December 27, 1996
Offaly light is fading warns
Funny how success comes in cycles. Comes and goes with misery and glory in tow. Like an undulating cross-country cycle. Uphill, downhill.
At the moment, though. Offaly hurling is trundling along on a desolate plateau. Neither up or nor down, they are in the process of realising their destiny, the nature of their next cycle. The next few seasons will mark out their path.
Related predictions meanwhile are sombre and somewhat low-spirited as the Offaly minor manager, former country star Ger Coughlan occupies the choice ahoy! Position to assess what awaits on the hurling horizon for the faithful county. While, of course, Ger is no Madame Mystique replete insights into the current state of the game in his native county.
It's not all bad news, Offaly fans, but be warned, most of it is. As they were particularly wont to say in 'The Shadow' comic prior to some onslaught of evil: "It is a grave situation, captain."
But enough of this melodramatic nonscence. Success comes and goes and that is a cast-iron fact of life. Offaly are no exceptions.
"The one thing that Offaly hurling thrives on," avers double All-Ireland winner, Ger, "Is good college teams. If we have good college teams, that means we will have good minor teams which will eventually bare fruit at senior level.
"And already this year Birr Community School are out of the Leinster Championship. It doesn't look good. There doesn't seem to be any teams coming through."
So we're in descent then?
"Yes, I would be concerned about the future of Offaly hurling, say seven or eight years down the line," he replies with acute matter-of-factness, before continuing.
"At present, we still have some exceptionally talented hurlers in the country but the young players aren't coming through. There has been no success for either the minors or the U-21s in the last number of years."
Despite his doleful assessment concerning the coming years, Ger nevertheless champions the current hurling structure in the country. There is no lack of organisational endeavour at underage levels, it appears. If the new talent is there it will surface.
"There's phenomenal amount of work going on at underage level," he contests. "Much more than ever before even. Right from U-10 up to minor the work is being put in. There is even indoor hurling during the winter to keep the interest going. It's all about promoting the game from a young age."
Lucklessly, however, Offaly are working with very scant resources. Football if Offaly's predominant game. Hurling only thrives in a small portion of the county- the south, in and around the town of Birr. In comparison to say Kilkenny and Cork, where the game, generally, is all-county-encompassing, Offaly must make do with a pick of players that is parish-like in size. Or perhaps that exaggerates the point but there is no denying that the game is only played within an eight mile radius of Birr town.
Which, as Ger stresses, lengthens considerably the odds on the blistering emerge of another Johnny Pilkington or another Brian Whelehan.
It comes in cycles, you see. And right now Offaly are peddling slowly…it seems.
A small, but hugely tenacious left half back, Ger Coughlan was to Offlay hurling in the eighties what flour is to bread - an indispensable, integral constituent. From 1980, when Offaly captured their first ever Leinster title, to 1990, Coughlan was ever-present, coolly displaying the qualities which made him one of the most dependable half-backs in the county.
Throughout that time he played in every Leinster Final, eleven in all, won seven, two of which culminated in ultimate All-Ireland glory in '81 and '85.
Beyond argument it was a fabulous Offaly team. Built at the dawn of the eighties with a history of blanket failure behind it, the team, which featured such players as Eugene Coughlan, Joachim Kelly, Pat Delaney, Mark Corrigan and Padraig Horan to name but a mere few, brought about a level of success that was only matched by the appetite for the game in the county. As Ger, who is a Kinnitty clubman explains:
"From where I come from it's just constant hurling talk. There's such a tradition down her for the game - the absolutely fanatical. Even before success came to the county it was like that. It's always been."
Indeed when you consider that the area is bordered closely by Roscrea, in Tipperary and Camross, in Laois- two great hurling bastions - it's hardly surprising that the football has been put on the back burner in Kinnitty.
They're hurlers to the marrow down there at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains. And that's not a contention nicely cemented by Ger Coughlan's outstanding record with his club. Following success in the underage levels the left half back went on to win senior club championship titles in 1987, '79, '83, '84 and '85.
But 1980 was the big year for Offaly hurling, the long-overdue breakthrough. As Ger fondly recalls, "the forwards played very well. Mark Corrigan, Brendan Birmingham and Johnny Flaherty were all absolutely fabulous that day. But we gave away a lot of silly scores and Matt Ruth and Ger Henderson both opportunities at the end for Kilkenny to tie up the game. Maybe on another day it could have went against us. But that's what it's all about, getting the breaks. If you don't get the break you won't get the breakthrough."
But it's the All-Ireland victories, in '81 and '85, which stand head, shoulders and podium above everything else in Ger's fruitful career. But to get the final word on it, which one is the highest light?
"Well, I suppose in one way it should be the first All-Ireland victory," he says, "but '85 was a great pleasure, a very sweet triumph."
Why was this?
"The year before we were beaten in the final against Cork so we really wanted to prove something the next year. In '84 we let ourselves down. We were very despondent and disappointed after that game and couldn't wait for the next season to come around."
Which it duly did but things didn't begin as smoothly as Offaly expected. The first round of the Leinster Championship pitted them against Kilkenny, their nearest and dearest rivals throughout the eighties.
"By half time we were eight or nine points down," recounts Ger. "But we really fought back in the second half and forced a draw. We won the replay."
And the rest is…
Ger played with and against some marvellous hurlers but he pinpoints another Ger, Kilkenny's Ger Henderson, as being the best of a brilliant lot.
"He was absolutely phenomenal," he avers. "Ger was easily the best player I played against. He had the greatest influence on games and it was very difficult to stop him. Although I have to say that when we played Kilkenny we put Brendan Birmingham on him and he had more success than anyone else I had seen."
Joe Connolly (Galway), Kieran Brennan (Kilkenny), Paddy Kelly (Limerick) and Johnny Callinan (Clare) are other players that gave Ger a "hard time".
Speaking about the game in the nineties Ger laments the demise of Cork hurling. "A bad Cork team is detrimental to the game in general," he contends. "The only thing you could nearly always be sure about was an All-Ireland-winning Cork team at least every couple of years. But for the last number of years they've been very disappointing and don't look like they've a team at all. Even on the club scene they've gone downhill. Teams like Blackrock and Glen Rovers used to rule the roost in Munster and now they don't even get a look in."
But back to the native county. Surely it's not all doom and gloom for Offaly hurling at the moment. "No, at the moment, we still have the core of a very good team. And if they look after themselves they'll still be a force over the next couple of years. But the players, as they get older, need to discipline themselves. That means keeping in training and keeping themselves in good shape. If they do that there's maybe six years left in most of them. If they don't watch themselves they could be gone in two."
We shall wait and see.
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
27th December, 1996
Most Read Stories