SHANE DOOLEY'S last appearance at O'Connor Park had ended in blood and tears, so to speak -- his comeback yesterday culminated in cheers from the long-suffering Faithful as he claimed a priceless Allianz League victory for the Offaly hurlers.
Making his return from the nasty ear injury that ended his day against Dublin three weeks ago, Dooley rescued a game that appeared destined to end in stalemate or even worse for the home side.
And the net result of his two injury-time missiles is that Wexford, barring a miraculous transformation, are destined for an immediate return to the Division Two backwaters from which they escaped last spring.
Understandably, perhaps, this was a typically claustrophobic battle between two pointless protagonists low on confidence and, harsh as it may seem, bereft of quality too.
And yet something special, courtesy of Dooley, ultimately sealed the points for 14-man Offaly.
The home side had already ceded momentum prior to losing substitute Colin Egan to a second yellow card (described as "harsh enough" by his manager) after 62 minutes. In the exchanges that followed, Wexford kept pressing and kept missing chances before PJ Nolan eventually landed a 69th-minute equaliser.
But then came the game's watershed moment, when Harry Kehoe was punished for steps on Offaly's own 45m line. If Kehoe hadn't over-carried, he could well have edged the visitors ahead ... instead, Dooley's wind-assisted monster cleared Noel Carton's crossbar with inches to spare.
The relief of the home supporters -- never mind their manager, Dooley's father Joe -- was palpable. "If you wanted anyone standing over a free like that, it would be Shane," the Offaly boss ventured.
Just to confirm there could be no late riposte, Conor Mahon was fouled from the resultant puckout and Dooley again bisected the posts, this time from beyond the '65' on the left touchline. That left the All Star nominee with a personal haul of 1-10, nine coming from placed balls.
In all likelihood, those two stoppage time frees will prove the double-whammy that sends Wexford through the Division One trapdoor. Still pointless after five rounds, they must claim a minimum three points from their last two outings -- at home to Cork next Sunday, away to Tipperary on April 17 -- and then hope Offaly lose at home to Waterford and in Kilkenny. Even two points won't suffice, as the head-to-head rule would then favour Offaly.
Afterwards, Colm Bonnar refused to give up the ghost while accepting the "more difficult situation" now facing his team.
"The players there were talking themselves -- as down as they are now -- that we need to get ourselves back up again. It is a case that we need to keep fighting until the very last league game, and then we look at the league board."
The galling part for Bonnar is that this game was eminently winnable. They led by three points late in the first half only to concede an unanswered 1-2 -- all from the stick of Dooley, including a 34th-minute goal created by a clever reverse handpass from Joe Bergin.
Trailing 1-10 to 0-11, Wexford raced out of the second half traps with Jim Berry landing a free, forcing a flying save from James Dempsey and then landing a 38th-minute goal on the rebound -- again following a Dempsey save to deny Rory Jacob.
Offaly complaints about a possible Berry over-carry were soon forgotten, however, after two more Dooley points sandwiching a Derek Molloy goal on 40 minutes (following another Bergin assist).
Three up and backed by the breeze, the home side dismally failed to push on -- a stat underlined by the fact that Molloy's goal was their only second-half score from play.
With Keith Rossiter sweeping impressively at full-back, Wexford also reclaimed the initiative around midfield -- but the scores came slowly, interspersed with seven second-half wides.
"We are very disappointed because we had three or four wides that were very scoreable," Bonnar lamented, whereas Dooley hailed the "fierce" determination of his players and suggested they will "hurl better" as the ground hardens.
"Potentially if we lost today and did not stay up, there are fellows that might not hurl Division One again," the Offaly boss pointed out. They shouldn't have to worry on that score now.