OFFALY 2-24 DERRY 2-17 UNDER-FIRE Offaly were supposed to take their cue from Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong and free-wheel their way to victory, but instead they encountered a remarkable tour de force from rank outsiders Derry in yesterday's Guinness All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park.
Even after an anaemic display in the Leinster hurling final against Kilkenny, which led to a critical blast in the media from a former Offaly star, the midlanders were still overwhelming favourites to qualify for a semi-final showdown against Cork.
But in a mind-boggling match, made even more baffling by the incorrect score frequently appearing on the manual scoreboard and being announced over the public address system - the electronic scoreboard was not in use - they experienced a huge scare from a gutsy, well-drilled and skilful Derry side which had recently captured its first Ulster title in 92 years.
In fact, the almost unbelievable happened 22 minutes into the second half, when star forward Michael Collins landed a terrific point to level the scores at Offaly 1-18, Derry 2-15.
At that stage, Offaly fans must have harboured concerns about a repeat of the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final when Antrim pulled off a sensational victory over the midlanders.
Almost a worrying for the Faithful County followers was the fact that their defence had conceded two goals within seven minutes, after 10 and 17 minutes of the second half.
But the introduction of Joe Errity and Brian Whelahan - omitted from the starting line-up because of a hamstring injury - helped to stabilise the Offaly defence.
The level of Errity and Whelahan's influence was best illustrated by the fact that in the remaining 13 minutes, the Ulster champions managed to add only two points, in contrast to Offaly's haul of one goal and five points in the same period.
Unfortunately for Derry, they failed to build on Michael Collins' sensational equalising point. Instead, it was Offaly who upped the tempo, scoring a goal from Brendan Murphy and three points on the trot in the space of four minutes.
GLIMMER OF HOPE
Derry gave themselves another glimmer of hope with a point apiece from Michael Collins and Geoffrey McGonigle. But Offaly finished the stronger with a point each from man of the match Johnny Dooley, who finished with 12 points, and his brother Joe.
The rousing and intense nature of most of the second half served as a marked contrast to the general pattern of the first 35 minutes, when Offaly, though seemingly playing well within themselves, possessed a decisive edge in most areas of the field.
As well, the low-key atmosphere and lack of passion from the crowd seemed to indicate that a landslide Offaly win was anticipated.
The advantage enjoyed by the Leinster champions was particularly evident in the battle between the Offaly attack and the Derry defence. Indeed, Brendan Murphy and his colleagues often must have found it difficult to believe how much space and time they were afforded by their direct opponents.
With Gary Hanniffy proving the ideal target-man at full-forward, with his ability to get out to the ball in front of Derry full-back Conor Murray, the rest of the Offaly attack were fed a succession of inch-perfect passes by the big Birr man.
At midfield, Johnny Dooley was also hurling out of his skin, with the result that the Leinster champions enjoyed the lion's share of possession.
The contest seemed to be taking its widely anticipated pattern, when by the 20th minute, Offaly had strolled into a 1-13 to 0-5 lead, the goal having come two minutes earlier from Brendan Murphy who displayed fine football skills to score.
But somewhat ominously for Offaly, the Derry inside forwards - in particular Michael Collins and Tipperary-born John O'Dwyer - looked very dangerous whenever the ball was delivered into their area. And these two players were instrumental in Derry providing themselves with some hope for the second half by shooting a hat-trick of points just before the break.
Thus Derry, trailing by 1-13 to 0-11, remained in touch, and could look forward to the assistance of the wind in the second half.
Indeed, the Ulster side would have had a less taxing mountain to climb on the restart if they had fully profited from a penalty awarded after 27 minutes. However, Oliver Collins' delivery was struck with more hope than conviction, and was deflected over the bar by goalkeeper Stephen Byrne.
Offaly started the second half the stronger, with the irrepressible Johnny Dooley firing over a brace of points.
But then, in 45th minute, Michael Collins reduced the leeway to four points, 1-11 to 1-15, when he netted following a long delivery from dual star Kieran McKeever, who was switched from centre half-forward to midfield late in the first half.
Seven minutes later, Geoffrey McGonigle raised the second Derry green flag, following another long ball from McKeever, to leave just a point separating the sides at 1-16 to 2-12.
The next four minutes saw the Ulster side outscore their opponents by three points to two, to tie the scores at 2-15 to 1-18.
Unlike the first half, the second half saw the Derry defence tighten up considerably on the Offaly forwards, and team-manager Kevin McNaughton revealed afterwards that he warned at half-time that tight marking was an urgent priority for his side.
Even in the first half, centre half-back Colin McEldowney had been a tower of strength in the Derry defence, but the vital difference on the restart was that he was not forced to do nearly as much covering for his defensive colleagues.
But the winning and losing of the contest boiled down to the fact that in the magnificent Johnny Dooley, Offaly possessed the most influential player on the pitch, and the Leinster side also had the ability to register the greater number of scores in the crucial last 13 minutes.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Johnny Dooley (Offaly)
SCORERS - Offaly: Johnny Dooley 0-12 (4 frees, 2 `65s'), B Murphy 2-1, J Pilkington 0-5, C Gath 0-3, Joe Dooley 0-2. Derry: M Collins 1-4, G McGonigle 1-3 (2 frees), Gary Biggs 0-4 (all frees), R McCloskey, J O'Dwyer 0-2 each, O Collins 0-2 (1 free, 1 pen).
OFFALY - S Byrne; S Whelahan, K Kinahan, D Franks; M Duignan, K Martin, N Claffey; Johnny Dooley, G Oakley; J Pilkington, J Troy, B Murphy; C Gath, G Hanniffy, A Hanrahan. Subs: Joe Dooley for Gath 40 mins, J Errity for Troy 41 mins, Brian Whelahan for Oakley 53 mins, J Ryan for Duignan 60 mins.
DERRY - K Stevenson; C McGuirk, C Murray, N Mullan; M Conway, C McEldowney, B Ward; O Collins, R McCloskey; K McCloy, K McKeever, G McGonigle; Gary Biggs, J O'Dwyer, M Collins. Subs: Gregory Biggs for McCloy 40 mins, D McGrellis for Oliver Collins 42 mins, P McElonney for McCluskey 60 mins.
REF - M Wadding (Waterford).