Under Gerry Fahy, Offaly are again on the right road after a period of bad luck, underachievement and inner turmoil
WHEN Colm Quinn first heard that Gerry Fahy had been appointed as the new Offaly football manager last November, he was as much in the dark as the rest of his teammates as to Fahy's identity.
Then the penny dropped.
Based in Galway, Quinn trained with John O'Mahony's side for the last two years and he remembered Michael Meehan and Matthew Clancy raving about the coach that led NUIG to the 2003 Sigerson Cup title. Suddenly the name came back to Quinn ? Gerry Fahy.
John Tobin first recruited Fahy when they led Galway to the 1986 All Ireland minor title and Tobin describes him as "a brilliant innovator". Val Daly had him on board as trainer with Galway in 1997 and although his profile was largely buried before he took the Offaly job, Fahy was always highly regarded in Galway. Many have compared his methodical, intense approach as similar to that of Eugene McGee, and the Offaly players are well aware now of who Fahy is and what he's all about.
Fahy's reputation has already been franked by how well he's done, given the difficult situation he walked into.
Last September, a review committee made a recommendation to the Offaly county board to remove manager Paul O'Kelly just eight months into a three-year term. After a long and acrimonious debate at a board meeting, the proposal was carried on a 38-24 vote and it ignited a bushfire of recrimination.
Citing O'Kelly's sacking as a contributory factor, Finbarr Cullen quit after 13 years as an Offaly player and the panel issued a statement in support of O'Kelly. Football team secretary, Jim Buckley, resigned from the county board executive in protest, while three other board members went the same way.
When he was appointed, O'Kelly targeted long-term success and his three-year term had a proviso for an annual review so it appeared that political machinations underpinned much of the manoeuvring which got him sacked. The general perception was that O'Kelly was shafted, but it wasn't that clear-cut. He was treated poorly but it wasn't personal, just business.
There were further whisperings that the team wasn't as fit as they should have been last summer and that some debatable decisions on the line cost them. While all the players had great time for O'Kelly, not everyone was convinced of his methods.
More felt that the whole operation never really got up and running all season.
It was a further blow when O'Kelly's two selectors, Eddie Fleming and John Moran, stepped down because the players largely favoured Fleming's ball drills. Members of the review committee had consulted certain team members about O'Kelly's management and while they aired certain issues, they also discussed those same problems with O'Kelly when he sat down with some of those players over the summer. Before he could do anything to rectify the situation though, the gun was turned on him.
Although there were six or seven O'Kelly loyalists in the camp, the focus of the support that was generated amongst the players stemmed from the manner in which he was removed, and not from the fact that he wasn't returning. Although it was rumoured at one stage that a players' strike could erupt, that was never going to happen and the players just wanted to move on. Then Fahy arrived.
"When the county board came to me, I asked them was Paul O'Kelly in contention for the job and at that stage he hadn't been so I didn't feel I was taking anyone else's job, " says Fahy. "If he was in contention, that would have changed things but he wasn't. Some people might have felt that I was going into a difficult situation but I never looked at it that way." His appointment was never going to spark too much hype anyway as Offaly's profile has been one of the lowest in the country over the last four years. Yet that is down in large part to the fact that luck has been in short measure. If the Hogan Stand wasn't demolished in 2000, Padraig Kelly's late free to win the Leinster semi-final against Kildare wouldn't have drifted wide from the swinging breeze. If they'd taken their points a year later against Dublin instead of going for goals, they'd have been in another Leinster final.
The concession of soft goals on both days against Kildare in 2002, allied to some dubious refereeing the second day, finally undid them in extratime as another Leinster final appearance slipped by. Last season they would have beaten Laois in the drawn quarter-final if referee Michael Collins had awarded a freeout when Kevin Fitzpatrick threw the ball to Michael Lawlor for Laois' late goal.
Bad luck will only wash for so long, however, and close defeats (Roscommon edged them out in last year's qualifiers) for four years in a row suggests that something fundamental has held them back.
They just haven't been able to push over the finishing line and that alone has railed against the Offaly tradition.
"We just need to learn to win tight games again, " says Quinn. "In the last few years, our form going into the championship was very inconsistent and that's what we've really tried to improve. We used to have that consistency and winning became easier. Each game you play, no matter who it is, you have to be going in with the same attitude and we feel we've added that consistency now." When Tommy Lyons was in charge of Offaly he always spoke of the "belief, which is a birthright in Offaly", and their inability to close out games is what has made the last few years harder to take.
Fahy noticed it after arriving. "You can sense it that the supporters feel that Offaly should be doing better than they have been, " he says.
"While that creates an added bit of pressure, it also gives you the desire and the drive to try and be better." The players feel they're getting there. They train with 30 balls at each session and not a second is wasted. All the modern preparatory angles have been covered and in February, the squad spent a week training in the Costa del Sol. Nothing is being left to chance. Last Monday night they were in Croke Park for a kick-around.
The departure of Cullen, Vinny Claffey and Sean Grennan has forced players to step up to the plate and they know what's expected. It's time to deliver now. "A lot of the experienced players came together at the start of the year and said 'lets give it a right good rattle and have no regrets afterwards', " says Quinn. "It's time for us to produce the goods now. The days are getting numbered for a lot of us but if we all keep working hard, we'll give ourselves a right chance come the shakeup in the championship.
"Leinster is wide open and we know it. There's a few players in the panel who have won Leinster titles before and all the new players in the panel are hungry and they want that as well. It starts against Down but we have prepared for the game just like we have for every other game so far: to go out and win and try and do the things that we have to do to get success." And they all know how success is measured in Offaly.