Two midlands counties diverged in a wood. One had been in the doldrums for many years and had sunk to the low of being the 4th best team in the second tier of All-Ireland hurling competition. In a time of crisis however, they appointed a much decorated ex-Kilkenny great, unproven at senior inter-county management. By the end of the summer, they had won their first National title in aeons, secured promotion back into the Liam McCarthy Cup and had a historic win over Dublin in the All-Ireland championship, for their best performance at that level in more than 30 years.
The other county was of a similar, if not more elevated, stature. Rather than focus on re-organizing their own ship though, they spent a large portion of summer complaining about the fact that they had been relegated from the All-Ireland championship. Why are we, the great Offaly, debasing ourselves in some Mickey Mouse competition that we’ve never been in before? Little did they know by the end of this summer, they would have plummeted to the depths of the third tier, yes that’s the third tier of hurling competition. That came on top of another relegation from Division 1B of the National hurling league in the same year. They would also have sacked their incumbent manager (Kevin Martin) halfway through the campaign to be replaced by another ex-great (Joachim Kelly) only for him to also depart just 2 games later.
This is the world that Michael Fennelly walks into as new Offaly hurling supremo. From the highs of winning an All-Ireland in 1998, this proud, famous county have sunk like a stone to, at best, the rank of 15th or 16th best side in the country. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “unenviable task” and yet, by the looks of it, it’s one Fennelly seems keen to take on.
It’s a strange scenario all round one could say. Why would a star hurler, with more medals, at club and county level, than one could shake a stick at, take up the reins at such a massively underachieving county? Why would a county who has struggled so badly over the last two decades, take a punt on someone with no history of management experience at any level? Well desperate times are often intrinsically linked with desperate measures. Hiring an ex-Kilkenny hurling legend as manager? Well if it’s good for the goose, why can’t it work for the gander too?
Now maybe some of what was written in the preceding paragraphs is a little disingenuous. Certainly, Fennelly does have some experience. Being part of one of the most successful inter-county set ups in history, must surely some help in some way to know what it takes for another county to do something similar. He works as a lecturer in strength and conditioning in LIT and took on a role as a performance coach for the Kildare footballers this summer. So he has plenty of knowledge in terms of physical preparation and being involved in an inter-county set up. But whatever he has known in his career thus far may still be inadequate preparation for this.
To call the Offaly manager’s job a poisoned chalice would be unduly harsh on poisoned chalices. What’s perhaps most intriguing about the county’s hurling fortunes is that, even when times were particularly bountiful in the 90’s, the rate of turnover at men at the helm was akin to a revolving door. Eamon Cregan is seen as being one of the most successful managers in the county’s history and yet he could only tolerate 4 years in the hot seat.
Over the past 40 years, the county has been through 21 managers, 2 of whom, Michael Bond and John McIntyre, got a couple of goes at it. So this is not a job for the faint hearted and it’s also, by the looks of it, not a job for an Offaly man. Obviously, all 4 of the county’s All-Ireland successes have been with an outside influence at the fore, but what’s perhaps most galling, is how little inroads those undoubtedly great ex-players have made in reviving the county’s fortunes in recent years. Joe Dooley, Brian Whelehan, Kevin Martin and Joachim Kelly have all done their best in the last decade to reverse the tide that’s been turning since 2000 with little or no success.
So make no bones about it, this is a particularly difficult job for anyone, lest of all, someone with no management experience to speak of. And yet, Fennelly must have been buoyed by the way his old colleague has revitalized the game in Offaly’s neighbouring county. Were it not for Brennan’s exceptional year with Laois it’s exceptionally doubtful if Fennelly would have been in the hunt for the Offaly job. But because Brennan has done so well other ex-Kilkenny players, from Tommy Walsh to Henry Shefflin to DJ Carey, are surely being sounded out for other jobs too.
Obviously, one of the most crucial aspects of Fennelly’s tenure will be him getting his management team right. Brennan, for instance, made a point of seeking out old Dublin corner back Niall Corcoran, a man who he knew very little about on a personal level, for his coaching nous. He then selected Limerick’s Dave Moriarty, a man with abundance of experience, for the strength and conditioning role. Considering Fennelly’s background is in this field, that should be an easy area for him to get right. Brennan’s final choice was Tommy Fitzgerald, a man with an intimate knowledge of the local club scene, and I’m sure there will be at least one man with a staunch Offaly background on the management ticket.
Considering how green he is in managerial terms, it seems imperative that Fennelly gets as much knowledge as he can into his backroom team. Yet on name alone, he already has a head start. As one of the best midfielders in the game over the last 20 years (although, curiously, not according to the Irish independent https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/hurling/kilkenny-and-tipperary-dominate-our-hurling-team-of-the-decade-38429282.html) he has nothing to prove from a playing perspective. As regards management, however, it is somewhat different.
As well as Brennan, it appears likely the Ballyhale man will be taking on board the advice of some of his other ex-colleagues over the next few months. He may even seek the counsel of Brian Cody and he desperately needs to avail of their input. One thing Fennelly doesn’t need to hear, however, is the words of Tipperary’s former keeper Brendan Cummins. This is what Cummins said this summer after the Faithful county had been relegated to the third tier: “Going down to the Christy Ring, the problem is motivation. I think Offaly will beat any of the teams pulling up, but they need Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin to stay for a year to stabilize things and show young players how to behave as an Offaly hurler. There’s nothing worse when you go down a level, to sink to that level and attitude”
By that rationale, it sounds as if Offaly are “too good” for the Christy Ring Cup just like, supposedly, they were too good for the Joe McDonagh. If that’s a perception amongst the players, then they need to snap out of it quickly because I’m sure the likes of Wicklow and Kildare, currently managed by Fennelly’s old team mate David Herity, will be licking their lips at the thought of claiming an old All-Ireland winners scalp. And they’d certainly take umbrage at the thought that Offaly would beat them “pulling up”.
The fact is, Offaly are at this level, because they just haven’t been good enough to compete at higher ones. Last season they won just one game, their final League group game against Carlow, in all competitions. They were defeated in all 4 of their Joe McDonagh cup games. How then, can they take a lofty stance above anyone in hurling terms? The 80’s and 90’s are a long time ago. The county board needs to recognize that and up their own game, as well as the players.
Once again, they can take encouragement from their neighbours. Laois hurling, up until this year, had been synonymous with disharmony. It was only last October, for example, that their star player left the county panel after being badly injured in the county final. Those were the troubled surroundings that Brennan walked into. And yet within the space of 9 months he had got them to a stage where they could compete admirably with the team who went on to become All-Ireland champions. Success has a great habit of healing old wounds. One imagines how enthused that squad are by the prospect of preparing for the upcoming season.
The scenario for Fennelly and Offaly, meanwhile, is somewhat different. It is a depressingly low base which the county is starting from and yet within that, there is reason for optimism. A Christy Ring Cup success is a very achievable, nay imperative objective, for the first year of his tenure, and if the county can finally achieve some success, of any sort, for the first time in years, it’s hard to quantify what kind of boost they’ll get. Fail to do that, and one shudders to think how low this once great hurling county could sink to. Either way, it will be fascinating to find out.