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Thursday 17 April 2014

Owens has eyes on final chapter in the fairytale

A first Offaly title in October; a first Leinster title in December; a first All-Ireland semi-final win in February. And March?

Cue Croke Park on St Patrick's Day when Offaly's brand of special-K will attempt to complete the most remarkable period in their history by winning the All-Ireland title. They will do so with an impressive mix of skill, power and organisation, all underpinned by a relentless determination to succeed.

They went into Saturday's semi-final in Portlaoise as 5/1 outsiders against a highly-rated Thurles side who were seen as likely All-Ireland champions after sweeping to their first Munster title last November. However, in the best traditions of Offaly hurling, vaunted reputations counted for nothing in the Kilcormac-Killoughey mindset as they set about disrupting the Thurles flow.

"These lads are relentless. They're also fit, focused and very determined. They have plenty of skill and when you put all those attributes together, you always have a chance. We knew if we could get under their (Sarsfields) skin, we could do something," said K/K manager Danny Owens.

He is entitled to enormous credit too for structuring the side and the tactics so efficiently. With Lar Corbett and Pa Bourke bringing star quality to the Thurles attack, Owens might have been tempted to pack his defence but, instead, he trusted an orthodox formation, an option which paid off handsomely.

Bourke posed some threat but Corbett made little impression, ending the day with no score to his name after a frustrating hour when he was afforded very little space.

Kevin Grogan, and John and Peter Healion were outstanding in the K/K defence, while Ciaran Slevin, who top-scored on 0-11 (0-9 from placed balls), Conor Mahon and Dan Currams presented the Thurles defence with a range of problems they never quite solved.

Ultimately, though, the big difference was in the contrasting approach. Thurles looked like a group who expected things to happen of their own accord, whereas K/K grafted extremely hard to ensure that they shaped the game to their liking.

They applied a much harder work ethic, supported each other in groups and at various stages when it looked as if Thurles had established some momentum, K/K chiselled deep into their resilience reserves to redress the balance.

It happened early on when Thurles pulled two points clear while appearing to be playing well within themselves and again when a goal from Bourke put Sarsfields three points head after 28 minutes.

K/K's response was swift and decisive. They scored 1-5 without reply from there to the 37th minute (they led 1-8 to 1-7 at the break) to open up a five-point lead, leaving Thurles facing the reality that this was an altogether different proposition to what the markets had suggested.

Thurles reacted to the massive challenge by putting together their best period, which yielded five points, leaving them trailing by a single point after 50 minutes.

The K/K goal had survived some scares too, so it looked very much as if the winning momentum was swinging Sarsfields' way heading into the final 10 minutes.

No so. Incredibly, Thurles managed just one more point (and that came deep into stoppage-time) while a rampant K/K shot six points.

"We lost our way for a spell in the second half but we corrected a few things and it worked out well. Thurles were winning a lot of breaking ball – especially on puck-outs – around midfield, but once we sorted that out, we got back on top," said Owens.

Outlining the general strategy for the team, he said the game plan was based on doing the simple things well, working hard and keeping the intensity high.

"We didn't go out to man-mark anybody," said Owens. "We knew Lar (Corbett) would run all over the place, so to have a man chase him would be crazy. We played an orthodox backline, no extra men behind the ball or anything like that."

Thurles offered no excuses for a result which few envisaged possible, but team manager Seamus Quinn insisted there was no question of taking K/K for granted.

"Not at all – we didn't underestimate them in any way. They're a fine team and they showed that out there today," he said.

Quinn felt that if Thurles had converted even one of their second-half goal chances, it might have given them the momentum to drive on, but it wasn't to be on a day when Thurles didn't enjoy the best of luck around the K/K goal.

K/K's win means that Offaly will have All-Ireland final newcomers for a second successive year (Coolderry lost to Loughgiel in 2012) and, on the basis of their wins over Oulart-The Ballagh and Thurles, Owens' adventurers will be quite confident that they can write another epic chapter in their history.

"It's great for the club. These lads have been knocking on the door for a good while and are getting their rewards now. They deserve everything they get because of the effort they put in," said Owens.

As for Thurles, it was all very disappointing, but they could have no complaints as they failed to match K/K's pressure game at crucial stages in either half.

Once again, K/K ignored their underdogs' rating and had their hard work rewarded with a huge prize. And to complete an excellent weekend for Owens, a Fianna Fail councillor, the win coincided with his party's surge in the opinion polls.

"It's been a good weekend alright," chuckled Owens as he savoured the special moment. He was well pleased on behalf of his players but could be very happy with his own contribution too.

Scorers – Kilcormac-Killoughey: Ciaran Slevin 0-11 (8f, 1 '65'), D Currams 1-1, C Mahon, B Leonard 0-2 (2f) each, T Geraghty, J Gorman, P Geraghty. K Leonard 0-1 each. Thurles Sarsfields: P Bourke 1-5 (3f, 1'65), J Enright (2 '65s'), D Maher 0-2 each, A McCormack, R Ruth, R Maher, M Gleeson, M O'Brien 0-1 each.

Kilcormac-Killoughey – Conor Slevin; J Grogan, G Healion, A McConville; K Grogan, P Healion, B Leonard; D Kilmartin, K Leonard; Ciaran Slevin, C Mahon, P Geraghty; J Gorman, D Currams, T Geraghty. Sub: C Guinan for B Leonard (59).

Thurles Sarsfields – P McCormack; S Maher, K O'Gorman, David Maher; D Kennedy, P Maher, M Cahill; M Gleeson, J Enright; Denis Maher, J Corbett, L Corbett; A McCormack, P Bourke, R Ruth. Subs: R Maher for Enright (38), G O'Grady for J Corbett (43), M O'Brien for Ruth (51).

Ref – C Lyons (Cork)

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