Three years ago,
Offaly rattled the stands of Croke Park with a shock Leinster football
final victory over Meath - the then, as now, All-Ireland champions.
Despite coming off an anonymous league run in Division Four that season, a
stirring display brought them the provincial title after 15 barren years.
On Sunday, the sides renew their rivalry with an early Leinster
championship meeting. But while the bones of Offaly's line-up of three
years back remain, fortunes have gradually turned. Meath slipped past them
at similar stages with relative ease in the last two years, and, for this
outing, will be as strongly fancied as ever.
The question then is whether or not Offaly have the ability to cause
another surprise. Sean Grennan, this year's captain, played a crucial role
at centre forward in the 1997 win and on Sunday will line out at centre
back. Still at the fore of his playing days, Grennan nonetheless expects
as demanding a game as anything he's been through.
"It's a bloody hard draw," he admits. "And I suppose we could be going
better ourselves. Sunday is the first step in Meath's All-Ireland defence,
and they have such strength and depth that it's going to be a very tough
game for us.
"But like any championship game, we've done our work over the winter
and this is everything we've geared for. We'll have to get all 15 players
producing their best on the day, and be inspired by the fact that we're
coming up against the All-Ireland champions. Everybody has us written off
by now, so we've certainly nothing to loose."
Grennan knows better than anyone what this Offaly team is capable of.
The Ferbane clubman debuted in the senior championship in 1991, starting
out amongst the half forwards, then midfield, before settling at centre
back this season.
"From playing at midfield, I know a bit about what it takes to hold up
the defence. Playing here does mean that you have to be a lot more aware
of tight marking, and not letting your man get away."
Despite going through Division Two of the league unbeaten up until the
final loss to Louth, Grennan refuses to read too much into that form. "You
have to remember that it was a lower division, and for the most part our
league form wasn't lighting up the place. And we've been struggling with a
few injuries since. What we do have is the experience." In fact, there are
eight players from the victorious side of three years ago going to Croke
Park on Sunday - including the influential corner back Cathal Daly and
veteran forward Vinny Claffey. Even still, manager Padraig Nolan has also
no hesitation in throwing the highly-fancied tag at Meath.
"They've been the most consistent team in the country for the last 10
or 12 years. And even if they play poorly they're a difficult team to
Nor is Nolan under any illusions about the challenge that lies ahead.
Some of the Meath talents played under his guidance while he taught at St
Patrick's, Navan - including Trevor Giles, Hank Traynor, Barry Callaghan
and Donal Curtis.
Nolan also sees Offaly's league run as providing limited indications of
their true winter form. "I wouldn't have considered all our games to have
been that impressive," he says, "and the final against Louth was a major
disappointment. But we had a great training session the following Tuesday,
and put it all right behind us."
Still, there were further setbacks to follow. After a full round of the
county championships, the injury list grew and the likes of John Ryan and
John Kenny were forced out of the action. Yet the biggest blow of all came
when Ciaran McManus - the leading scorer across all divisions of the
league - was handed a two month suspension for his sending-off in a club
His absence, admits Nolan, is a massive loss: "It is very unfortunate
for the guy, because he is Offaly football to the core. He puts his heart
and soul into the game, and it's so disappointing that he will miss the
Meath, of course, will be missing a similar key man through the
suspension of Graham Geraghty. "He's the probably the most talented
footballer in the country, so obviously he'll be a huge loss for them,"
And despite this being the first championship test for Nolan as a
manager, he sees no reason to get over-excited. "To be honest, I'm so busy
getting everything right for Sunday that I haven't had time to get
nervous. I expect it doesn't really hit you until just before the game,
and anyway, it's much worse for the players.
"But of course we believe that we have the ability to win, otherwise
there's no point in playing, is there?."