LONG admired for their heroic resilience and, since 1982, lasting testament that a team should never quit until the final whistle, Offaly footballers seem intent on reinventing themselves as a more accommodating crowd.
This decade they've been squandering prosperous leads, finishing catastrophically, yielding all too readily in the field. Not exactly the stuff of the Iron Man from Rhode.
The new millennium began with a rousing championship win over then All-Ireland title-holders Meath, but it proved a false dawn, merely ushering in a deflating sequence of failures, exacerbated by management upheaval bordering on farce. Apart from sporadic wins over Kildare and Laois, their summers have been bereft of joy, usually petering out in an early qualifier.
Since the new system was introduced, Offaly have been repeatedly punching below their weight, eliminated in qualifiers by Louth, Limerick, Roscommon, Wexford and Carlow in successive seasons. Failure to reach a Leinster final has been compounded by galling losses like last year's reverse to Laois, who won against the run of play with a last-ditch Ross Munnelly goal.
In 2004 they crashed out of Leinster to Westmeath, breaking new ground, not having lost a championship match to their neighbours in 55 years. After internal player unrest and management crises they have begun to tidy up their house, but they head to Parnell Park next Saturday to take on Dublin in the league saddled with a reputation for exasperating fade-outs.
"It's more than frustrating, it's gone on too long," states Ciarán McManus, their long-serving linchpin figure. Two weeks ago they played a good first half in the league tie against Mayo, having beaten Cork in the opening round, but then ran out of gas after the interval. An all too familiar pattern.
"We went down four and came back into it playing great stuff and with ten minutes of the second half gone we hit six wides in a row and it went down the Swanee again," McManus sighs. They also conceded two late goals to Meath in the O'Byrne Cup final, having beaten Laois the weekend before, but claimed on the occasion to have trained heavily in the week running up to the match.
Last year's championship defeat to Laois, though, left them with no excuses. "Things fell apart, to be honest, after the Laois game," says McManus. "Lads did not care; it was that sickening, nothing was going to perk us up. We threw it away again. Everyone, myself included, felt we had made mistakes that could have changed the result, everyone had something in their heads that was gnawing at them."
His manager Kevin Kilmurray, a former double All-Ireland medal winner and All-Star recipient with Offaly in the early 1970s, agrees. Having had a good start to the year by staying in Division 1 of a tough league, they comfortably dispatched Louth and seemed set to claim a famous win over Laois until Munnelly's fortuitous intervention.
'We threw it away again. Everyone, myself included, felt we had made mistakes'
Ciarán McManus "I think the defeat and the manner of the defeat against Laois was a big physical and psychological rap for the team. It's very hard to get over that type of game, in that Offaly were certainly on top and beaten by a goal in injury time. Footballers are not immune to disappointment and depression and frustration. When you get a hammer blow of that magnitude it takes a bit more than a swim in a swimming pool or a talk with your girlfriend or father to get it out of the system." Invariably, people rewind to the last successful Offaly team under Tommy Lyons, but there are only three players still involved; McManus, Pádraig Kelly and Colm Quinn, who is one of a few key players currently recovering from injury.
McManus first played for Offaly in a league match against Mayo in 1995 and had an unexpected Leinster championship medal by 1997, followed by a league title the next spring. Ever since, it's been a series of frustrations. Having recently turned 30, he can't afford to waste much more time. At least there is greater stability since the arrival of player concessions, brokered with the help of Eugene McGee as mediator after a row erupted between the players and county board in the wake of the 2004 championship defeat by Westmeath. The loss blew the lid on simmering resentments within the squad. Earlier, Paul O'Kelly had lost his job after just eight months, but aside from a number of agreed player demands, the McGee negotiations managed to earn managers at least a two-year stay and end the uncertainty that had prevailed.
They now have a permanent training base at Croghan and Kilmurray, in his second season, has some security of tenure. He knows it won't last long, unless they show some progress, and already he's had to deal with player withdrawals. Before last year's qualifier against Carlow, three players, James Grennan, John Kenny and Ger Rafferty, pulled out of the squad. "They're used to success and the expectation is high," says Kilmurray of his home county, "they have every right to expect to be in the top five or six." Losing to Carlow demolished what was left of Offaly's season before they went back training in November for a fresh assault. "Offaly are finding it very hard to raise it for the qualifiers," says their manager. "That seems to be a problem. When we go out of the championship they seem to drop their guard. We need to be able to adapt to the qualifiers as well. "That (losing to Carlow) was horrendous in that we had been doing very well. We had done well in the league, we'd survived, and our division had many of the top teams. It was a case of being hit by a Carlow team that was on fire and everything they touched turned to gold." There have been further set-backs with the loss of Cathal Daly, who is taking a year out, and Conor Evans, the full back, who is traveling abroad. This has meant virtually having to draw up a new full back line, but Offaly have some good forwards and when they're all fit they'll be a match for any team in Leinster.
Roy Malone, the goalscoring hero in 1997, has not been recalled, but says he hasn't retired. "You know you have the ability," says McManus, "but we always seem to be a hard-luck story. I hit the post against Roscommon (in a 2003 qualifier) going for a goal when I should have taken a point. Pádraig Kelly had a 50m free to beat Kildare (in 2000) that went wide. I'm getting sick of it. Every beating is by a point; we had Laois beaten last year and contrived to lose the match. It's dragging us down. "I know when we play well we are as good as anyone. I know when the lads go out with the right attitude, one to 15, we can beat any team. That's the problem in Offaly, we've a limited group of players and if you've a few injuries then everything has to go right for you. Once we apply ourselves we can be as good as the 1997/98 team; we have the forwards, the backs, midfield and a great goalie." It's not wishful thinking.
While the first half of the decade has been heartbreaking, the more settled environment may give the team the impetus it needs. McManus says this is the first time in years there aren't players coming and going. They know exactly what they have to play with. What's clear is that Offaly haven't been that far away. Kelly's kick almost claimed a late win over Kildare in 2000 before they lost the replay. Earlier they'd beaten the reigning All-Ireland champions Meath. A year later they beat Laois and only lost to Dublin by two points, before crashing out to Louth. In 2002 they defeated Laois again but lost a replay by a point to Kildare and then went down badly to Limerick in the qualifiers. This is the first time in years there aren't players coming and going. They know exactly what they have to play with.
The last three summers have seen a further series of agonising near-misses. McManus landed a placed ball at the death to secure a draw with Laois in 2003 and force a replay which they lost by a goal. In the qualifiers they beat London and Clare, but lost out to Roscommon after extra time, having looked on their way in ordinary time. In 2004 Westmeath, their championship opponents this year who also provided the opposition last night as the teams played a challenge to open a new floodlit facility at McManus's home club of Tubber, won a controversial tie in Croke Park. Offaly had a claim for a point overruled but didn't seek a rematch. They bounced back to beat Kildare, then lost to Wexford. Kilmurray reckons they could do with some good fortune for a change. "Without being overly optimistic, the standard of player in Offaly at the moment is capable of competing at the highest level. Every team needs that bit of luck, probably that Offaly team has not had its fair share. So I'm hoping that God will grant us some." And winning Leinster - is that within their grasp? "Oh yeah," he replies, "I think that is a realistic ambition."