OPENING day of the new season and there was something for everyone at O'Connor Park, Tullamore, where 1,700 enthusiasts witnessed a lively contest.
Offaly's recently appointed manager Emmet McDonnell and his players got the tonic of a victory to boost confidence, while Laois boss Justin McNulty fielded what he described as an "experimental" team and ran the home side to three points in a physically tough encounter on a heavy surface.
A couple of goals, one at each end, lifted the spirits and some beautifully executed points, notably by Offaly's Niall McNamee and David Hanlon and MJ Tierney of Laois, showed that the skills of the game are still evident in these days of blanket defences.
Mind you, the areas of the pitch between the midfield and the respective half-back lines were as clogged as the M50 at rush hour for long periods, but ball retention and possession play is the priority for all teams. The clogged arteries through the middle only served to highlight the skill, vision and deadly accuracy of Niall McNamee.
Offaly's skipper was isolated up front alongside Paul McPadden for long periods, but his ability to gain possession, find space, and score with left foot, right foot, and fist was impressive.
In all, McNamee contributed eight points, two from frees, but wasn't pleased to miss a 40th-minute penalty at a stage when Offaly led by 1-8 to 1-3.
McNamee had won the penalty when he was deemed to have been hauled down by Laois 'keeper Eoin Culliton. It looked a bit harsh as Culliton seemed to have got a block on the ball just before getting the man, but, as it turned out, Laois got a reprieve when McNamee dragged the ball wide.
Overall, it did not change the trend of the match. Offaly brought a physical strength and purposeful attitude from the start. They could, and should, have led by more than 1-7 to 1-3 at half-time, and could have won by more than three points, but this was a decent start.
Manager McDonnell is clearly building a good spirit among his side, but is not afraid to make changes when required. He showed that by substituting corner-forward Anton Sullivan after only 12 minutes, bringing on Paul McPadden. McDonnell explained afterwards that he felt Army man Sullivan was not fully tuned in at corner-forward, but brought him back on later at wing-forward where he looked more comfortable.
As it transpired, McPadden's introduction paid off as he latched on to a pass by Eoin Carroll to fire home Offaly's goal in the 34th minute – a timely effort indeed, as Laois were hanging grimly on to Offaly's coat-tails at that stage and were only a point adrift at 0-7 to 1-3.
The Laois men managed to get on the scoreboard only four times in the first half, but their goal, scored in the 20th minute by David Murphy, was a huge bonus. Otherwise, they had only two points from frees by MJ Tierney and one by Paul Begley for their efforts.
Laois delayed coming out after the break, but Offaly went into a huddle, refusing to be upset. They could have been talking about the weather or how the English FA Cup matches were going, but the message was one of unity. They needed to maintain that attitude, as Laois upped the pace in the second half and subs Mark Timmons, Emmet Malone and Ross Munnelly brought new drive.
Two points by Niall McNamee were answered by scores from MJ Tierney ('45'), and Munnelly, leaving Offaly in the lead by 1-9 to 1-4 after 47 minutes.
Offaly could thank Alan Mulhall for a great reaction save from a piledriver by Damien O'Connor for maintaining their edge and once they came through that sticky period, Offaly always had enough to keep Laois at bay.
Offaly manager McDonnell was satisfied. "Laois had a great season last year. We're coming from a lower position so it was great to get a good start. We missed a couple of scores and probably made it a bit hard on ourselves."
McNulty was not unduly upset, particularly as the new group format guarantees each team at least three matches. "It was a very rusty performance. That's par for the course at this time of year. We don't expect everyone to be up and running at this early stage.
"We have to pay credit to Offaly. Full credit to them for the performance they put in. They were hungrier than us, no doubt about it, so that's something we have to reflect on."
Scorers – Offaly: N McNamee 0-8 (2f), P McPadden 1-1, D Hanlon, M Mitchell 0-1 each. Laois: MJ Tierney 0-6 (4f, '45'), D Murphy 1-0, P Begley, R Munnelly 0-1 each.
Offaly – A Mulhall; D Hanlon, P McConway, S Pender; B Darby, D Kelly, G Guilfoyle; A McNamee, R Dalton; R Brady, B Connor, E Carroll; M Mitchell, N McNamee, A Sullivan. Subs: P McPadden for A Sullivan (12), A Sullivan for A McNamee (44), S Guing for M Mitchell (54).
Laois – E Culliton; D Booth, K Meaney, J Kavanagh; P Begley, R Kehoe, P McMahon; R Bracken, B Quigley; C Meredith, J Finn, D Murphy; MJ Tierney, C Kelly, A Doran. Subs: D O'Connor for R Bracken (22), M Timmons for B Quigley (h-t), E Malone for C Kelly (h-t), R Munnelly for J Finn (47), S Julian for J Kavanagh (53).
Ref – B O'Shea (Dublin).