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Forcing open the shutters to let the light shine on Offaly hurling again

by Damian Lawlor was published in the Sunday Independent on Friday the 7th of April 2006

SUNDOWN in Shinrone and Michael Cordial downs tools; dusk has arrived on his working day but he's content that a new dawn is breaking for Offaly hurling.

Cordial was beginning to wonder if the night would ever pass; it shouldn't have been this dull. After winning a Leinster minor title in 2000 he joined the senior squad with the zest of a fresher during rag week, but soon found himself at the fag end of a glorious era. While the talents of Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington, Kevin Martin and Michael Duignan still smouldered, the blaze they stoked in the 1990s had been dampened, most of that crew moved on and the army of replacements wasn't of the same vintage. How could it be?

Cordial spent two years on the bench as the older hurlers summoned one last huff before taking their leave. When Mike McNamara took over the team in 2003, he checked to see what talent was in the wings and Cordial was waiting for the call.

The stage was daunting. Vulnerable and inexperienced; the next generation tried to step out of the shadows but couldn't. Like Andy Robinson following Clive Woodward's reign, Offaly struggled in the absence of heroes of old and soon the critics turned on Cordial and his young teammates.

Since his debut against Tipperary in 2002, he has played 13 championship games and lost eight, with three wins against Dublin. Last year, they had their 'Macedonia' which still makes players wake up in a cold sweat; Cordial remembers the shock of being trounced 6-28 to 0-15 by Kilkenny not long after losing to Carlow in Division Two. No wonder his sleep cycles were irregular.

More than any, he mirrors his team's performance. When he's in the mood, he can run riot. When he's not, he gets disheartened and loses concentration. In his first full season, Offaly could have won the 2003 Leinster title, but for the miracle workings of Wexford's Damien Fitzhenry who saved three certain goals, one of which came from the hurl of Cordial. Never mind; it was experience in the bag and the future looked a little brighter. In 2004, they got four decent games before bowing out to Tipperary, but last season, seven years after winning their last All-Ireland title, they slumped to that all-time low. Disaster was in town and hell and thunder came with it; players ducked for cover, but there was nowhere to hide and Cordial got flak and abuse everywhere he turned.

One year on and they are finished picking through the ruins of that destructive day. It's funny; adversity causes some men to break, but it actually helped Offaly break free of their despair. After the Kilkenny mauling, they regrouped against Waterford and put in a reasonable display. Next they pushed Clare and only lost by a point. Then Cordial bagged a goal as they beat Dublin and eventually avoided relegation by beating Antrim. This year, to a man, they decided they had taken enough opprobrium; it was time to force open the shutters and let in a crack of light.

During the winter, 18-year-old Joe Bergin and 20-year-old Alan Egan joined the ranks and within a week they were creating a buzz. The squad trained at the UL campus and sought out scientific, nutritional and weigh-training advice from the Munster rugby camp. Offaly hurling never did science, but the current crop wanted to introduce their own experiments. They got fitter and did as much ball work as the men of yore.

Mostly, though, their attitudes changed. Guys who were ambling through their careers bucked up on and off the park. The deployment of Rory Hanniffy at centre back plugged most leaks and the Birr man has become the pillar of the team with players' confidence mushrooming around him. They have only lost once in five league matches and reached the quarter-finals for the first time in 11 seasons by beating Waterford last weekend. Their league stats show 8-77 for and 5-81 against and, crucially, Bergin and Egan are taking the weight off Brian Carroll's shoulders in attack.

Today, they play Tipperary, fully intent on making the semi-finals. To Cork, the league is a side-show. To Offaly, it's the only show in town and Cordial is thrilled to have front-row tickets.

"There's a different attitude now," he says. "Kilkenny was the lowest point in everyone's career; we hit the worst slump I ever experienced. We just chased shadows and I wondered what the point was. I looked up at the scoreboard a few times and just thought, 'please blow the final whistle and let us get home.' After that game, teams just went for goals and tried to cut straight through our middle. But the younger lads have freshened up the whole thing and there's a hunger I haven't seen before.

"You don't get respect too easily in Offaly, but we're sick to the teeth of being run down all the time. This year, enough was enough. Our own public ran us down to nothing, but they are back behind us now because we are winning. We need it to stay that way."

Wise owls like Johnny and Joe Dooley, who saw bad times and good, rang Cordial after the debacle to sympathise. The Cats had expertly exploited the Offaly midfield to launch their demolition job and Cordial got more stick than others. Johnny Dooley said to hold firm and the wheel would turn. It was simple advice, but it was from a Dooley and that was enough. He hopes consistency isn't far off, but there is one distraction left in his life and it's a serious one.

He and a friend established their own company six months ago and they are flat-out since. The firm, GM plastering, has two men on its books and Cordial is simply up the walls. He leaves home at 7.20am and returns at 6.0. If he's not training, then he's off to the swimming pool or the gym. It's hard to ignore the worries of running a business, but with so many buildings sprouting up, hay must be made. Balancing work and play is the key to Cordial's year.

"Maybe it's why my form is up and down," he shrugs. "An injury at the start of the year limited my ball work. With feck all hurling, I was way behind, but I've hit the ball alley big time. While I was taken off against Waterford, my eye is back in. My concentration drops so I have to push myself harder. It's that consistency thing, some days I play great and others I don't know. My head has dropped if I've missed a ball so I must tune in properly. I'm fierce conscious of the business, we are paying two wages and it's not easy to leave the worry aside and just play hurling."

On his day, however, Cordial is a gilt-edged share on Offaly's books. The welcome mat is always rolled out for scoring midfielders and with 1-13 in 13 championship games, he has a massive part to play.

A sweet ground hurler, he made last year's Leinster squad which highlights his potential. With the towering and in-form Gary Hanniffy beside him, the duo could form the perfect partnership, a joint-venture they will hope to consolidate this summer. But as he strives for personal perfection, he's delighted the team is gelling and is excited with today's fixture against the neighbours.

Only five miles from Cloughjordan and the border, he once played for the Tipp vocational schools so won't be short of motivation. He feels the spirit in the Offaly dressing room could well spur them to the last four and signal a team finally through its transition.

'He's only a young lad and look at him driving others on, I've been here four or five years, it's time I started doing the same' "We've had people in and out for the last few years, but the young lads are helping us find a new identity," he says. "Joe Bergin is so mature for an 18-year-old, it's unbelievable. He has the maturity of a 24-year-old and his head is screwed on. Joe would stand up in the dressing room and say a few words before we go out. For an 18-year-old to do that shows some confidence, but we all listen. And then I think: 'well hang on; I better start showing some leadership as well'. He's only a young lad and look at him driving others on, I've been here four or five years, it's time I started doing the same."

Against Cork, Down, Wexford, Clare and Waterford, Cordial felt inhibited by his lack of hurling, so he wants to move swiftly through the gears and blow the dirty petrol out for the season ahead. Hurling and work will consume him, but he'll have to find time for his girlfriend, Mary Molloy, who plays camogie for Offaly and represented the Irish ladies shinty team last year. The in-demand Cordial returned home in lounge-lizard mode one evening and found Mary wanting to go for a few pucks. "Jesus, a few pucks was what I was trying to avoid," he laughs. "At that stage, all I wanted to do was to eat my dinner and fall asleep." As he finishes, Cordial states his aims for the season: to improve his own game and help Offaly win a Leinster title. "We haven't won one since 1995," he says, "Kilkenny and Wexford have dominated for the past few years and hopefully we can stop them soon. The way we are hurling, why not?" Why not, indeed?

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