Offaly hurling is in dire straits at the moment and in an effort to contextualise their downfall, many have referred back to the great team of the 1990s.
That era is littered with famed players like the Dooleys, Johnny Pilkington, John Troy and, of course, the Whelahans. Simon, Barry and Brian all represented Offaly with honour and Brian is the focus of our ‘Forgotten Friday’ this week.
The Birr man has won almost every accolade in the book including All-Ireland medals in 1994 and 1998 – he was named man-of-the-match on both occasions – and four All-Star awards. He was also twice chosen as Texaco Hurler of the Year and is named at wing-back on the Team of the Millennium.
Brian Whelahan made his senior debut for Offaly in the All Ireland semi-final loss to Antrim in 1989, the same year that he captained the county’s minor team to their second All Ireland title in three years. A year later, he had his first senior provincial medal in his pocket, following their 1–19 to 2–11 win over Dublin.
Whelahan soon became a household name in the county but they faded from contention for a number of years, bouncing back in style in 1994.
That was an odd year for a 23-year-old Whelahan. In September, he lined out for his first All Ireland final at senior grade in what transpired to be one of the most dramatic finals of all time, known as the ‘five minute final’. Offaly found themselves trailing Limerick by five points in the closing minutes but sensationally scored 2-5, courtesy of goals from Johnny Dooley and Pat O’Connor, to snatch the explosive win.
Bizarrely, that same year, Whelahan did not win an All Star award, despite being named the Texaco Hurler of the Year. Due to his extreme versatility, Whelahan found himself nominated for an All Star in two different positions, in the half-back line and the half-forward. Back then, the decisions were made by secret ballot where select members of the media was choose their favourite player for each position. However, the vote for Whelahan had been split between the two positions, earning him an award for neither.
“The problem wasn’t that we left him off, the problem was we didn’t know we’d left him off,” Michael Lyster later explained.
“He actually got more votes than anyone else but didn’t win a spot.
“There was uproar in Offaly and the hurling community as a whole. People said we had deliberately ignored him, but it was basically just a terrible mistake.”
That versatility would work in his favour four years later in the 1998 All Ireland final against Kilkenny. Offaly had come through the ‘back-door’ system having lost to the Cats in the Leinster final that year. That loss saw Babs Keating turn against his players, labelling them as “sheep running around in a heap”. The Offaly players revolted and Keating walked.
Michael Bond succeeded him and Offaly beat Antrim to set up an All Ireland semi-final meeting with Clare. That match is best known for it’s controversial time-keeping. Clare were three points up when the referee blew the full-time whistle with five minutes left to play.
Offaly staged a sit-down protest on the pitch and it was eventually decided that the game would be replayed, despite Ger Loughnane’s objections. The Faithful men won the refixed game on a scoreline of 0-16 to 0-13 to set up the Kilkenny clash in the All Ireland final.
Rumour has it that Whelahan fell ill with the flu the week before the pivotal game and it came as no surprise when he had a disastrous first half at wing-back with Brian McEvoy causing him bundles of trouble. It was decided to move the Birr man to centre-forward and he began to settle into the game.
However, the stroke of genius came when he was moved to full-forward in the second half in a move that has often been described as the winning of the game. Whelahan ran rings around Pat O’Neill, scoring scored 1-2 from play and two points from frees to bring his total for the game to 1-6. Another man-of-the-match performance. As Eugene McGee commented in his report for the Irish Independent, it “proved how a great player can overcome disaster and triumph.”
That year, Whelahan became the first player to win the Texaco Player of the Year award twice.
He would experience one more All Ireland final, a trouncing at the hands of Kilkenny in 2000, before retiring from the inter-county scene in 2006. He continued to play for his club for a further two years, finishing that career with 12 Offaly titles, seven Leinster medals and four All Ireland titles.
Whelahan was named on the Hurling Team of the Millennium and in 2017 he was inducted into the Leinster GAA Hall of Fame with their chairman, Jim Bolger, commenting:
“Leinster hurling has produced many iconic heroes over the decades and Brian Whelahan sits comfortably among the very best of them.
“He was an exemplary figure who gave his best every time he wore the jersey and he prided himself on being as influential for his Club as he was for his County.”
Brian Whelahan will always be considered one of Offaly’s greatest ever sons.