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Friday 22 June 2018

Midland enemies get set to attack

Wallace and Kelly both talking a positive game

Offaly manager Stephen Wallace during the Bord na Móna O’Byrne Cup draw with Dublin at Parnell Park
Offaly manager Stephen Wallace during the Bord na Móna O’Byrne Cup draw with Dublin at Parnell Park

January is the time for burning off the dirty petrol, so it won't come as a major surprise if arch-midland rivals under new management fail to serve up a Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup classic in TEG Cusack Park next Sunday (2.0).

Whereas June is when championship engines are meant to be purring and you're burning up the ground.

It wasn't like that in O'Connor Park seven months ago.

"Garbage from both sides. Horrible to watch," read a particularly pointed tweet, at one stage during the second half of the Leinster SFC quarter-final between Offaly and Westmeath.

No great surprise there, given the black-and-white world that is Twitter. Except, of course, that this barb came via the Westmeath GAA Twitter account.

Was it really that rubbish? In all fairness, yes. There were mitigating circumstances to explain that 0-10 apiece deadlock, primarily a mini-gale blowing straight down the Tullamore pitch on a day that could have been borrowed from March or even November.

Yet it was the defensive tactics and paucity of attacking players, more especially by each team when playing with the elements, that infuriated the watching public, partisan and neutral alike.

The attendance was 8,723. Six days later in Mullingar, with the weather now sun-kissed, that had fallen to 4,714 ... all of which meant 46pc fewer people were there to see a far more entertaining, attack-minded replay.

So what can we expect from Sunday's local derby rematch, with a place in the O'Byrne Cup final at stake? The early-season indicators - on the scoreboard and in the comments of both managers - offer cause for cautious optimism.

Offaly topped a group that included Dublin (albeit a shadow selection) while running up two decent scoring totals - 3-16 in their 16-point rout of Wexford, 0-16 in their fightback to parity with the Dubs.

Westmeath have amassed near-identical tallies in their back-to-back clashes with Laois - 1-13 in a one-point home win, then 3-16 in the reverse fixture as they coasted to a nine-point victory in Stradbally.

All of which qualifies as a promising start both for new Offaly manager Stephen Wallace and Westmeath's Colin Kelly.

For those fans who want to be entertained, not merely swayed by results, there was further encouragement to be gleaned from what both bosses have been saying.

"Look, there's only one way to play football and that's the Kerry way," reckoned Wallace (like the true Kerryman he is) in an RTÉ interview ahead of their encounter with Dublin.

"The teams that play football the right way win more. There'll be fads that come and go, defensive systems and all this sort of stuff. They'll win one or they'll win two but it's the Kerrys, the Dublins, the traditional counties that invariably come out at the top, playing football the right way."

By the same token, Westmeath observers have been struck by the team's more orthodox set-up under Kelly.

"The lads have embraced everything we are asking them to do," the former Louth boss told local reporters last Sunday. "In fairness to both sides there wasn't too much of blanket defences and sweepers - so a good performance and everyone seems to be buying into what we are doing."

So far, so positive ... but will Westmeath, and Offaly, retain the same attacking mindset once their Allianz League campaigns kick off and the onus is on survival in a dog-eat-dog Division 3? That riddle remains to be answered, especially in a division including Ulster trio Armagh, Derry and Fermanagh.

Promotion

Wallace's promotion of young Offaly talent is another plus: debutant Jordan Hayes bagged a brace of goals against Wexford while Cian Johnson, fresh off last year's minor conveyor belt, hit 1-3 in the same game.

Even more impressively, Johnston followed up with 0-6 from play in Parnell Park.

Leading the Westmeath onslaught, in Stradbally, was a familiar name - albeit one restored to a more orthodox attacking role after previous forays out the field or even to sweeper. Callum McCormack steamrolled Laois with 3-3 from play. Kieran Martin was also in the zone, shooting 0-3.

But perhaps the biggest January positive, thus far, has been the prolific form of Luke Loughlin, a minor star in 2013 whose only SFC outing has been for New York against Roscommon in 2016.

The owner of a sweet left foot, Loughlin shot 0-5 (1f) at home to Laois, then followed up with 0-7 (2f) last Sunday.

"We are trying to make this as enjoyable as we can and be as positive as we can," Kelly explained. "Callum McCormack is an excellent footballer and has been since I have watched him as a minor and U21 player. Luke Loughlin is an exceptional talent and he is working really, really hard and it is showing in his performances."

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