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Ready to come out of the shadows

by Enda McEvoy was published in the Sunday Tribune on Sunday the 19th of March 2006

AT half-time the boys on the sideline weren't worried. Offaly had started brightly against the wind, had created . . . albeit missed . . . a string of chances and had forced Wexford to work hard for their five-point interval advantage. With the breeze to come, John McIntyre, Joachim Kelly and Daithi Regan knew that last Saturday week's NHL tie in Birr was there for the home team to reach out and embrace.

Midway through the second half, the boys on the sideline were worried. With Offaly busy demonstrating that a wind advantage is nothing more than what you make of it, the visitors now led by six.

Brian Carroll was the only man scoring for them; his two colleagues in the full-forward line would be replaced before the game was over; and Darragh Ryan was lording it on the edge of the Wexford square, at least until Joe Brady was brought in to wire into him, a smart horses-forcourses gambit in the muddy conditions.

Then poor Malachy Travers butterfingered the sliotar into his own net from a Carroll free and everything changed. Offaly promptly drew level for the first time all afternoon, outscored their opponents in the closing 10 minutes and thanks to Carroll's injury-time point got their noses in front on the line to win by 1-10 to 0-12.

The very narrowness of the margin was a boost in itself.

They'd lost to Wexford in a tight match in the Walsh Cup early in the year. They'd drawn with Cork in . . . obviously . . . a tight match on the opening day of the league.

The trend was emphasised to the players in the dressing room eight days ago. Developing teams, they were told, had to be able to shade close encounters. However fortuitously, last weekend this lot finally did.

Pick holes in Offaly's form if you wish. Yes, it was a far from full-strength Cork outfit they met in Birr last month, although one whose selectors saw fit to introduce Tom Kenny, John Gardiner and Brian Corcoran when the taps were turned on. Yes, they only beat Down by four points in their next game, potentially bad news if the quarterfinal lineup comes down to scoring aggregate. And yes, the lack of a scoring spread (B Carroll 1-9, D Hayden 0-1, E Else 0-0) against Wexford didn't exactly thrill the management. But when you've lost a championship match by 6-28 to 0-15 nine months ago, no mercy is a small mercy.

Ask Daithi Regan can he remember the scoreline from last year's Leinster semi-final and he'll reply that he remembers the margin of defeat.

Thirty-one points. "Indelible."

They hadn't expected to beat Kilkenny beforehand, admittedly. But a 31-point defeat? "Not in our worst dreams, " Regan admits. That said, certain hieroglyphics had been visible on the wall from a long way out. In avenging their earlier defeat at Dr Cullen Park, Offaly conceded four goals when they beat Carlow in the Division 2 final.

Before that they'd conceded three goals to Roscommon.

Not the most reassuring of defensive CVs to be bringing to a clash with the Kilkenny forward line on one of their good days. Henry Shefflin duly had the ball in Brian Mullins's net before the Artane Boys Band had reached their dressing room.

From that moment, the only way was down.

It took the losers half of the All Ireland qualifier against Waterford to come to and clear their heads, Gary Hanniffy recalls. "But we hurled quite well in the second half once we got going, and we competed very well against Clare in Portlaoise afterwards. So I suppose you could say that by the end of the summer we'd stemmed the tide and were in a position to kick on from there this year, whereas under the old format our season would have ended after the Kilkenny game and we'd have had a mountain to climb now."

To date in 2006, Hanniffy points out, Offaly have "performed consistently" in their three league outings. "When you compare it to last year, to playing in Division 2 and losing a game there, you'd have to be happy." Not a small mercy. A vast one.

After Offaly's clock stopped at the beginning of the century following two decades of ultra-competitiveness, the powers-that-be were, county secretary Christy Todd agrees, expecting "a couple of bad years".

But nothing quite so bad or quite so sudden. From contesting an All Ireland final to losing to Carlow in the space of four-and-a-half years: Icarus stuff.

Conscious of the scale of the rebuilding job and perhaps mindful of their own reputation for possessing a short way with managers, a younger John McIntyre included, the county board handed the current management a three-year term of office, with no questions to be asked until after year two.

For their part, the management's objective remains as it was, undimmed by the setbacks: to leave Offaly hurling in a better state than they found it and to hand over a promising yet hardened young team to their successors come the autumn of 2007.

Judging by the sparse attendances against Cork and Wexford, they've yet to carry middle Offaly with them.

Judging by the audible buzz in the St Brendan's Park stand after both games, however, at least some hearts and minds are being won over.

"It's not that expectation levels have soared or that people are convinced Offaly are a force again, " says Regan. "But what's being said is that, hey, it's great to see an Offaly team giving everything and not dying. And in the end, that's all that Offaly supporters ever ask for. To see a competitive team."

Naturally the memory of the Kilkenny embarrassment plays its part. "Without it having to be brought up on a regular basis, it's in people's minds, " Regan acknowledges. "Players have personal pride." The management are picking up the odd trick or two on the job themselves. Last year they were feeling their way, ignorant of what standards they ought to be setting for a team in Division 2. This time around, training began the first week in November, a month-and-ahalf earlier than it did in 2004.

For a 10-minute period in the first half against Cork last month, Offaly moved the ball so crisply and cleanly on the ground that Regan was reminded of old times. The younger hands . . . the panel includes 10 under-21s, five or six of them in their first season . . . are learning by osmosis the requirements of leadership. And training away by himself in deepest Birr, his appetite undiminished, Brian Whelahan is reported to be in better physical shape than he's been for the past five years. He still hasn't gone away, you know.

Someone informed Gary Hanniffy during the squad fitness tests in UL last Tuesday night that Offaly could still end up fighting relegation, but they can worry about that after they meet Clare and Waterford in their two remaining fixtures. As it happens, county PRO Pat Teehan calculates that even a draw in one of the games may suffice to put them into a National League quarterfinal for the first time since 1996. With a Leinster quarterfinal date with Laois scheduled for 21 May, an appearance in the knockout stages of the league in April wouldn't do them any harm at all. Learning to focus for big matches has become a forgotten art in Offaly.

Despite strenuous investigation, the Tribune has been unable to ascertain in what states of health, heart and solvency John McIntyre returned yesterday from his annual pilgrimage to a certain Gloucestershire race meeting. All we can say is that he travelled there in a good mood. The Offaly hurlers put him in one.

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