly with my eyes open. Johnny said during the week that everything was grand when Eamon Cregan was in charge but I know the problems that Eamon encountered. I know there were evenings when Eamon and his trainer, Derry O'Donovan, drove up from Limerick and were sickened by the attitude they met. But I accepted the job because I honestly believed there was an All-Ireland in this team and it is every manager's dream to make that happen.

I went out of my way to persuade Johnny to keep playing with Offaly, even though I had a few misgivings about him. We allowed him to play rugby with Birr until they were beaten in the semi-final of the Towns Cup and then took him back. He arrived three-quarters of an hour late for his first session with the Offaly hurlers but we tolerated it and tried to coax him along. On the day of the League match against Dublin, Johnny's commitment was to my mind a very long way from what it should have been. The people who shared a dressing-room with him that day will know what I'm talking about, but we stuck with him regardless.

I was as generous to him as I was to all the Offaly players. I turned up at training half an hour early to give some players extra coaching. Colm Cassidy, Mark Hand and John Ryan will know what I'm talking about. Problems on and off the field were discussed. I hope that's not all forgotten, no more than I'll forget the great help I got from Tony Murphy during my time in Offaly.

There's been a lot of speculation in Tipperary about me coming back as manager. When I took over first in 1986 I was lucky that in Michael Lowry Tipperary had a chairman who agreed with my vision and who stood by me while I tried to bring it to life. I was lucky with Noel Morris and Michael Maguire too, the other chairmen I worked with, because they were able to keep the structures in place. I wonder if it is possible to have those structures now?

As for Offaly I wish them nothing but the best for the rest of the summer. But I hope they realise that the problems that were there before I arrived have not been solved by me leaving.

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