Keep­ing the faith: Of­faly’s day of protest

Sit-in staged at Croke Park be­came defin­ing im­age of a hot sum­mer when Of­faly hurlers stood tallest

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan,

Even from the rel­a­tively safe coun­try of 20 years passed, 1998 has lost noth­ing of its mad, vivid shine.

It was the apoth­e­o­sis of hurl­ing’s dream­land sum­mers, when the old game shook off the or­tho­doxy to be­come wildly demo­cratic; a cham­pi­onship up for grabs, it seemed then, for any hurl­ing county bold enough to grab the glory.

In the weeks be­tween the Clare-Water­ford Mun­ster fi­nal drawn game and re­play and the Of­faly-Clare All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal saga, the hurl­ing cham­pi­onship sea­son be­came at once riv­et­ing and un­govern­able; an elec­tric ca­ble of emo­tion and un­con­tain­able pride of place.

Clare’s progress through the ’98 cham­pi­onship be­came such a cru­sade against per­ceived slights and prej­u­dices that no­body paid all that much at­ten­tion to the sud­den ar­rival of Michael Bond as the new man­ager of Of­faly after the Le­in­ster fi­nal.

Their 3-10 to 1-11 de­feat to Kilkenny in the Le­in­ster fi­nal had prompted man­ager Michael ‘Babs’ Keat­ing, never one to shy from a blunt assess­ment, to fa­mously de­scribe his charges as “run­ning around like sheep in a heap”.

When Johnny Pilk­ing­ton took a phone call from jour­nal­ist Liam Ho­ran on Mon­day morn­ing ask­ing for a re­sponse, he didn’t hold back. By Tues­day, Babs was gone.

His re­place­ment Michael Bond re­mains one of the great in­ter­county enig­mas; he swept in from nowhere, guided a lost team to an All-Ire­land and after a cou­ple of sea­sons he hap­pily dis­ap­peared again into the Gal­way heart­land.

Un­nec­es­sary stick

“It was through a friend of a friend,” Bond says now of be­ing parachuted into the Of­faly post. “There was no kind of hid­den agenda. To me, Babs was the great­est hurler ever I saw play­ing. I had stopped train­ing teams in 1986 when I be­came a school prin­ci­pal. But this was the mid­dle of the sum­mer and I was free. I also don’t like play­ers get­ting un­nec­es­sary stick in the press. I’d row in be­hind the un­der­dog.

“And I al­ways liked Of­faly’s style of hurl­ing. Not ev­ery team would re­spond to my type of train­ing. But I knew that quick, fast ground hurl­ing and get­ting the ball to the in­side line as fast as pos­si­ble would work for them. When Gal­way did that un­der Micheál Donoghue last year, they were a dif­fer­ent team. You were tak­ing over 30 guys who were very, very skil­ful.”

They were that. Bond stood in the ob­scu­rity of the stand in Tul­lam­ore on a wet, bale­ful Mon­day evening and watched as Paudge Mul­hare put Of­faly through their paces.

“I had per­mis­sion from the county board to watch them. And I walked away af­ter­wards.”

The next evening, he turned up in the Of­faly dress­ing room, known by pre­cisely no­body and briskly an­nounced him­self.

“It’s not that Michael Bond said or did any­thing ex­cep­tional or asked us to do any­thing ex­cep­tional,” says Pilk­ing­ton, Of­faly’s non­cha­lant mid­field tal­ent of the 1990s.

“I think it was just that con­fi­dence that Michael had that made the dif­fer­ence. It was straight­for­ward enough train­ing in terms of drills. But it was in sum­mer­time and the ball would speed up. And after about two weeks of Michael com­ing in, there was a con­fi­dence there. He had this en­thu­si­asm and he didn’t con­strain us or tell play­ers like Brian Whe­la­han or John Troy what to do.”

School-mas­terly and lib­eral

That was the ge­nius of Bond. His ap­proach was at once school-mas­terly and lib­eral. He shocked Martin Hanamy by or­der­ing him to do 20 press-ups when he landed late at a first ses­sion but be­hind the dis­ci­pline, Bond was all about help­ing the Of­faly play­ers tap into what was a su­perbly rich if in­con­sis­tent vein of tal­ent.

“Babs and [trainer] Johnny Mur­ray had done se­ri­ous work. Birr were All-Ire­land club cham­pi­ons that year. And we trained phe­nom­e­nally. Kevin Fen­nelly [the Kilkenny man­ager] – I thank him to this day for al­low­ing me to play a chal­lenge game after the Antrim game [the All-Ire­land quar­ter fi­nal] – and they de­stroyed us. I re­mem­ber Martin Hanamy say­ing after that game: at the rate you are go­ing you will kill us.

“Just be­cause of the train­ing. We used to train for two hours and 20 min­utes but that was stick work, ball work and game. But it is very easy, when you have a group of play­ers ridiculed in their own county and in the press, to mo­ti­vate them. They played the game for the love of the game. And we had a lot of luck, too.”

The luck started with the fact that they were still in the All-Ire­land; it was just the sec­ond year of the back-door im­pro­vi­sa­tion, a change against which Of­faly were the most vo­cif­er­ous ob­jec­tors.

But by the time they played Clare on Au­gust 9th, they were fo­cused and purring. Pilk­ing­ton led the scor­ing with 1-1 with seven dif­fer­ent Of­faly men con­tribut­ing to the 1-13 to­tal they shared with Clare. For large parts of the game, they had looked the bet­ter team.

The re­play, fixed for Satur­day, Au­gust 22nd, was a dif­fer­ent story. The Of­faly team bus be­came mired in match traf­fic. There was a minute’s si­lence for the Omagh bombing vic­tims, an atroc­ity which left a per­ma­nent cloud over the sum­mer. Lough­nane had Clare locked on and they stormed into a 10-point lead at half time. Of­faly’s sum­mer looked set to end that af­ter­noon. But there was no ma­jor panic in the dress­ing room.

“You prob­a­bly don’t be­lieve you are go­ing to get back this 10-point lead,” says Pilk­ing­ton. “But what you do is you just keep chip­ping away and take your points. And all of a sud­den there are six, seven points in it. Billy Doo­ley scram­bled a goal or what­ever and now all of a sud­den there are only five or six points. Then we get a sec­ond goal and now you are in shout­ing dis­tance with a good five min­utes left to go.”

Per­haps the most re­mark­able as­pect of Jimmy Cooney’s mis­take – the Gal­way ref­eree blew full-time three min­utes be­fore nor­mal time had elapsed – was that it hadn’t hap­pened be­fore then.

Pan­de­mo­nium

GAA ref­er­ees are alone in the ex­tent of their multi-task­ing: lone of­fi­cials on a big field also re­quired to score-keep, book-keep and time keep. When Cooney ended the semi-fi­nal early, there was con­fu­sion, pan­de­mo­nium and, fi­nally, protest.

The ref­eree was him­self ush­ered off the field by a co­terie of se­cu­rity men be­fore he him­self had time to fully process what was hap­pen­ing. Hurlers from Kil­dare and Kerry, sched­uled to play an Un­der 21-B fi­nal, quickly took the field to warm up.

Even­tu­ally, Of­faly sup­port­ers also took to the field in their hun­dreds and en­gaged in a protest that was in­im­i­cally of the Faith­ful County in its laid-back na­ture; they sat down in the sun.

Bond was, as it hap­pened, a neigh­bour of Cooney’s and dur­ing the in­tense me­dia en­quiries af­ter­wards was care­ful not to blame the of­fi­cial in any way. In the Clare dress­ing room, Ger Lough­nane was sym­pa­thetic to Of­faly’s plight but un­der­stand­ably con­vinced that the day was done.

“We’re in­cred­u­lous re­ally. Every­body just looked around. We thought he’d blown for a free.”

Across the cor­ri­dor, Michael Duig­nan, who would later share RTÉ Sun­day Game chit-chats with Lough­nane, was quick to voice the Clare man­ager’s re­cent en­treaties about “in­hu­man­ity and fair­ness for all men”, voiced in the wake of the three-month sus­pen­sion served to mid­fielder Colin Lynch after the Mun­ster fi­nal.

Where, Of­faly won­dered, was the fair­ness in all this? Within a mat­ter of hours, it was clear the GAA was con­sid­er­ing a re­play. An im­promptu Satur­day evening meet­ing in the Of­faly camp led to a heated de­bate as to whether they should train on Sun­day – just in case.

“It was one of those things, every­one had three or four drinks and it blew up,” says Pilk­ing­ton. “But once we heard Sun­day morn­ing that the match was go­ing ahead, 95 per cent of the play­ers turned up for train­ing. And psy­cho­log­i­cally we felt we had an edge be­cause the one half we didn’t play was the first half of that re­play.”

What Pilk­ing­ton and Bond re­mem­ber now is the in­stant gra­cious­ness of the Clare team after that vic­tory in the third game. “No sour­ness at all.”

‘White as a ghost’

In the All-Ire­land fi­nal, against all odds, Of­faly weren’t for blink­ing. Brian Whe­la­han showed up “white as a ghost” on the week­end of that fi­nal but even his ill­ness was trans­formed into a kind of bonus when Bond sent him into the for­ward line.

“He was up all night, he was on med­i­ca­tion, he had a ter­ri­ble flu and Brian McEvoy had al­ready scored a cou­ple of points on him,” Bond rea­sons. “So it was a mat­ter of tak­ing him off, which would have been un­heard of – or mov­ing him up. What did he score? 1-5 or some­thing like that?”

Cur­rent Of­faly man­ager Kevin Martin played wing-back for that day. Twenty years on, ex­pec­ta­tions in the coun­try are more muted after a suc­ces­sion of rough sea­sons.

“I would be cau­tious,” Pilk­ing­ton says. “Kevin is def­i­nitely go­ing the right way about things and brings his style and at­ti­tude to the play­ers as well and what he ex­pects; work rate and struc­ture, which is what he had as a player. Peo­ple got car­ried away after the first round game against Dublin. There is a hope around more than con­fi­dence.”

The saun­ter­ing ’98 vin­tage Of­faly pos­sessed con­fi­dence in abun­dance. They were de­lighted with that All-Ire­land but didn’t get car­ried away. “Sure within a few weeks you’re back with the club com­ing up against Duig­nan or Troy,” Pilk­ing­ton shrugs. “Life goes on.”

That Novem­ber, across the bor­der in Kilkenny, Brian Cody qui­etly suc­ceeded Kevin Fen­nelly as se­nior man­ager. The neigh­bours would meet once more in the 2000 All-Ire­land fi­nal, when the re­sult was re­versed. After that, the roads di­verged.

They en­gaged in a protest that was in­im­i­cally of the Faith­ful County in its laid-back na­ture; they sat down in the sun

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: INPHO

Clock­wise from top: the Of­faly fans stage their fa­mous protest in Au­gust 1998; man­agers Ger Lough­nane and Michael Bond look on; the protest con­tin­ues; Johnny Pilk­ing­ton in ac­tion dur­ing the game; the of­fi­cials are led from the pitch; in­set: ref­eree Jimmy Cooney.

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