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Finbarr Cullen reflects on Offaly's stunning rags to riches Leinster win 25 years on

by Pat Nolan was published in the Irish Mirror on Tuesday the 16th of August 2022

For years, Finbarr Cullen was at the butt of sneers about his dedication to the Offaly football cause.

The decline following the All-Ireland win of 1982 had been sharp and, by the mid-90s, Offaly were an established Division Four team.

Cullen's first three summers as an Offaly footballer ended with heavy defeats to Dublin, Meath and Kildare. An unheralded Wexford team beat them in Tullamore in 1994, they failed to score in the second half of another Meath trouncing the following year and Louth scored their first victory over them in 32 years in 1996.

Any rebuttal that the Edenderry man countered the jibes with would have been completely undermined by the evidence on the field. They were going nowhere, yet he retained belief.

"I would have played with some of the ‘82 team," he notes. "Like, when I started my career Padraig Dunne was still playing, Brendan Lowry was still playing, Mick Lowry was playing.

"You had guys who had All-Ireland medals in their arse pocket and here I was as a raw 18-year-old on the panel so it was absolutely brilliant.

"I grew up with that so, in my head, whereas maybe the rest of the country didn't look at Offaly seriously, I looked at Offaly as a team that it's only a matter of time before they come back to win Leinsters.

"You had people around the county telling you that you're wasting your time. You'd be committed, you'd be training three or four times a week.

"Prior to that you'd be doing your own runs and your own gym work and people would say, ‘Why are you putting in so much effort? You're not going to win anything. You're not going to go any further.'

"So that belief, that sneering, that kind of attitude would be the driving force. It pushed me on to try and improve - first of all as a club player and then as a county player."

Good Offaly football men had been in charge but couldn't harness the potential from a number of promising underage teams in the late ‘80s, while a Leinster under-21 title had been won in 1995.

That same year, Tommy Lyons managed a Kilmacud Crokes side that didn't contain a single Dublin player to the All-Ireland club title. Offaly appointed him in the autumn of 1996 and their progress was rapid.

"He was an outsider with no agenda," notes Cullen, who Lyons retained as captain. "I'm not saying the guys previously had any agenda but he just came in with an iron fist.

"It was either his way or the highway whereas the previous management, maybe if a guy was indecisive about coming in he'd be encouraged to come in.

"That didn't happen in the first year under Tommy Lyons. If you weren't playing you were just dropped."

The regime was unforgiving, with Lyons later remarking that the players "had to get fit to train". Their fitness soared as the weight fell off them; Tom Coffey alone lost as much as two stone.

To a man, Lyons included, they bought into the Nutron diet, which established what players should consume based on blood testing and was de rigueur for a few years afterwards.

"Lookit, in hindsight the Nutron diet was a gimmick," says Cullen. "It was a basic diet and it wasn't rocket science but at the time it got a lot of hype and the players needed something to focus.

"Everything with the blood tests, everything was laid out for you but everybody was a little bit different depending on your metabolism and stuff but everybody was the same. For Division Four footballers, which we were at the time, we needed something to focus on so the team bought into it and stuck to it religiously.

"I was lucky, I was living at home at the time and I had a mother who lived for GAA as well.

"I was lucky everything was laid out for me, so soya milk and all the yoghurt, everything was there for me, I didn't have to lift a finger.

"I was at the stage where my kit bag was packed and collected at the back door going training and I never even had to look into it."

They cruised out of Division Four and it was a reflection of Offaly's status at the time that they were in the designated weaker section of the Leinster Championship draw. They trounced Longford but almost came unstuck against Westmeath, scrambling a draw after a heroic block from Coffey paved the way for Vinny Claffey to kick an equaliser.

They won the replay comfortably, brushed past Wicklow and then held off Louth to qualify for their first Leinster final in 14 years. At the time, the game was five weeks away but with three games required to separate Meath and Kildare, it was pushed back by another fortnight.

The fallout from the Meath-Kildare saga had left the All-Ireland champions seriously weakened with suspensions and injuries meaning that they were without their entire starting full-back line, as well key forward Graham Geraghty.

Offaly's last stop en route to Croke Park on this day 25 years ago was Edenderry, where Cullen and his clubmates were picked up.

"We got a fantastic send-off in Edenderry that morning. The streets were thronged with people. Well-wishers.

"The send-off will live in the memory forever because people were willing us on to do well and genuinely wanted to see us doing well so that was special."

Offaly preyed on Meath's weaknesses and were 2-6 to 0-2 up early on. A third goal in the second half sealed a famous eight-point win in which the full-forward line of Vinny Claffey, Roy Malone and Peter Brady contributed 3-8 from play.

"We went into the game in a brilliant position where there was absolutely no pressure on us. Absolutely no pressure and we just had to keep telling ourselves that and the management was telling us, the only pressure there was the pressure we put on ourselves.

"To go into a Leinster final knowing they had a few injuries, spirits were high, training was going really well.

"We got a lot of breaks leading up to it and on the day and we just took advantage of those breaks. Some teams don't take advantage."

Meath's limitations aside, Offaly still played some sparkling football and the achievement in taking a side languishing in Division Four to provincial honours in a single season was a superb managerial feat on Lyons's part.

They added the League title the following year and while Offaly remained highly competitive for a number of seasons, the fortune they enjoyed in 1997 deserted them thereafter.

There is no chance of a similar rags to riches story in today's inter-county environment, Cullen believes. The ground that Offaly covered under Lyons in a matter of months 25 years ago would, at the very least, take three seasons now.

"No, it's just not going to happen. The gap is way too wide. Teams have years of work done now and it takes years to build up a fitness base, a culture, an ethos.

"For a county to get to that stage, the gap is way too big and takes way too long. Like you could mention a few counties there that will probably never win a Leinster football final. That's the reality but that's just the way football has gone. The bigger counties have pushed on and the smaller counties haven't done so."

The 1997 success remains Offaly's only Leinster title in the last 40 years, though last year's All-Ireland under-20 win has raised expectations in the county again.

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