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When Offaly were kingsby Denis Walsh was published in the The Sunday Times on Sunday the 12th of June 2005
June 12, 2005
When Offaly were kings
On the morning of the 1980 Leinster final, the Offaly centre-back Pat Delaney met a neighbour in passing. Offaly had reached only their second Leinster final since 1928, Kilkenny were poised for their 50th provincial title and conventional wisdom was sufficient to make every man an expert. Delaney’s neighbour was an old IRA man who had played for Offaly in his time and been a willing servant of the GAA all his life.
The day when Offaly would win their first Leinster championship, though, had died in his dreams and he couldn’t imagine it now. “Good luck today,” he told Delaney, “but ye’ve no chance.”
“When I got home on the Tuesday or Wednesday,” says Delaney, “I met him again and he said to me, ‘Congratulations. Hurling must be gone down in Leinster.’ ”
It was the day when Leinster hurling soared.
Remember how it used to be? No? In 1979 the Leinster semi-finals were staged as a double-header in Athy. It wasn’t all-ticket, it wasn’t full: Athy was the long and the short of it. When Offaly squared up to Dublin in the 1980 semi-final they hadn’t beaten them in the championship since 1909. Offaly had been playing Kilkenny in the championship since 1898 and never beaten them. That was where Offaly stood: on their knees.
A tiny and noble crowd of 9,613 went to Croke Park for the 1980 Leinster final. A bitter cocktail of rain, apathy and resignation kept thousands of others at home and there was a twist of resentment swirling in the grass too. Offaly had agitated for an open draw in the Leinster championship and won the argument. Wexford and Kilkenny had been paired in one semi-final and the Leinster final had been stripped of the province’s only glamour fixture. Some people had a pout.
Consider the remoteness of Offaly’s chance today and imagine what it must have been like 25 years ago. Over the years, hope and ambition had mated once in a while but success was never born of the union. They beat Kilkenny in the National League for the first time in 1970 and eight years later they beat them in the League in Nowlan Park for the first time. They thought they’d cracked the code. They met Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final in Portlaoise that summer and lost by 16 points.
The veteran Offaly goalkeeper Damien Martin met Liam “Chunky” O’Brien leaving the ground that day. “I was telling him how disappointed I was, that I thought we were going to beat them. And he said, ‘To be honest, we thought ye would too’.”
Is that what they really thought or was it a delusion of convenience for the day? Did they believe Offaly would do them in 1980? Kilkenny were the reigning All-Ireland champions; Offaly had won a Leinster U-21 championship two years earlier. Which hand of cards takes the pot? Did Offaly believe? Doubts must have travelled with them to Croke Park, even if they were hidden in the hull, as stowaways. But if their faith had been weak, the convulsions of the match would have dashed them on the rocks. They stormed into the lead, hurled Kilkenny up a stick and trailed at half time.
What now? That was the fork in the road.
“Any neutral would have said that Offaly had shot their bolt,” says Pat Fleury, corner- back that day. “Do not adjust your set, normal service will be resumed shortly. I remember we were late coming back out for the second half. Dermot Healy (Offaly manager) held us there until he was sure that we were sure we would win. I remember some harassed official banging on the door of our dressing room to get us out on to the field. The way the second half went, to and fro, if there was any lack of belief we’d have lost, simple as that.”
WHAT started that day lived for 20 years. Without lineage or patronage Offaly and Kilkenny became hurling’s most satisfying rivalry. The best matches were as good as hurling could be: elevated, masterful, sweeping matches. For some perverse reason, it didn’t ignite the imagination of the greater hurling public. In the early 1990s there were years when Portlaoise could have housed the crowds at Offaly-Kilkenny games and when they met in the 1998 All-Ireland final tickets were readily available outside Croke Park. Offaly-Kilkenny games didn’t become events, as many hurling matches did from the mid-90s on, and maybe it was no harm; the hype might have corrupted the simple beauty.
The most fascinating element of their relationship was the psychology of it. Offaly got inside Kilkenny’s head. Invaded it, colonised it. One day Kilkenny looked at Offaly and saw themselves. Nothing spooked them as much as that reflection.
Dermot Healy created the likeness. Offaly had never gone for an outside coach before but at the end of 1979 Damien Martin campaigned for change.
He convinced his own club and pleaded with county board delegates. “An outside coach would be like holy water,” he said. “He might do no good but he certainly could do no harm.” Narrowly, Martin carried the vote.
Offaly didn’t have a tradition for playing smart. They played hard, they gave away frees, they didn’t use the width of the pitch and they didn’t behave well in tight finishes. They soloed into trouble, not out of it. They were the antithesis of all the things that made Kilkenny successful. Healy changed that. “We started moving the ball fast,” Delaney says, “and moving it shocking fast.”
Healy brought a batch of lighter hurleys with him from Kilkenny, more suitable instruments for the culture of flicking and blocking he wished to foster. “We stopped fouling,” says Delaney. “It was hook, hassle, twist them, turn them, block them.”
“He brought a different thinking,” says Fleury. “You didn’t need a King Cobra driver to clear the ball, a nine-iron would get it away just as good. The lighter hurleys helped to make you more wristy. All these things hadn’t been brought to our attention before.”
Healy’s influence was a great tableau of little things. Under him their last serious training session would be nine days before a match; in previous regimes the training might still not have eased up with four nights left.
“They ended up playing the same kind of hurling as we did,” says Kevin Fennelly, who hurled for Kilkenny in the 1980s and managed them in 1998, “and did it even better, up to a point. But you couldn’t just tell players to do that — you had to have the players who could do it and they had them.”
Kilkenny’s respect for Offaly wasn’t instant, though; there was a moratorium. The exaggerated deliberation ceased with the 1985 Leinster final: Offaly trailed by 10 points at half time, forced a draw and won the replay. That summer Offaly did unto Kilkenny what Kilkenny had been doing unto others for decades. Kilkenny couldn’t deny it any longer: this crowd were serious.
“I think we resented them a bit in the early 1980s,” said the former Kilkenny player John Henderson. “We wouldn’t have credited them with winning. We probably felt it was our own fault. We would have seen them as the new rich — you know, the old snobby thing. In the early 80s we would still have feared Wexford more as the traditional enemy. The games against Offaly, though, were totally different. The Offaly game was a far more intelligent game. They could play a very fast game and keep it up. We knew they were as relentless as we were.”
Between 1980 and 2000 the teams played 18 championship matches, but it never became poisonous or mean. Offaly got a bit upset when Kilkenny put out their junior team against them in the 1990 Walsh Cup, but they stored the insult until their championship meeting a few weeks later and blitzed them for their cheek: 3-6 to 0-0 after 25 minutes, 4-15 to 1-8 at the end. Honour restored.
As a rule, Offaly-Kilkenny games were wholesome and honest. You got the belts you expected. “I couldn’t say that any of the Kilkenny players were dirty,” says Johnny Pilkington, who played 12 championship matches against them. “Pat O’Neill might take you out with a shoulder — fair enough. I remember going on a solo run in the 1998 All-Ireland final. I got past the half-back line and out of the corner of my eye I just saw Willie O’Connor coming for me. Bang. Straight in the chest. Fair enough too. You knew that if you ran at those boys they were going to take you out of it. But it’s not a sneaky kind of a thing and it wasn’t on the Offaly side either.”
The 1980s Offaly team had to learn how to beat Kilkenny but Pilkington’s generation already knew from under-age triumphs. They respected Kilkenny, they knew they would have to burst themselves to win, but they always liked their chances. “I remember Brian Whelahan explaining that to me,” says Eamon Cregan, who managed Offaly from 1993 to 1996. “I’d be fearful that Offaly wouldn’t be able to beat Kilkenny but they had no fear. It was an amazing thing.”
One of the most extraordinary Offaly-Kilkenny games of all, the 1995 Leinster final, was on Cregan’s watch. Before a ball was pucked that day, points were scored. A storm of rain fell just before the match and, as reigning champions, Offaly were scheduled to take the pitch second. Kilkenny were caught in the downpour and were soaked in their warm-up for a coulpe of minutes before finally taking shelter in the dug-outs. Offaly came down the tunnel, saw the rain but couldn ’t see Kilkenny. So they turned on their heels and returned to the dressing room, reckoning that Kilkenny hadn’t come out yet. It had reached a point in their relationship where Offaly had the capacity to outsmart Kilkenny even by accident.
The match itself was stunning. “That’s a game I watch a lot,” says Michael Duignan, “not because we won it — just for the hurling, brilliant hurling. The intensity of it, in the first half especially. Five points to three at half time but that first half was one of the best halves of hurling of all time.”
There were bad games too: the 1998 Leinster final, for example, was a turkey. When the teams met again in the All-Ireland final 10 weeks later, though, full reparation was made. Kilkenny were Leinster champions, Offaly had come steaming through the back door with a new manager and every dread Kilkenny had of their rivals was realised that day. On the night before the match, an interview with the Kilkenny manager Kevin Fennelly was shown on Kenny Live. “Offaly were the one team that took a lot of dreams away from me,” he said. Once more they did it.
It was Offaly’s last great day against Kilkenny. They lost another Leinster final to them in 1999 and a third in a row in 2000. None of those games was even close. “We got into a rut with them,” says Joe Errity. “I don’t know whether psychologically the back door had an effect on us in Leinster finals, or whether the character wasn’t in the team any more.”
And yet, for the 2000 All- Ireland final, Offaly still believed the old voodoo might work. Kilkenny were facing the unthinkable prospect of losing three All-Ireland finals in succession and Offaly were convinced that if they could be no more than four or five points behind with 10 minutes to go Kilkenny might crack. The plan didn’t quite hold up.
“We got a goal with maybe 10 minutes to go and it brought it down to nine points,” says Pilkington, “and we got a point after that. Another ball came in and I put up my hand to grab it and it fell out of my hand. If I grabbed it and turned it could have been another goal. Charlie Carter turned to Simon Whelahan and he says, ‘Jesus, don’t tell me ye’re going to do this to us again.’ Even though they were eight points ahead they were still worried. That psyche was in the back of their heads.”
It’s gone now. The 1990s Offaly team died with their boots on and the young players that came to replace them needed time that Offaly didn’t have. Kilkenny just kept getting better and Offaly found themselves in a psychological headlock. “I felt if we got Kilkenny in the first round,” said Brian Whelahan in an interview before last year’s Leinster final, “there was no way I wanted to face into another beating or mauling and that would definitely be it (retirement).”
When the draw was unkind this year he wrestled with that thought again and ultimately defeated it. He knows the odds, though. Before 1980 Kilkenny beat Offaly 20 times in the championship by an average of 12 points; in their past five meetings Kilkenny have won by an average of 11. Hard times have come back.
We should have cherished what Offaly and Kilkenny had. We took it for granted.
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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