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Offaly's 'fiercest forward' who's on par with 1982 All-Ireland winning-star

Niall McNamee will be hoping to help his club Rhode to victory in the Offaly SFC this weekend.

TULLAMORE VERSUS RHODE in the Offaly SFC final for the third year-in-a-row: that’s a fairly accurate reflection of the club hierarchy in the Faithful county according to John Maughan.

niall-mcnamee-prepares-to-take-a-free Rhode's Niall McNamee. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The Mayo native became quite familiar with the circuit during his four-year term in charge of the county’s senior footballers, and that’s what he saw at the top. Trailing closely behind those two are Ferbane and Edenderry, two sides who reached this year’s semi-finals.

But for now, it’s Tullamore and Rhode at the summit.

“Tullamore have an underage conveyor [belt] of talent coming through,” Maughan explains to The42 ahead of the 2022 county decider later on today [throw-in, 4.15pm: live on TG4], “and they are the new kids on the block, and potentially the new Rhode because Rhode are limping along.

“They don’t appear to have the underage talent bubbling to the surface.”

Among that group of emerging stars in the Tullamore crop, is All-Ireland-winning U20 forward Cormac Egan. The highly-rated youngster is swiftly becoming a household name, although his progression has plateaued recently due to a recurring hamstring injury.

But he made an impressive return for the club’s U20 side, coming on as a substitute in their county final victory over St Patrick’s. His resurgence was a relieving sight for both club and county, and hopefully the end of his injury woes.

The gifted up and comers in Tullamore are chiefly why Maughan believes the club will defend their county title this weekend, but Rhode still have a sting in their tail. 

Niall McNamee is one of the most admired forwards in Ireland. He’s been a consistent servant for Offaly since first making the breakthrough at 17, and is the backbone of Rhode’s attacking force as he approaches his 37th birthday.

He made his first appearance in a senior county final in 2001 shortly before turning 16, scoring one point for Rhode as a substitute when they fell short against Edenderry. McNamee went on to win his first Offaly SFC title in 2004, and has added another 10 top-tier crowns since then.

Their recent semi-final win over Ferbane was decided by penalties, with McNamee showing he can still prevail from clutch moments as he kicked a late equaliser to send the game to extra-time before converting his spot kick to help his side edge the penalty showdown 3-2.

Even before Maughan took over as Offaly boss, McNamee was on his radar. And he came up again at the time of Maughan’s appointment when McNamee was retired from inter-county football. But with the help of his local connections, Maughan managed to coax him back.

“I happened to be in boarding school with his father and uncle in Carmelite College in Moate,” says Maughan about how he went about making his pitch to the Rhode star.

“I was very much aware of Niall McNamee and his ability. And when you know the Dad and uncle, you take a particular interest in a young fella playing for Rhode. I watched him for years more or less carrying Rhode on his back. He was real quality, and universally acknowledged around every county as being a player of real substance.

john-maughan John Maughan during his time as Offaly manager. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I had guys working on the ground, meeting him. Another school contemporary of mine, Eddie Fleming, did a lot of the heavy lifting in trying to coax him back. I suppose it helped that I knew his lineage but I’d give the credit to Eddie Fleming for doing a lot of the heavy lifting in coaxing him back.

“He made a huge difference to our team during my tenure. He’s a fabulous mentor for young players without ego and he was just a generous guy with his time and universally popular in the dressing-room.”

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On the subject of McNamee’s longevity, and why he continues to deliver, Maughan added.

“He’s the fiercest forward in Offaly. He has a great passion and love for football. It’s a choice of pleasure [for him] and he recognises how many more years Rhode can win another championship in Offaly? He’ll go down in the history books as being arguably one of the finest [players] and I see that the 1982 team are celebrating their 40th anniversary and there were some quality footballers on that team. I played against a few of them.

“But Niall is comparable to [1982 All-Ireland winner] Matt Connor in many ways with regards his skill level. He’s incredibly talented and has a great awareness. The way he manufactured a goal in last year’s county final with the last attack was just typical Niall McNamee. He has a great love for the game and obviously keeps himself in great shape physically.

“He’s in super condition. He’s a big unit and is very difficult for any full-back in the country to handle. When he was really in his pomp, he was just a top class performer in every way.”

Tullamore’s name on the trophy is not entirely conclusive for Maughan. They needed a replay to shrug Rhode off last year, and they may find it even tougher to defeat them this weekend.

“I would tentatively a bit on the age profile and nothing else. If there’s any team in the county who has the guile and experience to eke out a victory against the head, well then it’s Rhode. They’ve proven it over the last 20 years just how incredibly resilient they are despite their woes with injury. They’ve got a very good manager in Jack Cooney who’s very astute and is highly regarded and respected in Rhode but to have him on the sideline for them is a bonus as well.

“I would imagine Tullamore will be certainly concerned and looking over your shoulder and going through the ‘what ifs?’ and there are so many of them, particularly, Niall McNamee. I know Deccy Hogan did a brilliant job on him in the county final replay to snuff him. It’s not to often that happens but Deccy Hogan is playing brilliantly for Tullamore. If he can manage to do a job on Niall McNamee, well then it’s Tullamore’s to lose.”

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