As a Wexford man growing up in the late 80’s/early 90’s I saw Wexford fall to great Offaly teams. Offaly stood for a long period at the hurling top table. Not only did they win two All Ireland’s in style in 90’s but they did so with great style.
It should always be noted that this period was against all odds, Offaly does not have a huge population (78,000) and is split between football and hurling – never easy for any county. Carlow is the only hurling county with a smaller population.
Currently Offaly are living up to the expectancy of a smaller county. Their hurling standard has dropped significantly. Many outside of the county have been surprised but the signs of decline have been clear to see for their Leinster competitiors.
Underage Signs – Minors
Over the past 10 seasons Offaly’s Minors have winning records in Leinster knockout stages against only Carlow, Kildare and Meath. Westmeath (2 wins – 2 losses) have made great strides in their underage hurling for some time now and have competed with Offaly. Also in that period Offaly have lost to their neighbours, Laois, 4 years in a row (2012-15) including a 15 point drubbing in 2013.
Prior to the last 10 years Offaly minors had contested 10 Leinster Minor Finals from 1982 to 2003, winning 4 titles, their last in 2000. This drop in performance at minor level has also been shown in the Leinster Colleges “A” Hurling Championship where Birr Community School last made a Leinster Final in 2005.
Underage Signs – Under-21s
Not surprisingly Offaly have followed their Minor form into the Under 21 Championship. 2007 and 2008 saw the last hurrah of their Under 21’s with wins over Kilkenny and Wexford. Since then they have only succeeded in winning 4 Under 21 games against Laois, Westmeath, Carlow and Kildare.
Last year saw Offaly cling to hope of a revival at underage as their Under-21’s reached the Leinster Final but this was largely down to a fortunate draw which saw Kilkenny, Wexford, Westmeath and Dublin make up the other side of the draw.
Only 6 Offaly hurlers played in the Fitzgibbon knockout stages from 2013 to 2016, with only one hurler, Padraig Gunian playing significant time in the Fitzgibbon Cup weekend. Offaly hurlers played a total of 413 minutes of knockout hurling in the past 4 years of the Fitzgibbon, with Laois hurlers having more than double that with 926 minutes played, in contrast Tipperay are top with 10,579 minutes hurled. Offaly need more young hurlers competing at the top levels.
The purpose of this article is not to state anything obvious but more to remove the expectancy within and outside of Offaly of a quick revival. Underage development work leads to better players for senior teams. Offaly are only beginning to restructure their underage development system, Brian Carroll is now the Director of Hurling Development. The sad part is that it has taken a decade of decline for this to emerge.
Any hope of a quick fix at senior level would be based on hopes and wishes rather than reality. For Offaly to compete at the top table soon they would require extraordinary work by a manager with skills beyond that of Brian Cody. Patience and hard work are needed. Offaly hurling may even get worse before it gets better.