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Still faithful to the fun factor

by Keith Duggan was published in the Irish Times on Monday the 17th of May 1999

Keith Duggan finds Offaly's Michael Duignan content but a little contrite for a previous sin

You're sitting in front of a car park pay barrier frantically scrambling for coins when Michael Duignan ambles into view, an easy grin filling his countenance.

"Stuck for change? Hang on," he says, returning to his car.

"You're punctual," he offers, when you finally get parked, as though keeping time is a novel phenomenon to him. It's a wet, grubby morning in Naas and the big man assures you there's no hurry.

What is it with Offaly folk? They seem to trip along to their own rhythms in that part of the world, unfussed and nonchalant, thriving on a mind-set which seems totally at odds with the highly-charged contemporary GAA. Thus, when the hurlers swept the country last summer, the fans were happy but not fazed. Isn't that why they entered the bloody thing, sure?

"I dunno, it's just the makeup of the people, it is always been that way. But there was a definite build-up in the relationship between the supporters and players last year which, I think, stemmed from the pitch protest in Croke Park after the Clare game."

Duignan was in the lounge bar with the others, ruing the end of their run when someone called him over to the window. Thousands of county folks, sitting on the turf. Tiananmen Square meets Croke Park.

"We couldn't believe it, it was the most incredible sight," says Duignan.

As history tells it, Offaly went on to blitz Clare and then subdued Kilkenny on a blinding afternoon, Duignan scything through for a late, flamboyant point which was just so Offaly.

"Someone said to me last week that I'd never forget the score. Truth is I hardly remember it now. The All-Ireland seems a good time ago now and what with injuries, we're a good bit down the pecking order again."

That score, though, was maybe a personal vindication for Duignan who was given a verbal roasting by the Clare fans for an untoward pull across David Forde's midriff. Half a stadium booing when the sliotar ran his way.

"I should have been sent off," he says emphatically. "To be honest, it might have been better I was because I feel like I've served 12 months out of it. You still get the jibes, even walking down the street in Ennis for the league, there were remarks. Look, it was wrong, we were nine (points) down, I was frustrated - probably more so with my own lads than anything and I reacted. I said I was sorry and to me it's over now. David got on with it, he still plays. That happens in hurling. I've taken plenty of belts. If I get a haircut, the barber'll say, Jesus, what happened your head."

After the champagne days ended, Offaly returned to the league with an apparent reluctance which bordered on the obdurate. Their enigma value increased as the mediocre results mounted. But they are hankering after the dry days ahead. The notion that Offaly hurlers are magicians who just turn it on for kicks is something to keep the spirits up when they are running ball-breaking drills.

"We don't go as mad on the training as other counties. But maybe we play on that, too. But we put in fierce work with Babs (Keating) early on last year, under Johnny Murray. Maybe we gambled on the Wexford game hoping to get a run later on. It was risky, but it worked. This year we have to be sharp from the start."

All of this is said matter-of-factly, but there is still a marvellously unknowable quality about Offaly, as if even they themselves can't fathom their freakish swings from the heavenly to downright awful.

All Duignan knows is that the last eight or so years have been fun. Undeniably hard sometimes for his wife Edele, yes, and tough now that they have a 15-month-old son Sean.

But when his Sundays are free forever he'll look back with fondness. And isn't that the right way?

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