Indo Article - A plucky strike: the night I sat in with the

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Indo Article - A plucky strike: the night I sat in with the

Post by Bord na Mona man » Sat Jul 15, 2006 10:49 pm

http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/ ... e_id=14354

A plucky strike: the night I sat in with the Offaly mutineers


WEDNESDAY night, September 15, 2004. The location:
A house on the outskirts of Tullamore.


Those present:
The Offaly senior football panel (plus one journalist).


The agenda:
To discuss strategy for the strike action on which they had embarked the previous day.

IN an era when many GAA players have taken (or had it hoisted on them) a vow of silence on even routine matters that would make Trappist monks sound like incurable gossips, the Offaly squad adopted a refreshingly different approach to probably the most sensitive meeting they would ever attend.

I was told that I would be given exclusive access to the meeting and was free to report everything that happened. From a journalistic perspective, it was the soundest of deals. Not only was I allowed to sit in on a historic meeting which would discuss how best to proceed with strike action but I had full permission to use the details.

What's more, it would give me a unique insight into the mindset that prompted the squad to call strike action. From a player perspective, it was a masterstroke too and suggests an underlying intelligence that may be crucially important now that Offaly are happily engaged in their primary role of chasing titles.

Allowing a representative of the country's biggest selling daily newspaper into such an important meeting not only ensured maximum publicity for their campaign but also guaranteed that it was a first-hand account rather than hearsay.

Team manager Gerry Fahy and his selectors, Matt Connor and Mark Plunkett, had announced their resignations on the previous Monday night, having interpreted a 27-26 County Board vote in favour of them remaining on as an unworkable mandate. It was Fahy's first season in charge, during which Offaly had won nine of 12 competitive games and earned promotion from Division 2. They had lost to eventual champions Westmeath by a disputed point in the first round of the Leinster championship and were later eliminated from the All-Ireland qualifiers by a Matty Forde-inspired Wexford.

THAT wasn't regarded as good enough by almost half the County Board. Still, Fahy had a majority backing, albeit so slight that he didn't consider it tenable to remain on. His immediate predecessor, Paul O'Kelly, had been controversially voted out (38-24) a year earlier, having been in charge for just eight months.

During that period, Offaly had taken nine of 14 points in Division 2, lost to eventual Leinster champions Laois in a replay and reached Round 3 of the qualifiers where they lost to Roscommon after extra-time. Not good enough, said the County Board.

Out with O'Kelly, in with Fahy who was gone at the end of his first season.

The panel were disgusted with what they regarded as a revolving door managerial system, where their opinions seemed to count for nothing. Besides, there were annoyed over other issues too and when Fahy resigned they decided it was time bring the whole affair to a controversial head.

Conscious perhaps of how the thunderstorm in Cork hurling at the end of 2002 had cleared the clammy air to such a degree that it has been blue skies virtually all the way since, Offaly felt the strike option had undeniable merit. Fahy's resignation precipitated their stern stance.

"It's embarrassing, unhelpful and uninspiring for the panel to have such a dramatic management turnover in such a short space of time," they complained.

A whole range of issues were aired at the players' meeting. They came up with 15 different problems, relating to training facilities, gear and medical back-up. On an individual basis, each complaint appeared easy to address but as the players unloaded their complaints, it was clear that they had lost faith in the County Board. When I mentioned to a few players during a break in the meeting that I had been at Mayo's All-Ireland press briefing the night before, the frustration levels rose further.

Offaly had played Mayo in a closely-contested challenge game during the summer. Now, just a few months later, Mayo were preparing for the All-Ireland final while the Offaly players were on strike.

The calm, measured manner in which the squad articulated their grievances wasn't the work of impulsive upstarts, seeking pay-for-play or some other concessions, but rather a manifestation of the frustration experienced by a group of young men who wanted to play football for their county but who believed that the organisational side of their affairs at County Board level didn't match their own ambitions.

Negativity and a lack of communication were repeatedly mentioned when they talked of the County Board. Among other things, they recalled, rather sadly, how they had been told by a senior county official not to swap their jerseys after the championship clash with Westmeath and how officialdom showed a lot less interest in making a case for a re-fixture after one of Westmeath's 'points' was shown to have gone wide.

Inevitably, Offaly's strike action had the desired effect in that it brought both sides together under mediator, Eugene McGee. A deal was eventually worked out and later on Kevin Kilmurray was appointed as manager. Two seasons later, Offaly are in the Leinster final.

IRONICALLY, Kelly's removal in 2003 and Fahy's resignation in 2004, followed by the strike, was a big help to Kilmurray when his first season was reviewed last year. Losing to Laois through a late goal in the Leinster quarter-final would have been regarded as unlucky but the subsequent loss to Carlow in the qualifiers was different.

In the context of what happened to the previous managers, it's very possible that Kilmurray wouldn't have survived past the first season only for the O'Kelly and Fahy controversies. After all, Offaly couldn't keep changing managers every year. Fahy will be in the stand tomorrow, hoping his former charges win the Leinster title for the first time since 1997 while also feeling no doubt that he should still be with them.

"Look, all that's in the past. What's important now is that Offaly win the game. I still have great regard for them and would be in regular contact with quite a few. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that they've come this far. There's an amazing amount of talent in that dressing-room and for the first time in quite a few years, they have enjoyed the odd lucky break this year. God knows, they deserve it," said Fahy.

It was always likely that Offaly's fortunes would improve at some stage as they are blessed with a fine squad, a proud tradition and an unshakable determination to make up for several seasons of frustration.

They have quite often been their own worst enemies, as in last year's clash with Laois where they gifted Laois the late winning goal and in the 2004 clash with Westmeath where they wasted several scoring chances.

However, Offaly have a history for rapid expansion once they establish any momentum. And, as they run out at Croke Park tomorrow, the memory of that depressing night back in September 2004 when they shoehorned into a sitting-room in a house in Tullamore to discuss an uncertain future will be from a different galaxy.

However, the sense of resolve that the strike showed hints at a stubborn streak which is exactly what's needed for survival on the pitch too. Many great states were built on an uprising which, at the time, might have looked no more than a petulant cry of defiance but which would later assume huge significance.

The September 2004 rebellion may well have been such an occasion for Offaly. "Our aim is to win an All-Ireland title for Offaly," concluded their statement on that fateful night.

It seemed a forlorn ambition at the time but most of the signatories will line out in Croke Park tomorrow in search of a Leinster crown and a passage to the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Given the mental toughness and togetherness they showed with the strike campaign, it would be extremely foolish to underestimate them in any other battle either, whatever the odds may say.

Martin Breheny

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