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Whelahan is still one of the boys

by Keith Duggan was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 5th of August 2000

Keith Duggan senses a deep pride among Birr locals for newly ordained hurling legend Brian Whelahan.

The pub was heaving on the Monday evening. Confirmation that Brian Whelahan had been officially ordained among the ranks of hurling's legends was always going to mean a late drink locally but strange faces lit the bar also. They journeyed from every corner of the county, calling pints and shaking his hand. The best right wing-back ever putting a head on your Guinness. Birr is not a town in which people tend to elaborate on the nature of heroism. Of course, there is a deep rooted pride that, for a combination of reasons which can only be guessed at, the community has shaped the finest generation of hurlers it can hope to know.

Rarely is Birr mentioned without misty tales of how the Pilkingtons, Whelahans, the Cahills and young Errity used to scampishly run the streets together, lift hurls together. That background and the cosy and fond ordinariness of such images are standard reference points in all sport, essential in helping us to place the feats of great athletes in some sort of context we can relate to. To remind us that off the field, these people were and remain just like us.

So it is in Birr. This generation, which delivered two club All-Irelands for the town in the 1990's are both revered and taken for granted. The boys. Regular characters who just happened to be wizards with hurls. Johnny Pilkington, with his punkish, vulnerable rebellious streak, casual wit and even easier hurling style. Joe Errity big sauntering Joe with a face that has seen living and is yet possessed of a grace and ability to read his sport that goes against everything his physique suggests about him. And Whelahan. Quieter, self-effacing, authoritative. Sometimes frightening on a field, even to those with an eye trained by thousands of hours of hurling. There is a mystery to him.

Somehow PJ's freckle-headed kid had risen inexorably to become emblematic of all that Offaly hurling represented. He wasn't just very good. He existed, at times, somewhere beyond excellence. It was as if a gift fell over the locality and Whelahan was the chosen one.

So on the Monday when it was acknowledged and he became the only hurler of his generation to gain selection onto the GAA Team of the Millennium, it was only natural that they celebrate, that they would for once vocalise about the greatness in their midst. Arguments could rage about the sense behind trying to arrive upon the 15 best hurlers of all time and over who was deserving of inclusion, but history would record that the Birr man stood alone; that he was seen as the embodiment of everything the modern, flourishing game had to offer. In the minds eye, he was up there, copper-headed and quizzical, with Ring and Mackey.

At times that evening, during the flow and lull in conversation, PJ Whelahan would pause and find himself regretting that he hadn't accompanied his son up to the midday ceremony in Croke Park.

"He called for ma all right and I had intended to go. A lot of those men that were honoured I knew. Eddie Keher I hurled against and Tony Reddin coached us to a championship in St Rynagh's in 1965 and Ray Cummins I hurled against as well so I would have enjoyed it and loved to have seen Brian in their company. But Monday morning is never the best time - you'd be late clearing up in the pub from the Sunday night and just when he called, I decided to stay where he was. I was sorry since," he said.

There is a tale once told by Whelehan that has since become glazed with weighty prophecy. It was about how, in the boozy aftermath of Offaly's first All-Ireland (in 1981 - one year after he had quit following 13 years of service), he coped with missing out on such a fantastic adventure. Admitting that the finest honour in the game had eluded him, he put his hand on the head of his young fella and quietly announced that `Brian would win everything in the game.'

The subsequent accumulation of All-Ireland minor and senior medals, two club championships, Player of the Year and AllStar awards gave that moment a wonderful poignancy. But with this latest honour it acquires a new dimension, as if the path had been Whelahan's manifest destiny.

"Well, to me it is everything," says PJ. "That is it. I mean, to be picked as the one hurler over the last 25 years or so, well, there is no finer honour. He has won it all but this is the biggest thing. He is there."

But driving up to Dublin that day, Brian Whelahan was troubled. The day before, he had been in Croke Park making a belated and decisive appearance as Offaly coughed and gasped their way past an organised and superbly resourceful Derry team. But still, a Derry team. People looked upon it as further proof that Offaly were out of gas, that as a team, they were dead men walking.

"I know he was disappointed about the Derry game and bothered about the way things worked out. They just haven't been firing and it was on his mind. But I think that the evening back in the pub, with all the people coming in and the craic, that he enjoyed it and took a lot out of it."

And tomorrow, Whelehan will be back on the field at Croke Park, a timeless figure now who can step off the canvas portrait that has him keeping company with Lory Meagher and John Doyle and Jack Lynch and into the heart of this All-Ireland series. It is uncertain as to whether Whelahan will be singled out and officially honoured before the game - the player himself would possibly prefer otherwise - but there will be an awareness now. Fingers will guide the eyes of youngsters to the Offaly number five.

It seems a shame though that this season he does not appear to have the requisite cast with which to showcase his talent. That Offaly are alive at this point in the championship is due mainly to luck; had they drawn either Tipperary or Galway in the quarterfinals, most believe they would have made a hasty and inglorious exit. Now, the expectation is that Cork will inflict a similar fate upon them. Last year, the teams gave us the game of the championship, also at the semi-final stage. This year, it is viewed as a gross mismatch. Offaly have famously defied adversity before but tomorrow's odds seem to be overwhelming. In some ways, the occasion seems set for a superstar turn from Whelahan.

"Yes, they'd need a huge game from Brian if they are to turn it around," assessed Michael Bond, who managed Offaly to All-Ireland success two summers ago. "He is such a central figure in that dressing-room, the respect he commands. Brian was just a pleasure to work with, always keen and interested and just a terribly nice, unassuming fellow. A quiet type of man but well aware of the importance of his place within this team. You can be sure he'll come to Croke Park with the right frame of mind and the thing about Offaly is they are dangerous right now. It's a tricky one for Cork."

Whelahan seems to have been with Offaly for an eternity. His father managed him as a minor back in the late 80's and such was his promise then that he was inclined to throw him with the Offalys seniors in 1989, when he won his minor medal. Offaly crashed to unfancied Antrim in that year's senior semi-final.

"Some of the selectors felt he was that bit young to start but I knew he was ready. When he was a young fella, there wasn't much of him and you didn't know if he was going to be any good, that he might be a bit windy. But he was always keen. I remember him going across to Banagher with me for training with Rynagh's. Couldn't get enough of it. That he was late filling out probably improved his skills and by the time he was a teenager, he was coming really good. And I reckon if you are good enough, you are old enough."

By his early 20's, his mastery of the game was recognised with a 1992 All-Star, a faintly surprising but widely appreciated nod to his talents. Back then, Offaly were caught up in an annual power struggle with Kilkenny, which the traditionalists always won. And for all Whelehan's majesty, DJ Carey was the wunderkind of the time. Since their minor days, the two were constantly paired off, as if the team meetings were less relevant than their personal duals.

In the 1993 Leinster championship, the rivalry seemed especially compelling., with Whelehan hurling out of his skin at times but still forced to cede 2-4 to Carey. A year later, when the result was reversed and Offaly were on an All-Ireland trail which would yield the county another title, Whelahan spoke about the trauma of the previous year:

"What happened in that game was just terrible. I still have nightmares about it because we should have hammered them. I watched the highlights on TV that night and that was it. I wanted to leave it behind."

And how. He banished the memory over the summer and early autumn, establishing himself as the pre-eminent hurler in the country as Offaly torched Limerick with a late flourish during an unforgettable All-Ireland final. He was, incredibly, left off the All-Star team through mishap apart from anything else but took the Texaco Hurler of the Year award and graced the All-Star teams in 1995, 1998 and last year.

"That he is on the Millennial team essentially sums up my opinion of him," offered Paddy Downey, who sat on the selection panel. "He has such a complete game. He is a very pure hurler, great skills, has a wonderful strike and marvellous tactical nous. But he is also possesses a lot of resilience and is well able to cope when the play gets tough. He is simply one of the true greats."

The 1998 All-Ireland final was his most recent hour in the sun, when he dragged an ailing body into the forward lines and scooped a late goal that buckled Kilkenny. It was Whelahan's day, bagging 1-5 after a miserable opening period when his flu virus rendered him ineffective in defence. It was hard to avoid noticing at the other end that his old adversary DJ had failed to draw smoke, finishing the afternoon scoreless. Such has been the ebb and flow of their careers.

Although Whelahan's reputation had been cemented before that game, his contribution to Offaly's fourth All-Ireland set him in a new light. The question now is whether that was the Offaly lad's last glorious stand. Whelahan has gold in his veins still but around him, great names are showing signs of fading. This summer has seen them tumbling through to this stage, as much by accident as design. Last year, as defending champions, they rose for a magnificent hour against Cork, all skill and stubbornness and still were caught for legs in the final few minutes.

"We've only been around for the last 20 years but we've given great memories," said a forlorn Whelahan that evening. "I hope it's not another 100 years before we see Offaly in an All-Ireland series again. If this team breaks up, it breaks up. But at least we put in a great performance."

A year on and the same warriors are back in the dressing-room, save Martin Hanamy and John Troy, who called it quits just weeks ago. The pride is palpable but so are the cracks. There is a sense that autumn has fallen over this ageless bunch. Offaly eyes will burn on Brian Whelahan more needfully than ever. He has yet to be found wanting.

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