GAA: Jamesie O'Connor previews Kilkenny's Leinster Championship meeting with Offaly
By Tony Tighe - @TonyTighe94
Last Updated: 12/06/14 3:56pm
Sky Sports expert Jamesie O’Connor says Offaly should take a leaf out of Laois’ book and employ a sweeper system against Kilkenny on Saturday.
Laois came close to causing one of the shocks of the championship last weekend against Galway, who escaped Portlaoise with a two-point win thanks to a late rally.
The O’Moore County employed a sweeper system which frustrated their opponents, and given Offaly’s recent struggles, O’Connor believes they should use a similar tactic at Nowlan Park.
The two-time All-Ireland winner told Sky Sports: “In the two games in Portlaoise last Sunday, Antrim and Laois were underdogs against Wexford and Galway respectively. Antrim didn’t play a sweeper and conceded three goals inside the first 12 minutes. By the time they put the sweeper back it was a case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.
Given where they’re coming from and the tallies they’ve conceded in recent challenge matches, Offaly have to be realistic. I think they have to play a sweeper at the back to try and give themselves a foothold in the game.
“Laois did play a sweeper and even after getting off to the worst possible start – going 1-3 to 0-0 down after seven minutes – they gradually played their way into the game and could have pulled off the biggest shock in years.
“Given where they’re coming from and the tallies they’ve conceded in recent challenge matches, Offaly have to be realistic. I think they have to play a sweeper at the back to try and give themselves a foothold in the game. Once they’ve built a platform they can revert to an orthodox system.
“The challenge for them is you can’t just decide overnight to play a sweeper. It’s the easiest thing in the world to drop a defender back but you have to be really conscious about how you use the ball. Laois were superb last Sunday at working the ball out from the back, keeping possession and taking whatever chances presented themselves. That’s going to be the challenge for Offaly.”
Offaly are massive underdogs for Saturday’s contest after enduring a dismal National League campaign. While Kilkenny were retaining their Division One crown, the Faithful County narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier, defeating Kerry in a play-off.
O’Connor and Clare enjoyed some great battles with Offaly during the 1990s but their stock has fallen dramatically since. Their last victory over Kilkenny came in the 1998 All-Ireland final, and the average margin of defeat in their last five meetings has been over 17 points.
“They’ve taken some real hidings in that time,” said O’Connor, “but you have to qualify that by saying that while they were at a low ebb, they were also coming up against arguably the greatest hurling team of all time.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2013: Kilkenny 0-26 Offaly 4-9
2008: Kilkenny 2-24 Offaly 0-12
2007: Kilkenny 1-27 Offaly 1-13
2005: Kilkenny 6-28 Offaly 0-15
2002: Kilkenny 2-20 Offaly 1-14
“Some of those defeats during the middle of the last decade, you could put it down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seemed to be a feature of Brian Cody’s reign. The beatings they administered to Offaly, and also Wexford, have taken a long time to recover from.”
O’Connor believes Offaly’s recent struggles at underage level are a major problem, something that requires immediate attention. They last tasted provincial success at minor and U21 level in 2000, and haven’t reached an All-Ireland final at either level in over 20 years.
“You have to look at the foundations,” he said. “The likes of Brian Whelahan and Johnny Dooley played in All-Ireland minor finals. Offaly won minor titles in 1986 and ’87, and in ’89 when they beat Clare, and that laid the foundations for their success through the ‘90s.
“Around that time Offaly were as competitive as any team in the country. The work was obviously being done in the clubs and schools back then and that seems to be something they’ve neglected.
“Their recent record, particularly at minor level, is pretty dismal. They don’t seem to have been producing the players that will come through at senior level. The county board need to go back to brass tacks and address that. That’s a long-term project, one that won’t happen overnight. It’s something they’ve neglected and need to address sooner rather than later.
“But it’s not all doom and gloom either. Look at Coolderry and Kilcormac/Killoughey; they’ve won Leinster titles and contested All-Ireland finals in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Some of the clubs are putting serious work in, and it’s not like there isn’t a tradition or history behind them.
“Sometimes you need to reach rock bottom before you start to climb up again. I don’t think it’s going to take a massive amount to fix it but nobody else is going to do this except Offaly themselves. They only appointed their U21 management team in recent weeks; that is unacceptable and something the county board must take responsibility for. When you consider the strength and conditioning work that the likes of Clare and Kilkenny are doing at U21 level, Offaly really are light years behind.
Kilkenny v Offaly
Live on Sky Sports 3
“The progress Laois have made has been done by Laois people, working hard and putting the time in on the field. They decided that nobody was going to help them but themselves. The Leinster Council and Croke Park have a role to play in terms of providing support to counties, but at the end of the day the only people that can get Offaly out of this situation are Offaly themselves. This needs to start now and it’s going to take five to 10 years before they see the rewards.”
Offaly and Kilkenny also met at the quarter-final stage of last year’s Leinster Championship, and it was a much closer contest than many expected. Offaly hit two goals inside the opening 14 minutes and another brace at the death as Kilkenny held on for a five-point win.
O’Connor believes Offaly caught Kilkenny on the hop that day, and is expecting the latter to be a different beast when they renew acquaintances in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
“Last year there were a number of factors,” he explained. “Firstly, I don’t think Kilkenny had been in a Leinster quarter-final for some time, and maybe Offaly felt they were going to be a bit undercooked. They also had Kilkenny at home, which was a help. More importantly, they got off to a good start, got the crowd behind them and gave themselves a chance.
“This year the cards are stacked against them. Kilkenny are coming off a disappointing championship in 2013, where their summer ended a lot earlier than many of us anticipated. You also have the fact that Brian Cody seems determined to go with fresh blood, to inject youth into the team. There is real competition for places.
“If you’re a Kilkenny player wondering when things started to unravel last year, it was conceding the four goals in Tullamore that maybe put some doubts in their minds, and gave hope to everyone else in the process. They’ll be keen to lay down a marker on Saturday night.
“In addition to that, if you’re a Kilkenny player who has got a starting jersey, you’ll be fighting tooth and nail to hold onto it. If Kilkenny subs get an opportunity with 20 minutes to go, let’s just say they won’t be tapping the ball over the bar. That puts an extra onus on Offaly to fight for every ball.
"However, with the new faces, the Kilkenny team doesn’t look as intimidating as it has in previous years. There’s no Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Henry Sheffiln, Richie Power or Michael Rice, and that is something Offaly will take positives from. If they bring their traditional virtues to Nowlan Park, they’ll feel they have a chance.”
Watch Kilkenny v Offaly live on Sky Sports 3 from 6.30pm on Saturday