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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Stifled Offaly can’t break free from losing cycle

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IT’S not just the league structure that is doing nothing for old forces such as Offaly, it’s the hurling calendar from start to finish.

Think of it this way: most counties will start training in November and go through a league campaign that many will describe as secondary to a championship that starts six to seven months after their first collective session.

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It’s “all about championship” but so little of the season is that very thing.

So for Offaly, last year involved lurching through a league campaign, scraping past Wexford in the championship, losing heavily to Galway, and then losing to Cork.

Meaning maybe eight months after starting out, the Faithful were done in 2012 after three games that actually truly meant anything.

Their Leinster opener was on June 2 and their qualifier loss to the Rebels was on July 7.

It’s reductive of their efforts, is a schedule that belittles them and others as hurling counties, and does nothing to improve the chasing pack.

So while plenty of managers are coming out in support of a revamp to the league, the question is, why this is their focus?

The league apparently means little to any of them so games in the championship – ie those that mean something – should become more plentiful. The more league games, the more chances there are to say that these aren’t the days to be producing your best. Days that mean something are the ones that should be more plentiful.

And when there are so few championship days, any margin of error is punished more severely. Two strikes and you’re out. Again, just consider how ludicrous a system that is: play two games, lose them both, good night. That’s seven months of training for two defeats. Who’d bother?

Factor in bad luck and bad decisions from referees too, and think of how frustrated a player would be with this system. In the Premier League, you often hear pundits orate on how bad decisions even themselves out over the course of the season.

Now taking into account how ludicrous this statement is, the length of their soccer season does afford a team a chance to recover and make up for any losses. The hurling championship certainly does not; even a bad draw and you’re facing an uphill battle.

This year, Offaly face Kilkenny in the Leinster quarter-final and no one outside those in the camp believe they have a snowball’s chance in hell of eliminating them. It’s not The Cats’ fault that they are so dominant but an inferiority complex has been foisted upon the likes of Offaly and Wexford by the constant beatings over the years – humiliations even.

Offaly’s 31-point defeat in 2005 – 6-28 to 0-15 – being the red-letter day, and that in a year when last Brian Cody’s side went into Leinster without the title currently being in their name. So you have to worry for the Faithful, especially after an underwhelming league campaign.

That brings to mind another issue for all mid-level teams that get eliminated from the championship in late June or early July: they spend fewer months of each year training collectively. While the changes in the winter training ban will level out the playing field somewhat, you still have to look at the effects over a couple of years. For example, if a team such as Tipperary got to an All-Ireland final for three years running while Antrim continually exited in the first round of the qualifiers, you’re talking of an accumulation of six months or more of collective hurling training in that time. Not to mention the disparity in the amount of championship games and high-pressure occasions between the teams.

Former player and pundit Daithi Regan has been very critical of Faithful manager Ollie Baker, saying he sees no real game plan coming to the fore. The Birr man pointed to the difference in progress that has been seen in Clare during that same time with Davy Fitzgerald. Of course the talent coming through is not on the same level, as seen with the Banner’s recent successes at underage.

In 2011, I watched Offaly under-21s playing Dublin at Parnell Park and, after going 0-6 to 0-3 up in the first half, they collapsed to a 0-21 to 0-8 defeat. Physically, they were bullied and systematically broken down – several men went off injured, such was the difference in power. A year later in 2012, Wexford’s under-21s eased to a 1-19 to 0-10 win in Tullamore; they could even afford to take off senior man Jack Guiney without about 10 minutes to go.

So as retired senior man David Franks said earlier this year, there doesn’t seem to be a massive amount coming through. And yet they should be doing better, we feel. Defenders of the Faithful love to point out how they have had successive All-Ireland club finalists and it might be fair to say player absences owing to that competition may have impeded their 1B promotion challenges. Still, these teams are making strides.

They also have some impressive forwards in Shane Dooley, Brian Carroll (the ninth-highest scoring forward since 2004 with 82 points from play in championship), Joe Bergin and Colin Egan. Regan made some sweeping criticisms of the current management but one minor thing we took issue with when the senior team went to Dublin earlier this year was the use of Egan when he was brought on. The Belmont forward is exceptional in the air and you would imagine this is a strength that the team would play to, but they put the left-hander on the flank that makes it more awkward for him to catch. It was only a little thing but an accumulation of these oversights makes a big difference.

No player scored more in the regulation rounds of the National Hurling League than Dooley with 4-37 and, even if he is playing in 1B, so too are the forwards of five other teams in that group. Neil McManus of Antrim was, in fact, the only other 1B man to make the top six. Dooley ratcheted up more than the top scorers for his division’s finalists, Limerick’s Declan Hannon and Dublin’s Paul Ryan (who was red carded and missed a game, to be fair), despite playing these teams putting up much bigger tallies.

Then that’s the issue with Offaly, they seem to be too reliant on the Tullamore man as he accounted for almost 54 per cent of their scores overall. Yes that includes frees and no doubt he didn’t win them all himself, but the issue for Baker is getting more out of the other forwards, and his panel in truth.

Regan might rail against the manager but the entire championship structure does little for the Faithful and other teams looking to climb the ladder. The have-nots will continue to do without as long as the hurling calendar remains as is.

 

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Shane Stapleton is the Irish Post's GAA hurling columnist. Follow Shane on Twitter @shanesaint

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