Offaly buzzing ahead of All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final
By John Harrington
With UPMC Nowlan Park expected to be close to full capacity, it’s fair to say that Sunday’s Electric Ireland All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final between Offaly and Tipperary has captured the imagination.
It’s a safe bet that the majority of those in attendance will be wearing the green, white, and gold of Offaly such is the excitement in the county ahead of the match.
It’s Offaly’s first time to contest an All-Ireland Hurling Final since the senior Final of 2000, and the first time they’ve contested an All-Ireland Minor Final since 1989, so the hype is understandable.
Team manager, Leo O’Connor, is happy to embrace it, because he knows it’s been a long time coming for every hurling enthusiast in the county.
“There's an absolutely huge buzz around the county,” he told GAA.ie. “It's great for Offaly. The GAA needs every county competing at the highest level so it's great for Offaly to be stepping up into an All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final after being in an U-20 Football Final last year.
“From that point of view it's massive for the county. It's given them hope because there's now potential in both hurling and football.
“If we can win on Sunday it would be huge for Offaly hurling. But there's also the other positivity that they're back competing at minor level for the past two or three years and that's massive for the county. It's important that gap between Offaly and other counties was closed.
“We're just all really looking forward to it.”
Former Limerick hurler O’Connor previously managed his native county to Munster U-21 success in 2011 and coached in the Limerick GAA Academy until 2018.
He was initially appointed Offaly minor team coach in 2019 before taking over the reins as manager in 2020 and from the get-go could see that there was great potential starting to bubble up in the county.
“I think the most important thing about the county was the desire to get back there,” he says. “They knew they were at a low ebb. But if you look at the last number of years the schools have been competing in Leinster Schools 'B' Finals.
“Tullamore have been competing. Birr got to an All-Ireland Colleges 'B' Final last year even though it wasn't played beacuse of Covid. There were major steps being taken forward. Those small steps are important because you have to creep before you can walk.
"That was all building towards where are this year. Getting to a Leinster Final in 2020 was massive. It was another stepping stone along the way. 10 or 11 of the Kilkenny team that beat us have gone on this year to win an All-Ireland U-20 title.
“We pushed Kilkenny that day. So in terms of that, there is hope. I can't get over the drive and the initiative to get back to where they long to be. That was the most important thing.”
O’Connor’s involvement in the Limerick GAA Academy for a number of years gives him a good insight into Offaly’s ability to make more steady progress in the coming years.
Limerick’s success in recent years is built on the foundation stone of their Academy where the county’s best young hurlers receive best in class coaching in all facets of the game from skill, to strength and conditioning, to tactical awareness.
With Offaly now starting to produce a better quality of young hurler than they have for some time, can they also aspire for better things in the senior grade in the years to come?
“I think they can,” he said. “Limerick have gotten players off minor teams and they've been transferred to U-20 teams and been to a few All-Irelands off the back of 2013/2014/2015 minor hurling teams.
“Ironically there are seven lads on the Limeirck senior hurling panel now that were beaten in an All-Ireland quarter-final by the eventual All-Ireland champions Galway in 2015. Cian Lynch is off the 2014 team, Barry Nash is off the 2013 team. It has been a steady building block. If you look at that three-year period, Offaly can compare to that.
“I've no doubt that we'll get two or three players off both the 2020 team and the 2021 teams. There are definitely players who can step up to the mark over that period of time.
“And I certainly think there's a very strong hope you'll get five or six players off the current 2022 minor hurling team that will step up to the mark over the next two or three years. It's building blocks. That's how it developed in Limerick.”
Regardless of whether they win or lose Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, O’Connor believes the key is to do everything possible to nurture this talented generation of young Offaly hurlers in the coming years.
“It's important that Offaly try to keep this group together now in the coming years, do the correct strength and conditioning with them, and work through the phases and build as they go along.
“The strength and conditioning training is huge. You can't look back now. They've gotten to a situation at U-20 football last year and minor hurling this year where the only thing to do now is push on and drive the thing forward.
“There are things that really need to be developed. Structures need to be put in place, and there's no doubt that Michael Duignan has been a breath of fresh air since coming in as Offaly Chairperson. He's a hurling man, he's a huge Offaly man, and it's all positivity with Michael.
“You can't but be impressed by his attitude and the attitude of people like Colm Cummins and Dervill Dolan. Before them there were other good people like Tom Moloney who put in huge work to get to where we are now.
"I dealt with some really good people at the start and now Michael has come in and has pushed it on. It's important that Offaly keep pushing the thing on.
“When you see Michael Fennelly, Michael Kavanagh, Johnny Kelly at senior level, these are all very, very experienced guys and it's important that their experience is transferred to the younger players. That we give the younger players of taste of what's required and give them the appetite to push on further.”
O’Connor believes these young Offaly hurlers have great potential because they already possess what you can’t always put it – character.
Ask him what has been most satisfying about their run to this All-Ireland Final, and it’s that quality that instantly comes to mind.
“Their work ethic,” he says. “They're a very, very honest team. When they go out to perform they perform to the best of their ability. They leave everything they have on the field. You saw that in the Leinster Final and you saw it in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare when we started quite rusty because of the four/five week lay-off.
“I’m just so pleased for them that they’ve gotten to an All-Ireland Final. Ironically, in 2019 they played Tipperary in the Tony Forristal Final and they're meeting three years later in an All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final.”
Just like Offaly, this Tipperary team has also displayed plenty of character as well as quality on the road to Sunday’s Final.
O’Connor has analysed them closely, but at this level of the game he believes you’re always best focusing on what your team can do rather than worrying too much about the opposition.
“Of course, we've both had a good look at each other,” he says. “Video analysis is huge in the game these days. But I think these games at minor level take on a life of their own. Tactics at this level at times can be over-kill. So we keep it as simple as we can so everyone knows their role and we coach that.
“That's what we have to do coming into Sunday. We have to play with our heads and with controlled aggression and give it every ounce that we have.”
Win or lose, it’s easy to believe that Sunday’s Final can be a launch-pad for Offaly hurling for years to come.
Bus-loads of children will make the short journey to Kilkenny, and young ambition will be ignited by the sight of a team of Offaly hurlers contesting an All-Ireland Final. That’s money in the bank for years to come.
“In terms of the way this has taken on a life of its own this year, all I can say is that I'm delighted that it's in Kilkenny,” says O’Connor. “It's one of those occasions that's going to go down in the annals of the GAA.
“We saw in the Leinster Minor Hurling Final what happened this year, there was a huge crowd. The GAA have created a new tradition now by having the minor final as a stand alone fixture.
“There's probably going to be 24/25 thousand at the match on Sunday. The Stands are sold out and that's a huge mark of respect to the people of Offaly and Tipperary.
“The Offaly county board have taken the initiative and really endorsed it and they're building a new tradition above in Offaly similar to what came out of offaly in the 1980s and 1990s.
“These lads will create their own history and these kids who are going to the match, it'll whet their appetite for further years to come.”