Mood of calm as Offaly plot big ambush for high flying Meath

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kevin@tullamoretribune.ie

THE strange feeling of calm that has engulfed the Offaly football world in recent weeks will erupt in a cauldron of passionate fury on Sunday when the first round of the Leinster Senior Football Championship against Meath gets underway in Navan.

It has been a long time since an Offaly football team as prepared as quietly and with as little talk about them for a big championship match.

There are a number of factors behind that. With no club football championship taking place in April, it means that supporters have taken their eye off the ball and their mind has been elsewhere.

There is also the fact that Meath are fairly hot favourites for Sunday's big game. They are not raging hot favourites but they are certainly widely expected to win and it will be a big surprise if Offaly pull the rug from under their feet on Sunday.

Meath did very well to win promotion to Division 1 of the National Football League this year while Offaly once again had to win their final game to retain Division 3 status. The jump from Division 3 to Division 2 is a considerable one but Divisions 3 and 1 occupy different orbits and it is easy to see why there is so little expectation in Offaly.

Yet there are huge positives in the whole thing. In other years, there was a lot of talk about the championship for the wrong reasons. Either low expectations brought on by very poor form or stories of discontent in the camp. That was certainly the case last year and it all erupted horrifically on a shocking day against Wicklow in Portlaoise.

With then manager Stephen Wallace confined to the stand because of suspension for incidents at a club game in Kerry and enough stories of player dissatisfaction surfacing to command attention, Offaly suffered a horrendous defeat on a crazy day – Nigel Dunne was taken off early on and then brought on in the second half with rumours circulating that he had to be asked not to leave the ground by a supporter (rumours that he subsequently rubbished) and that there was a furious row in the dressing room at half time.

It all culminated in Stephen Wallace being replaced as manager the following week, something he did not take lying down and it was a very traumatic few weeks for Offaly. Yet the ship steadied after that. Tullamore man Paul Rouse was a surprise choice as interim manager but he had a powerful soothing effect on the players – indeed his contribution went deeper than that as a seething county suddenly witnessed a brief spell of calm and hope.

Offaly beat Antrim in the qualifiers and missed a good chance of putting Clare out as a fairly traumatic year ended with a degree of respectability. The job was Rouse's for the taking if he wanted it and there was some disappointment when he turned it down.

Offaly then embarked on another fairly convoluted selection process for the new manager. Rhode's Paschal Kellaghan and Tullamore's Mark Plunkett quickly threw their hats into the ring and were asked to fill out an application form. Both were very disgruntled when former Mayo manager John Maughan was offered the job but the appointment has proven to be a success so far, even if championship will be the ultimate adjudicator.

Despite a proven pedigree of having led Mayo to All-Ireland finals and Clare to a shock Munster title in 1992 along with managing Roscommon and Fermanagh, Maughan still represented something of a risk for Offaly as he had not managed an inter-county team in some time. However, so far, things have knitted together nicely and it seems to be a happy committed camp.

The National Football League provided a mixed bag for Offaly. The bottom line was that they ended up in a relegation dogfight and had to win in Sligo on the last day to stay up but that does not tell the full story. With a little bit of luck, better option taking and more clinical finishing, Offaly could very easily have ended up in the promotion battle.

Their defeats by Westmeath and Louth in rounds 1 and 3 were particularly bitter pills to swallow. Offaly were in a great position to win both those games but didn't make it count, suffering devastating late defeats with the Louth winner from an own goal coming deep into injury time.

Offaly had a solid draw with Longford in round 2 and they finally got a win in their fourth game when beating Carlow by 0-15 to 1-9. They still had an outside chance of promotion at this stage but these prospects went up in smoke in their next game in Newry. Offaly were actually in a good position after playing against the wind in the first half but Down got completely on top in the second half to win by 2-12 to 0-10. That second half was easily Offaly's worse performance of the league and propelled them into the relegation fight.

They were mediocre when losing to Laois in their penultimate game and this left them needing to beat Sligo and Laois to beat Carlow in the last round to stay up. Both results went their way, though it took an injury time point from sub Mark Abbott for Offaly to win and over the course of the campaign, they deserved the breaks they got on that day.

In the greater scheme of things, staying up was a big result for Offaly. Relegation would have really undermined confidence ahead of the championship but deeper than that, going back to Division 4 football would have been a dreadful body blow for Offaly football.

They have been skating on thin ice in recent years and it was the third consecutive year that Offaly needed a last day win to stay up.

Meath have punched at a considerably higher level this year. They were delighted to win promotion from Division 2 – beating Tipperary, Armagh, Cork, Kildare, Clare and Fermanagh and losing to Donegal in both the group and the final.

It sends them into the championship in a very positive frame of mind and Meath are beginning to dream big once again. A powerful force in the 1980s, 1990s into the 2000s, they have slipped dramatically down the ladder in the past decade but they remain a big and passionate football county with a real desire to do well.

They have a lot of excellent footballers at their disposal and they are deserving favourites. At the same time, Offaly have a decent outsidechance, probably in the 35 to 40% ratio. Meath may be back in Division 1 but they have not yet earned the mantle of a top tier team and are still in that second tier of respectable, committed teams but ones who almost certainly can't win the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship or beat Dublin in Leinster.

On the surface, you can't make the case for anything other than a Meath win. There is a vast difference between Division 1 and 3 football and the side's respective results don't lie but Offaly have grounds for optimism.

They have prepared very well under John Maughan and there is an encouragingly positive word of mouth emerging from the camp. The break from league to championship and the fact that there was no club championship on apart from for Kilclonfert's Cathal Mangan has helped Offaly's preparations. Players were released for a couple of club league games and that gave them a welcome break from the intensity of the county set up but for the most part, all eyes have been on May 12.

The announcement of the Offaly team later this week will be awaited with great anticipation but it shouldn't be that much different from the side that finished the league campaign.

A key decision during the league was switching John Moloney to centre half back from full forward and he is likely to marshal the defence with Eoin Rigney at full back. Eoin Carroll will be a pivotal figure at midfield. The Cappincur man is growing in confidence the whole time as he recovers from last year's knee operation. He looked uncertain early in the leagues but the games have brought him on and he should be flying on all cylinders for the championship.

Similarly, Peter Cunningham has benefitted from the games after a long lay off with injury and it will be interesting to see what role he is handed. In recent years, he has played in defence, midfield and attack but Offaly may want to utilise his attacking threat and pace.

Kilclonfert's Cathal Mangan played well at midfield during the league. A new kid on the block at this level, he will be in contention for a starting place.

An interesting addition during the league was Kilmacud Crokes' Shane Horan. He declared for Offaly under the parentage rule – his father Aidan is from Ballycumber and his mother Helen is a Gath from Kilcormac – and he has settled in really well. A very hard working player, he has operated as a link man between midfield and the half forward lines and has brought a lot to the Offaly table.

The return of Niall McNamee to the fold during the National Football League was a huge boost. McNamee had announced his retirement a couple of years ago but responded positively to overtures from Maughan. It took him a bit of time to get motoring but the Rhode man was outstanding in the crucial win over Sligo and will be a very important figure in the championship.

There will be good interest in this game in Offaly and a large crowd will head to Navan. They will be looking for a decent competitive performance, even if a win will be a bonus. Expect Offaly to compete well but at this moment in time, you can't make a logical case for anything other than a Meath win.

Verdict – Meath.

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