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Offaly candle's final fire

by Tommy Conlon was published in the Sunday Times on Sunday the 9th of August 1998

The prospect of paying back Clare can fan the flames of a team that had talent to burn. Tommy Conlon on Offaly's mixed legacy
THEY'VE had more managers and more disappointments than they care to remember - they look set for another of the latter today. A bunch of Offaly players that promised so much when the decade began are fading in concert with it, bearing fewer prizes from the game than their talent perhaps threatened.

Three or four of today's 15 will probably pack it in if they are beaten today. Several of them won All-Ireland minor medals in the late Eighties - they had a National League annexed by 1991.

Brian Whelahan admitted a few years later that the League title went to their heads. Dublin caught them on the hop in the '91 championship, Kilkenny handed out further lessons to them in '92 and '93.

When they won the All-Ireland in '94, 12 of the 17 that played against Wexford in the '91 League final played that day also - and seven of them will play today, with Billy Dooley and Daithí Regan also still on the scene. Regan, Dooley and Michael Duignan were on the minor team that won the county's first All-Ireland, in 1986. Brian Whelahan, Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington and John Troy were on the team that followed suit in '87; Hubert Rigney was on the team that brought home a remarkable third minor All-Ireland that decade, in 1989.

With the team that won the All-Ireland in 1985 disintegrating, new talent was needed and the best minors were pitched into the senior panel without delay, racking up a couple of under-21 campaigns along the way - Offaly lost three finals in this grade between '89 and '92, Pilkington and Johnny Dooley playing in all three.

In the senior game, it's a rule of thumb that the later you start, the longer you last. "Not alone have these lads started early," says Horan, "but they've got no break either. The pool of talent is so small they're expected to turn out for everything. If you throw in two All-Ireland club titles for Birr, a lot of these fellows haven't had a good long rest from the game in 10 years. It's no wonder they've gone stale from time to time."

A second All-Ireland might have been just about right, but Clare famously deprived them of it in '95. There has been small but incremental slippage each year since. A reputation for slacking has followed them around like a bad smell.

Horan and his successors, Eamonn Cregan and John McIntyre, say the reputation has been grossly exaggerated. However nor has it been totally imagined. "They are more laid-back than we were," says PadraigHoran, a former player and manager. "If some of us weren't pulling our weight we'd lock the door and have it out in the dressing room. I couldn't see that happening with the present bunch."

"I would still have a soft spot for them," says McIntyre. "Maybe one or two could have minded themselves more off the field, but I found them a humble bunch of lads to work with. But if they don't have that as a gut instinct, it's very hard to put it into them."

He doesn't necessarily agree that they've underachieved however: "Maybe they should count their blessings for winning one - many's a good team never won one at all."

They owe Clare a defeat after '95, he says. And they might feel the need to "stand up and be counted" after their very public spat with the then manager Babs Keating just over a month ago. "Strange things motivate players, but if there's anything left in this Offaly team, I think Clare will bring it out of them on Sunday."

They are Offaly, after all - a resurrection is not out of the question.

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