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How damaging is relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup for Offaly hurling?

21 years after their last All-Ireland success, the Faithful County will be competing in hurling’s second tier.

THE FALL-OUT from Offaly’s relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup last weekend saw a debate rage over the consequences of their demotion to the second tier.

Sean Gardiner reacts to being sent off Source: Patrick O'Connor/INPHO

The majority of pundits fretted over the potential damage relegation would have for hurling in Offaly. For a county that annexed four All-Irelands and nine Leinster titles between 1980 and 1998, there are real concerns that banishment from the Leinster championship will be highly damaging for the small ball code over the coming years.

The Sunday Game panellists Ger Loughnane and Brendan Cummins took a different stance in the wake of the 17-point defeat to Dublin that confirmed their relegation.

Loughnane said a PR campaign had been waged to save Offaly’s top-tier status and that results proved the McDonagh Cup is simply their level. He argued that Kevin Martin’s squad could benefit from rebuilding at a lower grade and if they’re good enough, they’ll be back competing for the Bob O’Keeffe Cup in 2020.

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Kevin Martin Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Loughnane’s view has its merits, but there’s a real danger the best hurlers in the county won’t commit to play in the McDonagh Cup next season, even if it has a path to the All-Ireland quarter-final preliminary stage.

One of Martin’s early achievements in his reign as Offaly boss was to entice experienced men like Conor Mahon, Dan Currams and Colin Egan back into the fold this year. Will the McDonagh Cup hold the same allure for these players in 2019?

It’s well documented at this stage, but the current format that sees Leinster’s bottom team automatically relegated is grossly unfair given there’s a different set of rules for Munster.

It was a mistake not to give Leinster’s bottom-placed team a play-off against the McDonagh Cup champions, as is the case in Munster if Kerry win the second tier competition.

When the current structure was voted through at a Special Congress last September, it was surprising the Offaly delegates didn’t object to the automatic relegation from Leinster – given the Faithful were the clear favourites to finish bottom of the round-robin series.

They even co-sponsored the Meath and Laois motion that proposed the two McDonagh Cup finalists would enter the All-Ireland race at the preliminary quarter-final stage, which indicates where their priorities lay.

Joe Bergin Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

But an examination of Offaly’s recent championship record makes it impossible to argue that the McDonagh Cup isn’t their level. Their last senior championship win over a Liam MacCarthy Cup side came against Limerick in 2010, while Offaly haven’t registered a victory against a traditional hurling county at minor or U21 level in over a decade.

Much of the blame must be laid at the door of the county board, who failed to implement proper underage structures until the slide was well underway. Offaly’s last All-Ireland win was in 1998 and their last appearance in a September decider three years later. The cracks papered over by senior success soon began to show.

Another worrying sign was the resignation en-masse of the hurling review/implementation committee last year.   Chair Liam Hogan and several former county players were involved, but they walked away “in total frustration” at a “lack of support and progress from the Offaly county board.”

There have been some steps in the right direction in recent times, with the opening of the Faithful Fields centre of excellence a significant boost. But with key players such as Shane Dooley, Joe Bergin and Currams all on the wrong side of 30, the same quality of player is not waiting in the wings. That’s the big issue.

Martin’s first year in charge ended in disappointing fashion, but he did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Offaly endured a punishing schedule with four championship games in four weeks, which really penalizes smaller squads.

Sean Gardiner receives a red card Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While the Faithful gave spirited performances against Galway and Kilkenny, they badly faded in the final two games against Wexford and Dublin. Had the fixtures been flipped and they started opened their campaign against Dublin, things might have gone differently.

In his post-game briefing after the loss to Dublin, Martin gave the impression he’d be willing to stay on next season and for Offaly’s sake they must do everything to keep the Tullamore native at the helm.

His primary focus will be on gaining promotion from the McDonagh Cup, unless the higher powers in the GAA decide to make Leinster into a six-team competition next season. Liam Sheedy, the chair of the committee which devised the new structure, floated that idea over the weekend.

Even if the GAA did reconsider the situation and extend an olive branch to the Faithful as part of a six-team Leinster SHC, the outlook isn’t great for Offaly hurling.

Unless the green shoots of recovery start showing at underage level, they’ll find themselves in the McDonagh Cup eventually.

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Kevin O'Brien

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