Brendan Maher and Johnny Kelly. INPHO
Friendly Rivals

'A strange situation for them' - The Offaly and Tipp connections for hurling battle

Familiar figures involved in tomorrow’s game in Tullamore.

THEY ARE HURLING neighbours and yet in modern times they have occupied different worlds.

It is nine years since Offaly and Tipperary crossed paths in a senior hurling championship game, the latter inflicting a thumping 5-25 to 1-20 defeat in that qualifier in Portlaoise.

The wait since 2014 to renew acquaintances draws to a close tomorrow, Offaly hosting Tipperary in a preliminary quarter-final in Tullamore at 4pm. The interim has seen the teams move in different atmospheres, 2019 brought Liam MacCarthy Cup glory for Tipperary and relegation to the Christy Ring Cup for Offaly.

Ben Conneely, Offaly’s defensive stalwart, hails from Banagher, which is hard against the Tipperary border. He is accustomed to play Tipperary club in challenge games with St Rynagh’s and went to secondary school with Premier class-mates.

But the rivalry is one Conneely, whose father Micheál was on the Offaly’s triumphant 1994 squad, has struggled to grasp due to a lack of first-hand experience.

“For me it’s been people telling me about Tipp. It hasn’t been growing up now being too much of a rival with Tipp because sure we never got to play them.

“In the last eight years, I wouldn’t have seen them as rivals, I’ve been looking at closer teams like Laois and Westmeath and Carlow,

“Normally when we play club challenge matches, the rest of the inter-county lads are still playing with Tipp, so be nice now to actually get to play them and looking forward to it.”

2023-gaa-hurling-all-ireland-series-national-launch Offaly hurler Ben Conneely. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / SPORTSFILE

If the recent meetings have been infrequent, there is spice thrown into tomorrow’s mix by the sense of familiarity.

The Offaly sideline will be populated by those with direct links. The Maher brothers from Borris-Ileigh are now aiding the Faithful. Martin was a Tipp senior defender a couple of decades ago and coached his native club to the 2020 All-Ireland senior final.

His younger sibling is an illustrious name. Brendan enjoyed seasons of All-Ireland and All-Star winning success in Tipperary colours, after settling into retirement, he now works as performance coach for Offaly.

“He’s just there like kind of every performance coach, they’re in the background,” says Coneely.

“He’s still, Brendan Maher at the end of the day, everyone sees him as the hurler that he was.

“He has a little bit of experience and so does Martin, like what he did with Borrisoleigh that time. You can see the influence he has now on us as well. He is very knowledgeable hurling wise.

“Look it’s great to have two Tipp lads on board. I suppose it’s not too often they get to try and put a team out to beat their county team. So it’s probably a strange situation for them as well, but I’d say they’re looking forward to it.”

For much of Noel McGrath’s hurling career, Brendan Maher proved a constant companion, a fixture alongside him on Tipperary starting sides.

McGrath is still to the fore on the pitch, now captain of Tipperary, but must now oppose his colleague.

“I’m friends with Brendan for a long time. You chat to him at different stages, but it’s not as if you’d be chatting every day of the week. But look, Brendan is a top-class person. He’ll have a fair influence what Offaly are doing up there for this weekend and probably has all year as well and his brother Martin and Johnny Kelly as well.”

johnny-kelly Borris-Ileigh manager Johnny Kelly. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

Kelly provides another strong connection. Now Offaly manager, he previously served as coach alongside MIchael Fennelly and steered local club Coolderry to the county senior title in 2015.

Conneely saw his success there and watched over the border as Kelly starred with his native Portumna, while also having spells with north Tipperary clubs Kiladangan, Nenagh Éire Óg and Borris-Ileigh.

His longevity on the elite club stage has been striking, he won an All-Ireland final with Portumna in 2009 and contested a decider with Borris-Ileigh 11 years later.

That forged a strong bond with the Maher brothers and saw their work transferred to the inter-county game with Offaly.

“Johnny was great when Fennelly was there,” says Conneely.

“He was a very good hurling coach and he was great to talk to. He was perfect, then when he obviously came in as a manager. So we knew the experience he had and straight away you could see it from the people he brought in to help him as well.

“He’s a lovely person. You couldn’t meet a nicer man.”

McGrath was tasked with attempting to take down a side guided by Kelly in the 2021 Tipperary senior semi-final. His Loughmore-Castleiney crew were successful in shutting down Borris-Ileigh and they ultimately advanced to lift the Dan Breen Cup.

“I’ve heard about Johnny Kelly for a good few years between his time with Portumna as well so he’s obviously a top-class coach. I don’t know the man but he’s had success everywhere he’s gone.”

The challenge facing Kelly’s players is sizeable to bridge the hurling gap that exists between them and Tipperary.

Conneely has seen enough of the flipside of inter-county hurling, the 2019 summer relegation in Tralee and the 2020 penalty shootout loss in a Christy Ring semi-final in Newry, to now appreciate the glamour of a game like this.

“What more could you want, we’re getting to play a Liam MacCarthy team in sunshine weather in your home home pitch.

“I remember the feeling getting relegated down in Kerry, we were going down to Christy Ring, a lot of lads on the team.

“I don’t want to feel like that again because that was, that was low. So we’ll definitely savour the days like this now.”

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