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Difficult times for Offaly Small counties in crisis

by Seán Moran was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 8th of June 2002

CHAMPIONSHIP 2002/Offaly v Kilkenny: Seán Moran reports on why the modern game places unfair demands on players and the knock-on effect it has on small counties like Offaly

In the flushed aftermath of Birr's All-Ireland club victory in Thurles on St Patrick's Day, Brian Whelahan was naturally in bullish humour. He was particularly pleased with the performances of some of the younger players and said that the future of hurling in Offaly was bright.

Some of those emerging players return to Thurles tomorrow afternoon for the Guinness Leinster hurling semi-finals - exiled for this year because of the new pitch installation in Croke Park. Good displays from the likes of John Paul O'Meara and Stephen Browne will cheer up Offaly supporters but whatever about the long-term merits of Whelahan's optimism, the immediate future looks difficult for the county.

After two decades of splitting Leinster fairly evenly with Kilkenny, Offaly go into tomorrow's match against the provincial champions facing a fifth successive walloping at the hands of a county, which until recently used to inspire them to ultra-competitive hurling. As the baton is passed between the generations, Kilkenny with their 10 successive Leinster minor titles in the 1990s would appear to have the future well in hand. The truly exceptional cohort that earned Offaly two All-Ireland titles is steadily drifting away.

Having to replace a successful team is always hard but Offaly with their small hurling population, have always relied on a limited number of players. The process of rejuvenation is consequently harder, according to Michael Bond who managed the All-Ireland winning team in 1998 and returned for a season last summer.

There is for instance only five of the side left that won the 1994 title (four if you omit Johnny Dooley who is injured tomorrow) and seven of the team that won '98. Within the last year alone, All Stars Johnny Pilkington, John Troy and Kevin Kinahan have departed.

"No team could cover up for that immediately," says Bond. "You can bring in fringe players up to a point but having to cover for exceptional players is different. And Offaly have produced fabulous hurlers who have been very consistent."

He is critical of the demands on modern players and believes that Offaly is particularly affected because of their reliance on a small pool of talent. As a result burnout creates even greater difficulties for counties that can ill-afford to lose players prematurely.

"Where have all the hurlers gone?" asks Bond. "Niall Quinn played a major role for Ireland this week. In 1983 he hurled in the minor All-Ireland final - against Joe Cooney and other hurlers who went on to play senior.

Why are they not playing any more and Niall Quinn is? Or Teddy Sheringham for England? "Modern players can't do a job and train for a manager five nights a week. It's insane. There are mortgages to be paid, families to be looked after. These considerations have taken over.

"The GAA has to look after the players. Why should they be playing in matches that generate millions of pounds and find it hard to get a drink afterwards? As manager I had to say: 'I need you five times a week'. Someone like John Troy who's an electrician was working 20 miles away. He has to leave to get to training for seven o'clock. Overtime is generally available between five and 10 o'clock so he loses out. Then he pays �50 to get into an All-Ireland final."

The loss of players in their early 30s is one side-effect of relentless training regimes but the other is that players who persevere become prey to chronic injury. Combining club and county activity places great strain on players and even the greatest struggle to stay on the treadmill.

"Brian Whelahan has hurled around the clock for the past few years," says Bond. "What he does is unreal. Why has Brian Whelahan so many injuries? That's why. Simon Whelahan had to play on God knows what injury for Birr in the club final. That's not right. By the time players get to my age they will suffer from arthritis. It's really about time we supported them."

New county manager Tom Fogarty spoke during the week of the importance of Birr's success for Offaly. The club has been a remarkable success story over the past 10 years, winning three All-Irelands and bringing in a steady stream of new players for each success. Their win over Clarinbridge in March was further kudos for the club and Offaly hurling in general. That's reflected in the presence of nine players from the club in tomorrow's selection.

The trouble with this unsurprising policy is that it exerts further pressure on players who have already had one exhausting campaign over the past 12 months. "Nine Birr players," says Bond. "These guys have been hurling from January to December last year and again this year. They've no chance of keeping their appetite. There has to be at least two and a half months of a close season."

There are other problems with placing too heavy a reliance on a single club side. It's obviously no reflection on Birr but it is on the rest of the county - an indication that the talent pool is seeping away, according to former Offaly hurler Michael Duignan, now in his first season as a manager, with Meath.

"Nine from Birr - or from any club - is probably too many. Birr always had five or six but this many is a bad sign for hurling in the county. My own club St Ryanagh's used to be as big as Birr; now only Hubert Rigney is on the team. Clareen is the same, used to provide the Coughlans and the Dooleys. This weekend there's none (Johnny Dooley is injured).

"But Birr is the centre of the population. People are moving in from the smaller communities. I remember Ger Coughlan saying one year that there were only two or three boys starting school in Kinnity. This is a problem that's developing."

The central question in the minds of onlookers is to what extent Offaly hurling has been a flash phenomenon, brought about by the coincident emergence of so many talented players at once. In other words can the county hope to be a constant presence on the main stage or could the wait for another All-Ireland be a long one?

"Offaly should be too small," says Duignan. "It's always struggling against the odds and there's been a huge turnover recently. Statistically it should be too small. At the moment you've a certain standard coming through but it's the exceptional players that are in short supply. Offaly need one or two of these, like Brian Whelahan, in the same way Tipperary have discovered Eoin Kelly. Offaly have to find those one or two extra as well as a couple of leaders. Last year was a big year for a few of the players and asked big questions from them. This year those questions will be asked again."

There have been signs that some good prospects are in the pipeline but that won't give any comfort to Tom Fogarty tomorrow when the requirement is for a competitive team here and now. Offaly have to be able to keep the show on the road until significant fresh talent emerges.

"What I believe is that there is a good batch coming through in the 14-16 age group," says Duignan. "The fear is for this period and can the county keep things going for the next few years." Offaly's opponents tomorrow have grasped the nettle as Michael Duignan admiringly points out. "Look at what Brian Cody's done in Kilkenny. He's reinvented a team and deserves a lot of credit for that. He brought in young players without a load of retirements forcing it on him. While the likes of John Power and Charlie Carter are still around, he's blooded new players. I was conscious of that when I retired. I felt it was time to move on rather than hang around. Let others come through." The problem for Offaly has been that so many players have aged at the same time and that extensive renovations are needed just to keep pace with retirements. It'smake or break time.

"If you don't give young players a chance," says Duignan, "you're storing up trouble. Offaly people might be giving out about some of the players on Sunday. But what else can you do?"

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