Faithful escape saffron ambush
FEW things in the All-Ireland SHC can be taken for granted but one thing remains certain: Offaly never know when they're beaten.
Take the 50th minute of their eventual 2-26 to 3-16 extra-time defeat of Antrim at Parnell Park yesterday as a classic case of Faithful resilience in worse-than-bleak circumstances.
Joe Dooley's men trailed the surprisingly resourceful Saffrons by five points at that juncture. Wing-forward Derek Molloy had just been sent off on a second yellow card for a careless high tackle on Karl Stewart. Parnell Park was edgy.
Yet a combination of desperation, pride and cunning saved them from what would have ranked a most embarrassing Leinster championship exit in living memory.
"When we lost the man in the second half it really looked like it was curtains," acknowledged Dooley afterwards. "But they kept fighting away, taking their points and we dragged it back."
They did, but plenty of the breaks went their way too. Joey Scullion cut through the Offaly resistance in the 59th minute and flicked a shot for goal but James Dempsey -- on as a half-time substitute for regular 'keeper, Brian Mullins -- saved to his left at the near post .
"James Dempsey's save was a real turning point, if that had gone in, I think it would have been curtains," noted Dooley somewhat somberly.
"In fairness he came out and smothered it very bravely, and that kept us in the game."
Even from there and allowing for their past penchant for Lazarus-like resurrection, Antrim were still the most likely winners, particularly when the immense Shane McNaughton put them ahead with a free one last time with two and a half of the three allotted minutes of injury time played.
But his mis-flicked pick up from the resultant puck out gave Rory Hanniffy enough scope to charge in and when McNaughton fouled, Offaly had a free just 20 metres out on the right hand touchline.
The acuteness of the angle mattered not, however, as Shane Dooley was enjoying an awesome day from placed balls. He did, though, have to deal with some heckling from Antrim boss, Dinny Cahill, as he executed the shot. Or at least that was how Dooley saw it anyway.
"I was directing my players to get back," protested Cahill afterwards. "I wasn't saying anything to Shane Dooley taking it."
Manager Dooley, however, was sceptical. "Ah yeah, I think that's what he was trying to do alright," he laughed afterwards, though it did prompt a minor shemozzle between the two after Shane Dooley had converted and extra-time appeared on the horizon. "Ah that was only a bit of old banter, that was all it was," said the Offaly manager.
Either way, Antrim went the way of the stereotypical underdog in extra-time after blowing their chance to win in the first 70 minutes.
Having been subbed in the 46th minute of the match, Brian Carroll re-appeared as the 15th man in extra-time. He scored two points and set Hanniffy in for a goal in the first period and subsequently, the rest of the match resembled a procession.
"I'm well disappointed by losing the game but from a wider view maybe we were good enough to win it in normal time," commented Cahill. "We didn't seem to have the legs for extra time. We were blown out of it."
Yet it had started so well. An early tour de force from Neil McManus helped them into a 1-2 to no score lead and though Offaly dominated the majority of the remainder of the half, mainly through Joe Bergin and Derek Molloy's ability to field high ball, a scoring blitz of 2-2 in the four minutes before half-time put Cahill's troops three points up at the break.
Antrim capitalised on a rebounded shot and some less than assertive goalkeeping from Mullins to score their first goal with Paul Cleary unfortunately getting the last touch to turn the sliotar into his own net from a Colm McFall shot while Karl McKeegan tapped in the second after Cleary misread the flight of a lofted delivery from Johnny Campbell. Dooley's frees were killing Antrim after half-time, though, while Hanniffy became more industrious as the game wore on.
Molloy's red card seemed briefly to delay the resurgence but Dooley was as assured and confident in his execution of the last game-saving placed ball as his father was coy about the semi-final prospects.
"Overall, we'd be fearful of going in to play Galway after a performance like that," he said. "I went down to Nowlan Park to see them and they were awesome, to be honest with you. They beat Wexford by 11 points with 14 men, playing against the wind in the second half and Wexford have a powerful team.
"So we know we have to improve, I don't know by how many per cent at this stage, but sure that's the challenge that's put up to us," concluded Dooley.