2005 – The Offaly Senior Hurling Championship in Review

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Lone Shark
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2005 – The Offaly Senior Hurling Championship in Review

Post by Lone Shark » Wed Oct 19, 2005 2:19 pm

And so that’s it. Last Sunday brought down the curtain on what most certainly has to be one of the worst Offaly Senior Hurling Championships in memory, and although it will still sit in the memory for the moment due to it’s proximity, two or three years should erase it completely. The opening and closing were exactly six months apart, and in all honesty, in that six months, picking out highlights is nigh on impossible. Ballyskenach hanging in to rob the playoff match against Kilcormac was tense, the double header in Tullamore on Phoenix weekend gave us two great finishes, and Kinnitty very nearly pulled off a great upset in the semi final, but in truth this was a championship filled with forgettable games, where upsets were few and far between and Birr proved that they live on a different planet hurling wise to all around them.

And to top all that, it has been one of the worst possible results for Offaly hurling, because at a time when it would be most valuable for the team to spend a good few games hurling together, getting some wins under their belt, and gelling into a strong unit, we are in all likelihood looking at a spring where the county has to hurl with half a panel. Birr appear to be hurling as well as they ever did in any of the All Ireland winning years, and look destined to progress through Leinster and keep hurling on into 2006. For Birr club members and supporters that is wonderful news, but if this championship proved nothing else, it is that Birr have to provide the backbone of the team because they are quite simply on another plane, and a county team taking on division 1A sides without its backbone can’t end well.

Here’s hoping that over the winter the likes of Coolderry, Kilcormac and St. Rynagh’s can harvest a few new bodies from their good intermediate and under 21 teams, because even though it seems harsh to call it a monopoly when Coolderry won only twelve months ago, the nature of the final has highlighted the disparity between Birr and the field, and for everyone’s sake that gap has to close.

Group 1 - Birr:

It mightn’t necessarily be good for the county team, but it’s hardly Birr’s fault that they are just so much better than every other team in the county. They demolished every team that was put before them, and in doing so displayed a beautiful and stylish brand of hurling that will be hard matched by any team in the country. Their team work and delivery of the ball is nothing short of sublime, and even though their shooting is sometimes less than perfect, they appear to have all the tools to go all the way to Croke Park next March. No doubt James Stephens, Portumna and Newtownshandrum among others will feel that they have the beating of Birr, but this is the greatest club team Ireland has ever known, and with winter settling in and experience as opposed to speed set to prosper, it would be hard to pick any team out that would be favourites against Birr in a one off match.
However that is all in the future – what is in the present is a Birr team that has just won an Offaly title in the most comprehensive fashion imaginable. Nothing but the highest praise is merited.

County Watch: This section would be a lot shorter if we were listing the Birr players who are not going to be involved in Offaly county teams next year, but the truth is that Birr representation will be strong on every Offaly team next year, and so it is on that basis that we must proceed. From the back, Brian Mullins will probably retain the number one jersey, but Lone Shark is not completely convinced. His shot stopping is as good as ever, but he still has a tendency to come out of his goals when he shouldn’t and put himself under pressure. Possibly something that could be rectified by some specialist Goalkeeper coaching, but he remains the man in possession in any case. His long free against Clare last year is possibly something we should be looking at bringing into the county game as well. Neil Rogers was not cleaned out at corner back at any stage this year, and will probably be a shoo in for either a midfield or a wing back slot for the under 21’s next year. In this observer’s opinion there might be better options. He looked good largely due to the half back line in front of him being imperious, rather than shutting out lads himself. The Leinster club championship will tell a lot more about his form. Beside him, Paul Cleary was nothing short of fantastic all summer. He made his way onto the county team this year, and looks set to continue there for a long time to come. Lone Shark has always applauded Ger Oakley’s good work at full back for Offaly, but Cleary has utterly dominated his position, and belongs there, rather than Oakley who has adjusted his own style of game to suit the team and the role they needed him to play. Rory Hanniffy has alternated between half forward, midfield and half back all year, but after last summer it looks like half back is where he can do his best work for the county, and as such that’s where he should stay, depending on the form of Joe Brady. Wing back might allow him the freedom to roam forward that he doesn’t get at centre back, which is certainly feasible if Brady gets a sustained run at number six. His shooting is not as accurate as it could be, but he has developed a real skill for travelling with the ball and laying it off under pressure to a man in space. Putting more of the pitch in front of him makes good sense. Niall Claffey was an absentee for some of the club and county’s games this summer, and his absence was felt – at least initially. However he remains a loose player, and while he has great hurling in him he’s not a centre back and it is a very close call between himself and Barry Teehan on the left. Might have to move over to number 5 to hold his position. Barry Whelahan rounded off a fine championship with a glorious display in the county final, finding space and picking out passes from all angles. He can score from range, move at pace and is generally playing a great all round midfield game. May lose out due to his lack of fielding prowess, but at the moment he is right there in the mix. Paul Molloy stepped into the county breach also during the summer, but he comes across as a real typical Birr hurler rather than a county player. He’s good on the ball, and never plays it without having a clear idea what he’s doing, but his lack of pace would in all likelihood be found out during the summer. He might have some chance if he is involved in county training from the start – but Birr’s involvement means that he probably won’t be – and as a result he’s likely to be a panellist at best. Gary Hanniffy is the same player he always was – great physical presence, highly dextrous and has all the skills. He could be one of the best players in the game if he just added that touch of aggression that he shows all too rarely. He’ll probably end up back in the half forward line to give us some fielding ability there, but his lack of edge is still holding him back. The best thing that could happen would be for him to be put in on JJ Delaney, who might then pull one of his typically dubious late strokes – then we could see Gary firing on all cylinders and shocking the world. It’s certainly in him. Stephen Brown has been operating at wing forward for most of the summer, and has been displaying all the sumptuous skills we’ve always known he had ever since he announced his presence with that remarkable goal against Tipperary in Portlaoise. Loves to dart down the wing and strike on the run, and usually hits the target. He’s too good not to start for the county, but he needs to be fully fit, which is not always a given – he’s another who’d benefit from training with the county all winter rather than creeping in the side door some time in March. Dylan Hayden was one of the few players not to stand out in the county final, although in mitigation he was suffering under some very “attentive” marking. He’s a very dangerous player, but can disappear out of games, and needs to maintain his focus for a full 60/70 minutes. He had a very poor game in this year’s under 21 decider, when he scored 1-1 despite looking like he’d really rather be somewhere else the whole game. If he takes responsibility and really leads this year’s under 21 outfit it will open up a world of possibility for that team, and for himself. He’ll start for the seniors as well, but he needs to learn to impose himself on games. All too often he disappears from games when we are struggling to even win a ball, let alone get a score, and it’s times like that that Dylan has to step up. In all likelihood he’ll be joined on the u-21 team by Michael Dwane, who has turned into a quite dangerous little player, albeit one who’s still a year or two off senior standard. Dwane has started to score a lot more regularly for this Birr team, but that said he’s still inclined to pull his trademark move of darting along the endline before pulling it back to no-one in particular. His pace creates good openings, but his brain will have to learn to keep up with his feet and wrists. Michael Verney is very unlucky in that he would certainly be a starter on almost any other team in Offaly, although by next year he should be a starter for Birr as well. He’ll feature for the under 21’s almost certainly, most likely in one of the corners, and should do well. Brian Nolan is (I believe) still minor next year, and should play a big part in that team, where chances are he’ll be joined by Aaron Whelahan. Aaron’s progress has been carefully noted, obviously enough, by most hurling followers in Offaly, and while he hasn’t already secured an All Ireland medal at sixteen like his father, he has put in some fantastic club performances, and should get the chance to compete for one next year.

Group 1 - Ballyskenach:

2004 represented somewhat of a fall from grace for this club, as they failed to even make the knockout stages of the championship on the back of their lone county final appearance in 2003. By that yardstick, 2005 was a slight improvement, but the nature of their loss to Shinrone will have left them very disappointed, and will no doubt be something that they will have to hear plenty about in the local establishments over the winter.
Realistically it’s hard to see where any real level of improvement will come from. They don’t have the numbers playing the game to a high enough standard within the club to ensure that they’ll take the field with fifteen strong hurlers in any one game. While the level of commitment is invariably high, the truth is that they just don’t have the depth needed to compete, and while the likes of O’Hara, Murphy and David Franks are all at peak age now and hurling quite well, they don’t have a sufficient number of under 21 and minor stars of a requisite standard to fill out the team and threaten top quality opponents.
The same level of honest endeavour that we know they’ll always bring to the table should bring them to the quarter finals again in 2006, but realistically it’s hard to see them outdoing that.

County Watch: At county level it was a nightmare year for David Franks, as he like most of the team had a very poor game against Kilkenny, and then due to family commitments he missed the mini-renaissance towards the end of the year. He hasn’t become a bad player all of a sudden though, and a lot of his play in the club championship indicated that the Franks of 2003 could be on the way back. Corner back has been a weak link for the senior team for some time, and Franks playing well is vital if we are to have any chance to stop Kilkenny in Leinster next year. Mick O’Hara has also filled that slot for Offaly on occasion, though he is a little inclined towards loose marking which is unforgiveable in the county game. He’s not the fastest player in the world either, which reinforces the belief that he does not belong in the last line of defence. He is very combative and aggressive however, and in a county team that is short on those qualities, he has a lot to contribute yet. A winter free from injury with a lot of training will stand to him, and could see him lining out in midfield or half forward next year yet. Brendan Murphy is still a guaranteed county starter for 2006, although he was very quiet in the games he played for Ballyskenach this summer. However he has never been and will never be the fulcrum of any attack, much and all as his club would love him to be. He is a good player around the fringes, able to take chances and still very fast. It’s highly likely that he’ll return to the inside forward line next year. Of the younger players within the club, Alan Middleton was the only one who wore county colours this year, although he struggled to make an impact for the under 21’s. He was another that didn’t really have a good year, and will probably need to re-establish himself on the club scene before he features for the county again. However of those that have been around that bit longer, Mark Kirwan stood out as a player that might be able to step up to a higher grade given the chance. The corner back has been quietly effective for some time now, and in a problem position for the county, he might be worth a run in the Walsh Cup.

Group 1 – St. Rynagh’s:

When Offaly were one of the elite teams in Ireland, either in the early eighties or throughout the nineties, it was a given that there was always three or four St. Rynagh’s players at the very least dotted throughout the team, usually in key central positions and invariably providing the steel and physical presence needed to allow the smaller lighter players to show off their talents. It’s hardly a coincidence that the demise of Rynaghs as a force has coincided with Offaly struggling due to a lack of skilled but powerful and aggressive players throughout the team. We also seem to lack leadership, and again Rynaghs have provided three of the four All Ireland winning captains in our history. Let there be no doubt – Offaly hurling needs a strong Rynaghs team, and we need them badly.
For all that, despite what some would say, this Rynaghs team is a long way from being of that standard. We can bemoan the lack of Rynaghs presence on the senior team all we want, but none of their current players are good enough. Several people remarked when the quarter final draw was made that it seemed to be set up for a Rynaghs vs Coolderry semi, and that Rynaghs would go into that game with no fear. Even at half time in the semi, when Kinnitty were losing by ten, the mutterings could be heard around the ground that no Rynaghs team would be losing like this. It’s that kind of codswallop that’s holding the club back. Tradition and reputation are all very well, but a couple of draws with Birr in the last five years is all the club has to back that up, and it’s time they got back to hurling like teams of old. Their quarter final with Kinnitty was a sad reflection on the senior players within the club – no player scored from play in the first 45 minutes, and by the end only Diarmuid Horan and Shane Flannery – two minors – emerged with any real credit. Reputation will not bring this club back to eminence, only hard work and application will. There is a good stream of young players that will be coming onto the senior panel in coming years – these players will give the club every opportunity, if the will and drive is there. We all hope it will be.

County Watch: Scrounging around looking for players that are good enough to play in the senior team is difficult to say the least. Realistically, the only contender is goalkeeper Damien McDermott. Dislodging Mullins will be difficult, but McDermott has been utterly reliable for some time now, and is probably even more dependable. He might not have the same ability to make eye catching saves, but he does the basics well, and there’s a lot to be said for that. The only other outside contender, and even then it’s probably a year too early, is Cathal Horan. His absence through injury hit Rynagh’s very hard, as he had become a real presence on the half back line, and certainly was well equipped to step up and take those skills onto the county stage. He was man of the match when he had to go off injured against Dublin in this years under 21, and probably would have made all the difference if he stayed on. Should be in the squad, may make the team. After that, we’re looking at underage players. Diarmuid Horan has to be first and foremost here. If I’m not mistaken, Diarmuid is minor again next year, and will have a huge part to play in both codes if that is the case. He became Rynagh’s most dangerous attacker as the summer went on, and while he has a long way to go, it seems to be a matter of when rather than if he plays senior hurling for the county. Burnout will be a huge issue though with the amount of sport he’ll be asked to play in the coming years. Ciarán Flannery is exactly the type of player that Rynagh’s used to produce and for that reason he’ll also be watched carefully by supporters around the county in coming years. Not overly big for his age, he plays as if he’s 6’5”, never showing any fear and always taking the game to his direct opponent. He has all the skills, and could easily end up playing under 21 next year. Conor Hernon is another who should make that team. The corner back has been assured and solid all year long, and looks capable of making the step up from minor. Hopefully a couple of years in that team will bring him on even further. James Corrigan also played on last years minor team, and while he’s a good prospect too, he’ll probably find next year’s under 21 team a bridge too far. 2007 should see him playing at that level though. Pat McIntyre and Paudie Mulhare are two senior players that didn’t play like men with county experience this summer, despite having plenty of ability and being, in theory at least, at their peak. They, along with several others, will have a big say in what direction Rynaghs hurling takes in the coming years, and could yet return to the county colours, though it certainly won’t be in 2006.

Group 1 – Kilcormac/Killoughey:

Much like St. Rynagh’s, 2005 was another woeful year of underachievement for K/K. Consistently strong at underage level, with a decent intermediate team backing them up, there is no excuse for Kilcormac’s failure to reach the knockout stages this year, particularly in the light of how much potential they have shown in recent years, and indeed in their opening match with Ballyskenach. From a county point of view, the catchment area of this club takes in large swathes of our hurling area, and for them to be performing so poorly and contributing so little to the county senior team is disappointing to say the least. However, once again their intermediate and under 21 teams performed well, and when the fresh talent is plucked from those trees and added to the senior panel, they have all the tools to come back and restore some pride to the club next year. Whether they choose to do so or not is another matter.

County Watch: Their standard bearer on the county team in recent years has been former All Star nominee Colm Cassidy, but in 2005 Cassidy fell from grace spectacularly. As arguably the most talented hurler in the county, in this writer’s humble opinion at any rate, he should be stepping up in the games that really count and dominating from the key position at wing back. When the going got tough, he was usually nowhere to be seen, and was justifiably dropped for subsequent games after the Kilkenny debacle. His part in the public dispute with management can be read in several different ways depending on what you hear, which obviously varies hugely depending on the tint of the viewer’s glasses, but what is beyond doubt is that his attitude has been called into serious question and until he looks to prove people wrong, he will remain outside the fold. In all likelihood, he will be replaced on the team by Eamonn Lee. Eamonn made the eminently reasonable decision to forego some under 21 training sessions while doing his leaving Cert and seeking the points to do medicine. Rewarding those who attend training is all very well, but punishing a young player who shows such a sensible sense of priorities is downright foolish, and yet that’s what our under 21 management did, leaving Eamonn off the starting line up. He was brought on to prove what most within the county already know – that he’s a tall, skilled and competitive player who’s an asset to any team. He’ll certainly get the call to join the panel next year, and you’d assume that he’ll push very hard for a starting berth. Beside him in the forwards, Ciarán Slevin has taken on the responsibility of taking frees for his club, and has been running up large totals as a result. However he hasn’t been contributing as much as he could from general play, and probably will need another year of club hurling before John McIntyre comes calling. In the spirit of looking for players who play with a little bit of fire in their bellies, Lone Shark has definitely been quietly impressed with Kevin Sadler, and will be watching him carefully next year, probably hurling for the under 21’s from the start instead of off the bench. He lacks a bit of calm presence on the ball for the moment, but if he starts to add a little more scoring to his game, his play under a dropping ball and fighting for breaks is commendable. Kevin Grogan has also become a key player for the club in recent years. I’m unsure if he’s under 21 again next, but he’d be a huge player for that team if he was. If not, he’s probably still a little bit short of senior standard, but has plenty of hurling in him, and can be quite sticky. He could do a job for us in the backs yet. Peter Healion has been manning the square for K/K for a few years now, and has played there for the county for a few games as well, though he probably will remain a panellist for the foreseeable future. Good under a high ball, but the day of Tony Doran-esque full forwards sitting on the edge of the square is gone, and out the field Healion struggles to keep up with the modern full forward. Some speed work could stand to him though. Finally from the seniors, sadly Stephen Byrne appears to be down the queue for the number one jersey. One poor mistake against Birr cost his team heavily at the time, and he just doesn’t have the demeanour of the impregnable last line of defence that he once was. Looking much further ahead, Conor Mahon made a brief appearance for this year’s minor team, but he should find himself at the heart of the team next year. His size and range will be a huge asset to next years minor team, but this writer is a lot more excited about Daniel Currams. This young lad is minor in both 2006 and 2007, and has showed a lot of class and talent and both codes to date, unsurprisingly given his lineage. Unlike the more traditional Kilcormac underage star, he’s not big for his age, but he has a lot of talent, and he should play a big part in next year’s minor team.

Group 1 – Drumcullen:

It’s hard to see where the revival of the Sash is going to come from to be honest. For years they’ve been part of the aristocracy of Offaly hurling, but they just seem to be way off the pace at all levels of the game now, and barring Eoin Kelly moving on from Mullinahone and settling in the quiet environs of Rath, they look like a side that will be looking nervously down rather than hungrily up. They were savagely unlucky to have drawn such a tough group this year, but in truth they are fifteen points off a county final standard team, and nothing they’ve done at underage would suggest that that gap is going to get narrower as opposed to wider. In a county championship of ten or twelve teams they’d be under real pressure. As it is the existence of Clara and the lack of any real potential winner of the intermediate championship outside of the second string teams for the big clubs will keep them senior for another while and probably for as long as we have an inflated championship with fifteen teams.
County Watch: As it has been for some time, this is quite simply a discussion about Conor Gath. Gath continues to rack up huge scoring totals in club games, averaging way in excess of any other player in the county. He has intermittently played in county games, rarely making any real impact, and when you factor in his part in the five man dispute at the end of last summer, it’s fair to say that he’ll in all likelihood be on the outside looking in. It is a pity, since a prolonged run in the county team in the spring could bring him on a ton, but as of now he looks like being a might-have-been. Of the younger players, John Cashin leads the pack and should have county representation in his future, but he has a long way to go to even make a real impact on the club scene.

Group 2 - Coolderry:

They say first impressions last. Well Coolderry’s championship opener in 2005 was a twelve point win over Shinrone, and it’s fair to say it’s not the impression people will be left with. Losing to Birr in a county final is no disgrace, but losing in the manner that they did certainly was. However a bad day can happen to anyone, and they haven’t become a bad team overnight. They are still a very young team, with a steady flow of decent underage players coming on stream, although Coolderry was conspicuous by its absence from the list of clubs represented by this year’s minor team. They still are the side most likely to put up a serious challenge to Birr next year, and they need to focus on that over the winter rather than the harrowing memories of October 16th. If they do, they will in all likelihood be playing in their third consecutive county final next Autumn.

County Watch: While it’s fair to say that the club was probably a little over-represented in county teams this year, they still have a decent panel of players, and a fair chunk of them will still be playing at various levels next summer. However in terms of county starters, realistically they have two strong contenders and one guaranteed starter, barring injury. Brian Carroll was very young when he made his debut for the county, but he has continually shown passion and drive, and led his team from the front on several occasions this summer. He can still be a little inconsistent, but he is without question one of the best six forwards in the county, and if he can put some time and practice into his free taking over the winter, he may find that responsibility falling into his lap as well. Barry Teehan had a traumatic day in Croke park against Kilkenny, and temporarily lost his place at corner back, but he came back playing on the wing, and did very well in that position, as he did when playing there for his club. He should hold that jersey, and could easily be playing alongside his clubmate Joe Brady. Joe has suffered down the years as a county used to such heroes as Pat Delaney, Hubert Rigney and Brian Whelahan filling the centre back position expected miracles from Joe at a very young age, and before long he was being moved up to full forward, a position where he clearly does not belong. He played some fantastic games at centre back for the club this year, and stemmed the Kinnitty flow when he was moved back there, and should be picked either at centre back or not at all. He’s still the best fielder of a ball in the county, and will not be physically dominated by anyone. He needs to learn that when there is a scrum of eight players to his left and no-one to his right that right is the way to turn, but if he can learn to get the ball away by any means necessary, and not get hooked or called for overcarrying, then Lone Shark has faith that he’ll be our county centre back for a long time yet, thus freeing Rory Hanniffy to return to the forwards or to move out to wing back. Kevin Brady got a lot of playing time last year, but he’ll do well to get as much or even a decent fraction of that in 2006. Kevin appears to live in that limbo between good club and inter county standard hurler, and we saw against Clare the difference that can make. Kevin has never been anything but wholehearted, but a player who struggles to make the WIT Fitzgibbon cup team really shouldn’t be playing intercounty hurling with a top tier side. Trevor Corcoran was playing in the corner behind Kevin most of the year, and he appears to have greater long term potential, having been one of Coolderry’s star performers all year long. He should feature on next year’s under 21 team, and will be one worth watching for the future at that level. Cathal Parlon will also feature for that team, although it’s fair to say he may have to wait a year or two before he features for the seniors again. Cathal had a real dose of second season syndrome this year, and it remains to be seen whether or not he can shake that off. Damien Murray also lost his place on the county team, and though he won’t drop off the panel, he is unlikely to make it back on to the first fifteen. He has generally been picked on the strength of being a good freetaker, and his limited contribution from open play is tolerated. That would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that his freetaking has been distinctly average at best for both club and county for some time, and with Brian Carroll or Rory Hanniffy probably his equal from placed balls, he will probably struggle to justify his continued inclusion. Finally goalkeeper Shane O’Connor will almost certainly be asked into the squad, though as we all know sub goalkeeper is not the kind of role that a lot of people would be keen to take on. He is however quite solid, and his puck out is a great weapon, and he would certainly be a threat from long range frees. It seems odd to be picking a goalkeeper on the strength of his attacking qualities, but nonetheless they are not so insignificant as to be without merit.

Group 2 - Kinnitty:

At the start of the year most people would have said that a semi final appearance would have been a fine achievement for Kinnitty in 2005, but with five minutes to go in that semi final they’ll have dreamt of so much more. However when they look back on this summer, the Slieve Bloom boys can take a lot of pride from their hurling, as they put their heart and souls into every game, and hurled with no small amount of class throughout. In one sense it’s disappointing that they ended up running Coolderry so close because of some overtly aggressive tactics, because that was not reflective of their style throughout the good year they had.
Looking forward, much like Ballyskenach of two years ago, they’ll find that extra step hard to bridge. The parish is not one of the most heavily populated in the county, and though hurling will always be at the core of it, in the absence of a couple of superstars they’ll always find a few weaker spots in the team difficult to carry. And while there are a lot of good hurlers in this 2005 Kinnitty vintage, the three in a row team of the early eighties had Pat Delaney, Johnny Flaherty, Ger Coughlan and the Corrigans among others, each of them All Star hurlers. While there are good players in the current team, I doubt if any realistically believe that they belong in that sort of heady company. However they were the third best team in Offaly in 2005, and will not relinquish that spot easily. And from a county point of view, much like Doon or St. Brigid’s in football, if every club was making the best of their situation as Kinnitty are, then we’d be a lot better off as a county.

County Watch: For Lone Shark, the shining star of the Kinnitty show in 2005 had to be wing back James Rigney. He’s very small, but it’s not like a hugely talented but tiny number seven from Kinnitty is an unheard of phenomenon! This twenty year old read the game like a man ten years his senior, he took on and beat players who towered over him physically, and he displayed a wonderful touch and awareness on the ball throughout the summer. His covering of ground was tireless, and he invariably got better and better as games went on. County hurling would be a huge step up for him, and in modern hurling a half back has to be a great fielder of the ball, which clearly doesn’t suit him, but he should be a contender for club player of the year, and will certainly make the under 21 team and perhaps could do well for the seniors in a corner back or even midfield slot. If all this sounds over the top, well then I don’t care – I haven’t enjoyed watching an individual player play as much in a long time. In the full back line, Paddy Whelan and Liam Bergin have both caught the eye of Offaly selectors in the past, but the class act of the three had to be Fearghal Kealey. Kealey has thrust himself to the forefront of selectors’ thoughts with a series of great displays, showing all the power of a traditional full back, while at the same time clearing ball with style and skill. His previous flirtation with the county panel did not end well, but if his form of this summer is to be a regular thing, then there has to be a slot in the first 30 for him, and maybe even the team. Centre Back Andrew McRedmond is another who found the step up to county level a bit difficult previously, but could be worth another shot with a bit more experience and development behind him. He led from the back throughout the year, was strong under a high ball, and played a big part in his club’s success. With Rory Hanniffy missed among the forwards and Sid retired, the half backs could do with a few players making a claim for the jerseys – McRedmond certainly made a convincing enough case. Further up the field, it gets a little harder to pick out likely candidates. Mick Cleere hurled at midfield, and his ability from long range frees is a serious weapon, but from general play he certainly has a lot of ground to make up on the existing midfield pairing of Gary Hanniffy and Diggy. Realistically only Colm Coughlan will be wearing the green, white and gold next year, if he is as this writer suspects, underage for minor. He’ll never be big obviously enough, but he found senior tough going all the same, however he’s a dangerous player with plenty of craft, and will make a fine minor corner forward next year just as he did this year.

Group 2 - Shinrone:

They played their All Ireland final in the parish clash with Ballyskenach in the quarter final, and deservedly came out on top. However they were completely and utterly outclassed by Birr in the semi final, and they will start next year as slight outsiders to reach another quarter final, irrespective of who they draw. They were comfortably poorer than Kinnitty, much poorer than Coolderry, and way behind Birr, so realistically it’s a lot easier see their wins over Seir Kieran or Ballyskenach go the other way next year than for them to turn around any of those losses.
You couldn’t fault them in any game they played, but they were the only team that struggled to beat Clara. One win out of four should be the most they’ll get next year, since Clara and Drumcullen won’t be in opposition.

County Watch: Michael Cordial has been improving steadily over the past couple of years, and the quarter final against Ballyskenach was as good a game as he’s played. He single-handedly dominated midfield, and has become the spiritual leader of this team. His attitude and drive is something that any supporter loves to see, and his reasonable strike rate from dead balls was a new feature to his game. He’ll remain a first choice midfielder for the foreseeable future. Danny Hoctor lost his starting spot as the year went on, and looking at him playing for the under 21’s and Shinrone, he didn’t stand out as a county player. He’s a big lad, and as such definitely is worth keeping in the fold, but he is very one sided, and gets blocked down an awful lot. He’ll stay in the squad, but will probably find that a few others have slipped ahead of him in the queue. Only Willie Comerford outside of those two stands out, and though he has a lot to offer in terms of physical presence and fielding, he’ll probably need to work on his pace and man marking before he’d be able for county play.

Group 2 – Seir Kieran:

In modern hurling the centre back slot is very much the key position, and it doesn’t say a lot when you have to pull back an ageing corner forward to play that role. Billy Dooley might be one of the legends of the game, but clearly Seir Kieran are struggling, and like Shinrone, they’ll be put to the very pin of their collar to win even one championship game next year, and with Lusmagh and Belmont both looking reasonable, chances are they mightn’t even do that.
The Clareen club have contributed some of Offaly’s finest players down the years, but where other clubs lack the depth to fill out a panel, they lack the depth to fill out a good fifteen – and against the bigger and better teams that will tell.
They have one or two class acts that should prevent relegation ever being an issue, but unless another family of Dooleys comes along, county titles looks a long way away.
County Watch: One of the biggest disappointments of the year was Joe Bergin’s late dismissal in the round robin match against Dublin, thereby ruling him out for the later games against Wexford and Dublin where he would have made such a huge difference. That minor team could have gone a long way, and to not even make the Leinster Semi Finals was a travesty. He also found himself in receipt of another straight red card for his club some weeks later, so clearly discipline is an issue for him. All that said, he is a fantastic talent, with a serious physique, and will certainly be a senior panellist next year and key player for the under 21 team. With our forwards in such dire need of a powerful ball winner who can also hurl to the required standard, Joe could find himself fast tracked very easily. At the risk of over hype, the county waits……

Group 2 - Clara:

A great year in 2003, some good performances in 2004, but my word did they come crashing to earth this year. Christy Flanagan has performed heroics for the club year in year out, but finding themselves in a strong senior group this year it all fell apart. With no underage talent to speak of, it’s hard to believe that Clara will be anything but an intermediate team again within a couple of years. If they do finish bottom of group three next year, it is to be hoped that they do ask to be relegated, and not stay up if as is likely a senior club wins the intermediate championship.
Apologies to any Clara readers out there looking for the silver lining on the cloud, but it’s just very hard to see it at the moment.
County Watch: Realistically no Clara player will hurl for Offaly in 2006.

Group 3 – Lusmagh:

They were unlucky to finish bottom of their group in 2004, and took full advantage by winning all four games in group three before unsurprisingly falling to Birr in the quarter final. However there was a world of difference in the way Lusmagh fought stubbornly against a good Birr display and the meek way that teams like Shinrone and Ballyskenach capitulated. They met a Birr team that was fired up and scoring from all angles, and still stayed within a respectable range for most of the game, with many of their players performing well.
Needless to say challenging for a county title next year is probably a bit beyond them, but they could easily finish second or third in a group and reach a semi final slot.

County Watch: Unremarkably, their star turn all year was Aidan Hanrahan, who continued his good county form on when wearing his club colours. Hano has been on the fringes of the county team for some time and finally made a starting slot his own this summer, and certainly has done enough to hold on to it. He doesn’t score heavily, but the whole attack revolves around him, his height is a valuable asset, and his pace and direct style cause problems. Barring any surprises he should start in the inside forward line next summer. In the back line, we saw glimpses this summer of the talent of David Moran, recently returned from a serious knee injury. Lone Shark is not in a position to say what long term effects are still in place from that injury, but if further rehabilitation can improve his mobility, there’s no question about his coolness and ability. Adrian Kelly was the other senior player who stood out, and played some fine games from wing back. His deliveries were long and accurate, and he generally dominated his markers throughout the year. Reasonably good form in Group 3 is by no means cause for promotion to the county team by itself, but it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on hurling against four good teams in the group next year. In terms of underage, the only likely contender will be Fintan Kelly, who will be strongly considered by the under 21 management. By no means is Fintan a stylish classy hurler, but he’s quite big, not afraid to get stuck in, and can take a point or two when the opportunity presents itself. He could find himself playing a role in the half forward line next year and could find his touch and control improving as a result.

Group 3 – Belmont:

Lone Shark’s connection to Belmont hurling club is well known, so many of you will allow for a certain amount of “tint” in what follows, but Belmont were a breath of fresh air in the Offaly senior championship this year, and definitely look to be a club on the up. The loss of Shane Ryan was a tragedy felt by all in the parish last year, as well as leaving a huge gap at centre back. Harry Kearns was probably the next most dependable senior hurler after Shane, and a cruciate injury ruled him out for their last few games as well. Despite this, Belmont were a lot closer to Coolderry than the scoreline suggests, and if they spend some time over the winter working on their freetaking, and concentrating during the closing stages of games – they conceded injury time goals in three of the four group matches – they will be in contention for a knockout slot again next year.
Lack of depth will always be a problem for them – Birr, Coolderry, Rynaghs and Kilcormac have second string teams that are contending for the intermediate title, Belmont’s second string lost the junior B final to Brosna Gaels, but if they can get all their players on the field at one time, they’ll be very competitive, and with so many of their players still very young, they should make a good contribution to Offaly teams at all levels in the coming years.

County Watch: Most county supporters will be most familiar with Alan Egan, whose pace troubled several corner backs this summer and registered decent tallies in most of the games he played. He’s unlikely to get much bigger, but his eye for goal is very keen, and he’ll be a key player for the under 21 team this summer. Whether he’ll be able to progress from that remains to be seen. He’ll be joined most likely on the under 21 panel by Ciarán Kenny. Ciarán has played at both wing back and wing forward for the club, and can both field and take scores. He should find himself in the 10 or 12 jersey for the county under 21’s next year, and we’ll know more then about how good this lad can be. In terms of the senior panel, the first man to be called on would probably have been John Egan, who had a fantastic year at full back for the club, but word on the grapevine is that he’s away to Australia and New Zealand for the year, so if we are to see him in a county jersey, 2007 will be as soon as it will happen. Lone Shark’s outside bet for a county senior panel slot this year is David Kenny. David is eligible for the under twenty one team as well, and will surely play for them, but he was the best midfielder on display between the eight in the quarter final double header, and kept taking the fight to Coolderry throughout the game, considerably outplaying Alan Corcoran, his much more vaunted marker. He can score from range, is useful under a high ball and his general all round play, particularly sweeping up breaks and running at defences, is superb. The final mention goes to Colin Egan, who played at wing back in their final three games of the year, and improved with each game, culminating in the Coolderry game where he saw off Cathal Parlon and scored a point himself. Colin is minor next year and in 2007, and looks to have a very bright future in the game, although much like Daniel Currams who was mentioned earlier, he plays a lot of football as well and will find himself very busy keeping both sides happy.

Group 3 – Shamrocks:

Needless to say the focus in Shamrocks club this year was mainly on football, but that shouldn’t take from the fact that the hurlers performed quite well, and but for a late strike from Aidan Hanrahan, they would have had Belmont’s place in the quarter finals. As it is they will be front runners to come out of Group 3 next year, and Lone Shark expects them to do so. While they don’t have any real superstars on the team, they are generally quite fit, physically strong, and in Trevor Darcy they have a reliable free taker, which usually means that they don’t suffer from long scoreless periods that suffocate teams. They’re not the type of team who’ll register twenty scores in a game with regularity, but they are solid throughout the field, and have to be commended for keeping hurling alive in a real and meaningful way outside of the traditional strongholds.

County Watch: Lone Shark was in attendance at the Lusmagh match, and much like John McIntyre who was in close proximity, was keen to keep an eye out for Stephen Delaney. Delaney has been the subject of a lot of speculation, as one would imagine for a player who was a county under 21 for three consecutive years, but he didn’t appear to stand out – and yet he scored 1-3. He’s certainly not in intercounty condition, but if he chose to get himself to that level, he certainly has the skills. Whether he has the will is another matter entirely, but if he was willing to commit to the kind of work that would be needed, he could surprise himself with how far he’d go. Neville Coughlan returned to the hurling panel after the footballers made their exit, but it seems reasonable to assume that he’ll be sticking with football in the future. As is the way with hurling, if you don’t spend a lot of time at it you lose it, and Neville is focussing on the big ball and it’s very hard to argue with that decision. Likewise younger brother Thomas Coughlan has been showing similar promise at both codes, but in truth he’ll probably find himself focussing on football rather than hurling before long too. He’ll be a good club player, but it’s hard to see him going any further than that. One player who might have registered on the county selectors’ collective radar will have been wing back Mark Yeates. Yeates is probably too small to be considered for an intercounty wing back position, but his speed and ball striking are excellent, and he’d be another potential squad member who could improve for playing with the big boys, as it were. A long term prospect rather than one for next year, but one to keep an eye on all the same.

Group 3 – Killavilla:

Not that Lone Shark is prone to sitting on the fence at the best of times, but the gloves are definitely off for this one. Unequivocally, Offaly hurling would be a lot better off if Killavilla were no longer in the senior championship and were down in intermediate out of harm’s way. They are downright dangerous, and some of their tactics have no place on a hurling field. That they are as proud of their club as are the members of any of the 85 assorted clubs in Offaly is no doubt – but their rough-house tactics are an open secret, and on more than one occasion since their accession to the senior ranks have they been guilty of assaults that were designed to put players out of a game, and in many cases could have put them out of hurling for good. If their challenges were all in the heat of battle and were spread throughout the pitch it would be much more understandable, but invariably when the truly dirty stroke is pulled it’s on the nippy corner forward, or the county player, or after the ball is gone. Individually I’ve no doubt these are in the main decent honourable men out to represent their home village – but collectively they are a menace, and either a change in tactics or some harsh disciplinary action is needed very soon, because a career ending injury can’t be far away.
County Watch: The only player who could be worthy of consideration would be forward Chris Moore. He’s not the youngest of players, but he has an eye for the posts and is good under the puckout. He has all the basic skills of the game, and while he mightn’t be a game turner, he could offer an outlet off the bench when we need to hold on to the ball up front.

Group 3 – Tullamore:

Fifteen teams is too much in the Offaly senior championship, that’s without doubt – however even though Tullamore were very poor this year, Lone Shark was glad to see them hold on to senior status. Offaly is a small county to begin with, and while it’s difficult to foresee a day when any team based more than fifteen miles from Birr will be lifting the Sean Robbins Cup, we still need a solid contribution from these areas to make up county teams, and to ensure that there is some competition with smaller clubs in South Offaly for places in the senior championship, so as to ensure clubs don’t go stale knowing their senior status is secure. Tullamore hurling at senior level is unequivocally a good thing for Offaly hurling, and most observers will be happy that they’ll get to continue doing so.
All that said, Tullamore were very poor this year, and although they weren’t way off the pace in any of their four championship games, they conceded freely, as evidenced by the fact that only Birr, Coolderry and Lusmagh scored more than them in their group matches, and yet they finished stone last of the fifteen teams competing. They’ve been quite competitive at minor and under 21 level, but they need to start converting those young players into established seniors soon. Pretty soon the pressure will come on for a serious overhaul in the senior championship, and a big reduction in the number of teams. They’ll need to be ready for it.

County Watch: Even though the town have been good at underage level for some time, it has been much more a reflection of their depth relative to smaller clubs rather than the brilliance of one or two players. As a result, realistically there aren’t many contenders for county positions. The one exception to this in Lone Shark’s eyes would be 2005 county minor Stephen Egan. Stephen played some very good hurling this summer, particularly impressing against Belmont, where he was brought back to mark Alan Egan and did so very well, and against Killavilla where he had a great game in the left corner, shutting out John Dooley and clearing some great ball. He may find one or two ahead of him in the queue for an under 21 spot in the corner this summer, but he should be called into the squad with an eye to future development, and if he was called on he could surprise a few people. Shane Dooley is a very capable player, as you’d expect from a player of that family, but as of yet he hasn’t shown enough to prove that he would be a leading light in a bigger arena. Good games in the Kehoe cup and Group C of the league are all very well, but a player worthy of county representation at under 21 would have shone more than he has. He still has youth on his side, but is a bit off the pace yet. Likewise James Keane has competed well and put in some good games for his team, but doesn’t look to be county standard, and bearing in mind the amount of football he’ll be asked to play for his county over the next decade, will probably be hurling at club level only.

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