Nally proud to keep dual culture alive in West Offaly
By Kevin Egan
The Offaly senior football championship is a fascinating one for many reasons, but variety isn’t one of them. The Dowling Cup has been won by just five different clubs since 1996. Just three clubs – Rhode, Tullamore and Ferbane – have made up the two finalists in each of the last five years.
Yet it’s easy to see why the TG4 cameras have chosen to visit Tullamore this Sunday, when Tullamore and Ferbane will extend that run to six in this year’s decider.
In part, it’s because when the talent within a county is so concentrated, games at the top level tend to be fascinating. Ferbane’s 0-20 to 1-14 extra time win over Rhode in the semi-final certainly ticked that box.
But it’s also because within that trio, every type of GAA club has representation. Rhode is the GAA-obsessed village that joins up with their neighbours (St. Brigid’s) to field teams at underage level, but football is their identity, it defines the community, and they will continue to punch above their weight, as they have done with 13 out of the last 25 titles.
Tullamore are the big urban centre, not short of numbers, and where some of their biggest challenges are finding the space and human resources to adequately cater for the population of the town.
Then there’s Ferbane, which have their own unique personality. The club has a strong history in gaelic football, winning 12 county titles, one Leinster crown in 1986, and three different All-Star winners. However there is also a strong dual tradition in the parish, with the Belmont club catering for hurling, which brings it’s own logistical challenges.
Tullamore are a dual club, with some small amount of crossover, most notably U-20 phenomenon Cormac Egan. However the Ferbane/Belmont story is different. Belmont exited the senior championship following a defeat to Coolderry a little over a fortnight ago, and between 10 and 12 of the players who saw action in that game will also feature in Sunday’s final.
Perhaps oddly, the parish has significantly more representation on the county senior hurling panel than with Offaly football. David and James Nally, Jack and Paddy Clancy and Oisín Kelly (absent due to a cruciate injury) were all part of Johnny Kelly’s senior squad, while Patrick Taaffe was corner-back for the U-20 hurlers that lost out to Cork in this year’s All-Ireland final.
Switching gear from hurling to football and back again has become a way of life for the group, and they’ve learned to do it seamlessly. David Nally, who broke two bones in his hand making a block in this year’s Joe McDonagh final against Carlow, played his first full football game of the year against Rhode in the semi-final.
“Your fitness and strength work would still be high, it’s just ball skills and getting the handpassing and kick passing right, I find it’ll take you a week or two to get that up to the level that other lads are up to. It’s just trying to keep a football in your hand as much as possible when you do come back” he said.
“Because of the injury, I was back playing a bit of football before I was back playing hurling. Jack and Paddy (Clancy), I don’t know how they got their football back up so quick!”
When Ferbane made their breakthrough in 2019, Nally was just 20 years of age and he was part of a young cohort of players that looked to have the potential to add plenty more county titles.
It hasn’t worked out that way, but the manner of the defeats, and the quality of the opposition, means that he isn’t burdened by any sense that they left anything behind.
“You might take it for granted when you get to your first final that it’s going to happen every year, but you find out fairly quickly that it’s not the case. One year Tullamore gave us a fierce lesson but we lost twice on penalties as well.
“Tullamore and Rhode are two serious teams, and Edenderry showed what they can do when they put it together. It is competitive between four or five teams and there was a kick of the ball really between being in the final in the past two years and missing out. We can’t be too hard on ourselves”.
It was no surprise that Nally reached a high level. His older brother Shane captained Offaly in a Leinster minor football final, James played underage for the county in both codes, and for good measure his sister Emer usually lines out at either full or centre back for the Faithful County as well.
In other, larger areas, choices between might be forced upon them. In Ferbane, from the heart of West Offaly, things are different. From Tullamore across to Edenderry, part of the extended Dublin commuter belt, population is not an issue. In the West, it very much is, and it’s showing on the field. This year in Offaly, the team that was relegated from each of the Senior A, Senior B, Intermediate and Junior tiers was from west of Tullamore.
“That’s not on the cards, that’s not how we do things here” was how the young accountant responded, when asked if his place on the Offaly hurling panel might force a concentration of his energy.
“This club, and my own family, is all about playing and being involved. After the Joe McDonagh defeat and then the difficult day against Tipperary, a lot of the lads were really down, but we didn’t have the chance, it was straight back into games every week, football one week, hurling the next. I wouldn’t have it any other way”.