Rebels on the march but Faithful haven’t yet departed

There’s something about a relegation scrap that often causes a ripple of cold sweat to slide down the back of those involved.

laying for silverware is pressure-fuelled, but it’s the scenario which every player dreams of when growing up. Whereas playing for survival is a different type of animal altogether given the consequences of failure.

Offaly and Cork find themselves duking it out in O’Connor Park this Sunday with a place in Division 2 of the Allianz Football League at stake, but there is a lot more than that up for grabs as defeat for either will result in Tailteann Cup football come summer – a draw will also suffice for the Rebels due to scoring difference.

This situation was expected from an Offaly point of view – even getting into this do-or-die scenario is deemed as a success by many in the Faithful – but few predicted that Cork would end up at the wrong end of the table and Vinny Claffey is hoping that might play into the hands of John Maughan’s side.

“Most people would have been tipping us to be relegated and they weren’t saying the same about Cork before the League started,” Claffey says. “So there’s actually more pressure on them than there is on Offaly.”

Claffey, a Division 1 league winner in 1998, doesn’t try to disguise the significance of the fixture to the Midlanders, given the feel-good factor around the county after last year’s shock U-20 All-Ireland success.

New faces like Jack Bryant, Kieran Dolan, Cormac Egan, Cathal Donoghue and Rory Egan are just some of that cohort which have been blooded under Maughan and new coach Tomás Ó Sé this year, with Claffey seeing it as a “knock-out game” with greater ramifications than ever before.

“You’re playing decent teams in Division 2 and it’s important to stay up at that level if you can. When you’re blooding players, you want them playing against good teams and you’ll definitely get that in Division 2,” Claffey outlines.

“Winning the U-20 last year, there was a real feel-good atmosphere in the county and you want to keep that going. From the U-20s point of view, if you get relegated then it’s not the same for players down in Division 3.

“Sometimes when you’re down the divisions, you can learn bad habits as well. When you’re playing in Division 1 or 2, you’re always playing good teams, whereas playing in Division 3 and Division 4 doesn’t really do much for you.

“You’ll learn a hell of a lot more in Division 2 and if you could stay there it would be huge for next year because you’re still bringing those U-20 players through and you’re not taking a backward step. The graph is still rising.”

After earning promotion in a truncated league last season, Claffey fears the “yo-yo effect” of immediately returning back to Division 3, but he implores the young Faithful squad to be brave and attack Keith Ricken’s reeling Rebels.

“When we played Cork in my day, they were a totally different proposition to what they are now, they had no fear of playing Kerry that time, whereas you look at it now and I’d say Cork people are worried about playing Kerry this year.  

“Things have moved on and if you’re from Cork, you’d be very disappointed with how they’re going at the moment. In football or hurling you don’t stand still, you improve or you get worse. There’s a good feel-good factor in Offaly right now and you want to capitalise on that.

“It’s not a game that we can’t win and if we play well, we’re in with a chance. Cork are not exactly unbeatable at the moment.”

Claffey, a Leinster SFC winner 25 years ago, was a crafty inside forward during his lengthy Offaly career and he has nothing but admiration for veteran forward Niall McNamee as he continues to keep his shoulder firmly to the county wheel.

“It shows the dedication of the man. He’s a role model and that’s a big thing for a lot of the players, even the U-20 players who have All-Ireland medals, looking at Niall McNamee at 36 and the dedication that he still has and the work that he puts in.

“He’s obviously not the player he was but he can still do amazing things in games, he contributes hugely to Offaly and on a given day he can still be a match winner. I was talking to some of the U-20s and the way that they’d look up to him.

“When you go in on an Offaly panel you want to learn good habits. John Maughan has brought good habits into Offaly and shown what you have to do to be an Offaly player. Niall McNamee is also an Offaly player that you can look at and say ‘If I imitate him, this is what I can do’.

“He’s very selfless going as long as he can help the young lads along, but he loves it and enjoys it. If they can stay in Division 2, I’m sure he’ll enjoy it more even more.”

Cork defeated Offaly by seven points when the sides last clashed two years ago in Division 3 and one of them is sure to end up back there again next year – as well as dropping out of the Sam Maguire race – as a nervy Division 2 campaign comes to a dramatic conclusion.

Claffey hopes Offaly get what’s coming to them. “I’ve seen the work and dedication that these lads have, if you do the work you’ll get the rewards and hopefully we’ll get them this weekend,” he says.