Vincent Hogan: Baker relief as Faithful take huge step forward
OFFALY 2-12 WEXFORD 1-13
In the half-light of a midland monsoon that would have sent Noah rounding up livestock, Offaly edged this blue-collar quarrel despite a late, almost calamitous, loss of voice.
To the outside world, this was low-watt business on an immaculate Tullamore sward, but it came freighted with hidden glories.
"I suppose this is the first big win I've had in my Leinster championship career," said Brian Carroll afterwards. "And, you know, that's amazing because this is my 11th year!"
The language of struggle was written all over the narrative then, Offaly going without a score for the closing 18 minutes as Wexford sprang to contrary life from a condition close to coma.
The game was reaching out to injury-time when young Jack Guiney stood over a 20-metre free, a momentous decision on his hands. Wexford trailed by two points and the fourth official's board had yet to be produced. What to do?
Guiney had goaled from a similar position 11 minutes earlier and almost snapped the crossbar in two with an effort during the first half. The computer in his head produced a natural conclusion. Bullseye it would be.
But Derek Morkan saved on the line, cleared and, two minutes later, tricoloured jerseys were bouncing about the field like dodgems in a fairground. Had Guiney known those two minutes were available, who is to say what his decision might have been?
Liam Dunne, certainly, was not in the market for a scapegoat. "I didn't say a word to him," explained the Wexford manager.
"I let him make up his own mind. He's just turned 19 and he had the balls to go for it. He probably would have been a hero if it went in. In fairness, he scored one in Wexford Park three months ago and we won the game by a point."
That March encounter was on Ollie Baker's mind too, Offaly conceding three goals in the last seven minutes to, essentially, blow their league. "The nightmare was coming back to us," smiled the Clareman.
It was a game, then, with a slightly neurotic feel, conditions slowing the natural tempo and the handling, understandably, poor.
Wexford made the brighter opening and led 0-7 to 0-3 when Paul Morris' delivery put Diarmuid 'Gizzy' Lyng in one-on-one with James Dempsey. The Offaly goalkeeper parried brilliantly and Guiney pulled the resulting '65' wide. "We got out of jail at that moment," agreed Baker. "It was a huge turning point."
Suddenly, Offaly seemed to grow in all the central positions and, with Carroll operating as a virtual third midfielder, the extra room inside created confusion in the Wexford full-back line. Shane Dooley had started in Matthew O'Hanlon's corner, but then switched over on to Willie Devereux and alarms began to ring.
Two minutes from the interval, Dooley soared above Devereux to collect Joe Bergin's delivery and his finish was emphatic.
Devereux did not reappear for the second half as Dunne threw on two Oulart clubmates, Darren Stamp and Eoin Moore, to try to staunch the bleeding. Wexford were a goal behind and in an awkward place.
"Everyone in Tullamore is waiting for the avalanche to happen," Dunne told his players. "This is going to test your character."
It did too and with discouraging preliminary results. They weren't helped by one in a sequence of oddly indecisive moments from referee John Sexton.
Wexford goalkeeper Eanna Martin was penalised for breaching the small square with his puck-out and Sexton seemed to award a '65'. Then he -- rightly -- changed his decision to a throw-ball on the 20-metre line but, in the confusion, players from both sides seemed caught off guard.
The sliotar spilled loose to Joe Bergin, whose ground-stroke found the net. Offaly now were six to the good and stretching clear. They added three points in as many minutes, Wexford keeping Keith Rossiter on the edge of his own square, although he -- effectively -- had nobody to mark.
David Kenny and Rory Hanniffy were bossing central matters down their end, whilst Dooley, Carroll and Brendan Murphy looked a constant threat.
Both Wexford corner-forwards, Paul Morris and Rory Jacob, had the beating of their markers, whilst Lyng and PJ Nolan carried danger in possession. But at 0-9 to 2-12 behind, Wexford seemed to be in dire straits.
The change came like a sudden gust of wind. David Franks had just brilliantly blocked a Harry Kehoe shot when, between the 55th and 60th minutes, Jacob struck two points either side of Guiney driving home a rasping free after another great, surging run by midfielder David Redmond.
Almost instantly, though, Jacob was caught dozing on a short puck-out to Diarmuid Horan and when the Banagher man's delivery found its way to Dooley, a third Offaly goal was denied only by Martin's point-blank save. Thereafter Gareth Sinnott and Guiney (with a free) pulled Wexford back to within two points, setting up the late dramatics.
"I don't care how we won it," said Carroll after. "We said it beforehand, two points to one would have done us." And that, unequivocally, was the prevailing Offaly vibe. Aesthetics did not interest them.
"This is a serious win for Offaly and hopefully we can push on now and get used to winning," suggested Morkan.
"You could not over-state the size of that win for Offaly," said Dooley. "The last few years we've been so close, today was very important for us."
For Wexford, consolation came in a young team's defiance from what had looked pretty hopeless circumstance.
"I told them it would be a test of character to see what we're made of and a test of the last five months that we've put in," said Dunne. "And I got an answer. We were coming strong at the end and we've seen bits of what these boys want to do.
"It's about getting a performance in the qualifiers now. Look, Offaly were deserving winners tonight. But we're not going away."
SCORERS -- Offaly: S Dooley 1-8 (7f), J Bergin 1-1, B Carroll 0-2, B Murphy 0-1. Wexford: J Guiney 1-3f, P Morris, R Jacob 0-3 each, D Lyng 0-2 (1 s-l), G Sinnott, PJ Nolan 0-1 each.
OFFALY -- J Dempsey 8; D Franks 7, D Kenny 9, D Morkan 7; J Rigney 7, R Hanniffy 9, D Horan 7; C Mahon 7, K Brady 7; C Egan 7, B Carroll 8, B Murphy 7; C Parlon 6, J Bergin 8, S Dooley 8. Subs: S Ryan 6 for Parlon (55), C Hernon for Mahon (66), D Molloy for Murphy (71).
WEXFORD -- E Martin 8; M O'Hanlon 7, K Rossiter 7, W Devereux 5; Stephen Murphy 6, C Kenny 7, Shaun Murphy 6; D Redmond 8, E Quigley 6; PJ Nolan 7, G Sinnott 6, D Lyng 7, P Morris 8, J Guiney 7, R Jacob 7. Subs: E Moore 7 for Devereux (h-t), D Stamp 8 for Shaun Murphy (h-t), H Kehoe 7 for Quigley (46), R Kehoe 6 for Stephen Murphy (50).
Ref -- J Sexton (Cork).