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Deep end survivor thrivesby Damian Lawlor was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 5th of March 2006
SOMETIMES when Brian Carroll laces his boots, he can't help but recall a Sunday last June when Offaly hurling was laid bare, stripped of its soul. The statistics of the Leinster semi-final tell the story: Kilkenny 6-28, Offaly 0-15. Things were so bad that had the ground opened up, the Offaly team wouldn't have had the confidence to step down and take shelter.
Carroll says the pain of that 31-point defeat may linger forever, but claims the indignity suffered will also help to ensure they never fold in such fashion again. Offaly were ripe for a mauling that day after Kilkenny had been caught on the hop by Wexford in 2004 and were duly taken apart in the most graphic fashion.
Gone were the tri-coloured heroes of the 1990s, men Carroll grew up worshipping, like Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Michael Duignan and Johnny Pilkington, hurlers who set that era on fire with their carefree hurling. Instead, a new-look Offaly were thrown in at the deep end - and disappeared without trace. Only three seasons had elapsed since his first senior game, but without the safety net of John Troy or Joe Dooley's experience, Carroll was among those who had to walk the tightrope.
He knew the score after his debut against Kilkenny in 2002, when he replaced Kevin Martin in the first half. Afterwards, Martin handed Carroll his jersey and the message was clear: it was time to change the guard. Carroll had been starry-eyed travelling to training and matches in the same car as his idols - now he was being asked to take the wheel.
Even then, as an 19-year-old, big things were expected of him, the Hanniffy brothers, Brendan Murphy, Barry Whelahan and Niall Claffey. They were all given a brief to bring Offaly back into the big-time. The mission statement looked achievable when both the minor and under 21 teams won Leinster titles in 2000, but since then the trophy cabinet has gathered dust. Mission aborted.
They should have seen what was coming. Carlow beat them last spring as they ambled through the second division ditch-waters before finally winning the title. Division Two, though, was no preparation for Kilkenny and when Offaly left Croke Park on June 12, many felt they actually belonged with the likes of Wicklow and Carlow. Just seven years after their last All-Ireland triumph, the Offaly hurlers were on their knees, dishevelled and drunk with self-pity. Carroll remembers the stink only too well. "Kilkenny had two or three early goals, Eddie Brennan was obsessed with goals," he recalls. "The most frustrating thing was that after 20 minutes, we had seven scores and so had they - but they had three goals and we didn't. I'm not blaming the backs, but Kilkenny were ghosting in. We had a good defensive core but there was a lot of indecision.
"The league was a mixed bag, lads were all over the place and we were caught against Carlow. Then the Kilkenny game was Kevin Brady's second game at centre-back and Ger Oakley's second at full-back. It's hard to come in at deep end and mark DJ Carey."
He dreads to think what would have happened after that hammering had former Offaly hurlers and current manager, John McIntyre, not rallied the troops. Aidan Fogarty was just one Faithful legend who telephoned to encourage them to keep going.
"A lot of the older hurlers, including the likes of Aidan and Damien Martin, got together and rung all the players. I grew up looking at videos of those men, was star struck by them and took their word to be gospel, so it meant a lot that they didn't turn their backs on Offaly hurling."
The week after that debacle, they faced the uncertainty of the qualifiers. A 10-point beating by Waterford was followed by a single point defeat against Clare in a thriller before they stuttered past Dublin by the same margin. At the end of July they walloped Antrim in a relegation clash and, leaving the dressing-room on that last day of the season, Carroll looked around and felt half-proud. Sure, they had hit an all-time low that summer but they were still hurling, still together. Three months later, they regrouped for 2006.
This time there was no bullshit. McIntyre organised backroom members of the Munster rugby camp to help them with weight training and nutrition, two areas of sports science that Offaly had never previously embraced. Also they ran like Kenyans over the winter.
"Back on November 1, we had a meeting and decided to give it everything," Carroll recalls. "We did two nights physical and three pushing weights before Christmas. Johnny Pilkington and the boys would probably get sick at the thought," he joked, "but we needed to do it because we hadn't the fitness reserve that others did. That Kilkenny match was in the back of everyone's minds. But while we've changed our approach, we're only doing what everyone else is doing."
Already, you can see buds blossoming. They drew with All-Ireland champions Cork in the first round of the league and tread carefully to beat Down by six points. New players, such as Joe Bergin at full-forward, look the part and Carroll is the league's top scorer - 0-13 (0-9 frees) and man of the match display against Cork; 0-11 (six frees) against Down. That's 0-24 in two games. He'll take it.
And yet, when you have a hurling ancestry as noble as his, expectations are always high. Brian's grandfather, Jack, played in goal for county and province, and his late father, Pat, was one of the most respected hurlers ever, helping Offaly to their first All-Ireland title in 1981, winning another title four years later and gaining two All-Stars and four Leinster senior medals in the process. On March 16, 1986, Pat passed away after an illness at just 30, leaving his wife, Mary and his two year-old son behind.
Mary had originally wanted to call her child Patrick, but Pat wanted him to have his own identity. Brian smiles when he says that even 20 years after his father's death, people still come up with stories of his dad. Just three weeks ago, the son accepted a Farmers Journal award on behalf of his dad who was selected in the newspaper's Team of the Millennium.
"I think I know the video of the 1981 All-Ireland off by heart at this stage," Brian laughs. "I knew it before I even went to primary school. Even watching it now, the hair still stands up on the back of my neck. For me, it's huge. And I have all his trophies and videos, his gear. Mam said my father was never going to push me into hurling, but I was never going to do anything else.
"All I wanted to do was play No 13 like him and hurl corner-forward," he smiles. "13 is still my lucky number, I look for it whenever I'm hurling, no matter where I am picked. People can't believe this month is his 20th anniversary and I obviously don't have any physical memories of him really, but the videos show he was a great hurler. If I could only achieve half of what he did and if people have half that respect for me, I could retire a happy man. I look at his All-Irelands and All-Stars and think: 'Give me one of each. Give me a Leinster, let me win something . . . and let me leave then.'"
When the red-haired Pat passed away, a deep sadness prevailed across Coolderry's rolling hills, but Mary played a blinder in rearing her son, known as 'Biffo' to his friends in UL. She managed to be two parents and a best friend to Brian at the same time - and also kick-started his hurling career. One afternoon, trying desperately to entice Brian to go to St Kieran's College in Kilkenny, she casually remarked that DJ Carey went there. He was ready to don the uniform there and then.
"Mam never misses a game and even asked for directions to Ballycran for the recent League game against Down; a crazy six-hour journey. She is fanatical about hurling and would do anything for me. I remember a school match when I left my boots in her car, so she drove for threequarters of an hour from Tullamore to help me. That woman did 80 or 90 miles per hour on back roads to get me to games on time while I'd be changing in the back. I'd be lost without her. Everyone can talk about psychologists, but she's the one who keeps my confidence up."
Her mind skills will no doubt be needed again as the season unfolds, but Carroll says that when Offaly are keyed up, they are never far away. "We have to drive it on now. If there is a better hurling team out there this year, fair enough, but there won't be a better-prepared team. Already we have changed; it's got to the stage where a lot of the Birr hurlers, who have achieved it all with their club - the likes of Dylan Hayden, Stephen Brown and Paul Molloy - want it all with Offaly now."
And despite impressive championship stats which boast 1-39 in just 16 games, Carroll doesn't plan to entertain any more regrets. Like the Kilkenny affair, or after the 2004 Leinster final when he spent three sick-days in bed reflecting on the absurdity of Wexford 'keeper Damien Fitzhenry's excellence. Against the same opposition in '03, he could have drawn Offaly level with a last-minute free which tailed wide.
"I was very disappointed," he said. "When you're a young lad, you dream of winning championship games and in your dreams, you never miss. I got a lot of stick, but you learn. Again, that comes back to Kevin Martin. I was in Langton's Hotel afterwards and Kevin joked that he would have kicked the free over the bar, it was so easy. That messing actually helped me cope."
Ironically, he wasn't the designated free-taker that day but club-mate Damien Murray had been replaced so Carroll got the call. This year, however, Offaly will rely heavily on his free-taking skills while Coolderry still give Murray the responsibility.
"The league can be very important if we learn how to win big matches. Psychologically, a lot of us are brittle," he admits. "In recent championships, Wexford pipped us twice, Kilkenny hammered us, Tipp also beat us twice and so have Clare. I suppose free-taking might help us win games but I don't practice it much because I don't hit them with my club. Damien is two years older and he's better. Overall, we've had a good start in '06 but need to build on it big-time. In 20 years, I don't want to be seen as part of a team that let Offaly down."
Regaining respect is the first step, winning a Leinster title the second. He would like to win for himself and his mother. And, as he says, "When it's all over for me, I would love to leave this life and face my father having achieved something in the game. It would really be great."
The legacy lives on.
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