Offaly keep the faith to whip cream from Cats
OFFALY 2-16 KILKENNY 1-13 OFFALY hurling has known great times since they turned the world on its head in 1981, but all must take their place in line behind yesterday even Pat Delaney, the strapping centre half-back on that first title-winning side, was content to doff his cap.
Delaney even went further. ``Of all the All-Irelands that were ever won, going back over a hundred years, that was the best one of them all, the hardest won of the lot,'' he said, still floating somewhere up there an hour after the final whistle.
Offaly's performance was worthy of the occasion and it was entirely essential, for Kilkenny were no flunkies yesterday.
Key attackers DJ Carey and Charlie Carter found various markers in inspired form, but back the field there were some solid Kilkenny displays.
It has been a rattlesnake of a season. It twisted and turned and refused to be guided by anyone. For one extended portion, cattle-rustlers using wheelbarrows had greater hope of success than Offaly.
And ironies stacked up on the crowning day. Johnny Pilkington was asked what he thought of then manager Michael `Babs' Keating criticising the team after the Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny. Pilkington does business his own way, but he recognised the essential dishonesty in Keating's transferring of the entire blame on to his players.
He hit back spontaneously, saying that something would have to give, and if he was later to question the wisdom of his actions, he had the consolation of knowing his sentiments were shared by his colleagues.
The rift forced Keating out of the picture and Offaly's season was on the road. Yesterday Pilkington sat back in the dressingroom after playing an immense role in Offaly's victory.
``People talk about under-achievement,'' he said, ``but we have won a league title, two All-Irelands, and two club All-Irelands in eight years. That's not too bad of a record.''
Across the dressingroom, an older, broader cut of a man also accepted the congratulations. County chairman Brendan Ward had the courage and, critically, the independence to tell Keating that the party was over.
County board officials are so frequently mentioned in the pejorative that it is important to give Ward his due. Equally, aspiring or budding county chairmen should take note.
After this pair an unlikely alliance the edges get blurred. No-one has yet come forward to admit to identifying Michael Bond as the man to replace Keating.
Listen to Offaly hurling people chatting about the appointment and you know that something stirs beneath the surface like all those who were dug in in the GPO in 1916, surely dozens of people should be claiming Bond as their piece of talent-spotting by now.
But they're not, and maybe we'll never know why. What is of greater relevance is the rejuvenation of the Offaly team under Bond. It does not rival the achievements of Liam Griffin or Ger Loughnane in the 1990s, but, given the depths to which Offaly were sinking, Bond can hold his head high in any company.
The news that he may not return to manage Offaly next season is just the latest curiosity to assail our senses. Brendan Ward may learn that getting Bond was the easiest part try to hold onto him now!
And, now, for some recent history. Brian Whelahan was sneezing and sniffling all day Friday and Saturday. He worked in the bar Friday night. On Sunday morning, his participation in the final was in some doubt.
He held tight, but at a price 18 minutes into the match, Brian McEvoy had him in a spin. Two points from play, plus a final pass for Andy Comerford's point, and Whelahan was chasing shadows.
``The selectors have not been afraid to make changes over the last month or so,'' said Michael Duignan afterwards. And so, Whelahan was sent to wing-forward in the hope that he might get himself into the game.
A further transfer saw him at full-forward for the second-half, and his impact on the game was to prove profound. He scored 1-6, 1-3 from play, and he exposed Pat O'Neill who had lorded his area in the first-half.
Offaly's merit as winners is not in doubt this morning. They won a marvellous match in style, and they thrilled the nation with a series of outstanding individual displays.
The Allstar selectors, threatened with extradition in 1994, can now look forward to giving Whelahan and Kevin Martin well-deserved awards this season if anything, Martin was the superior defender this year.
After taming Jamesie O'Connor last time out, Martin followed it up with another exhibition of positive man-marking (a contradiction, but not in this case). DJ Carey came into the final with a bad year behind him, and Martin never allowed him to rescue his form.
Wherever Carey went in the opening stages, Martin was there with a flick or a block; Carey did a tour of the Kilkenny forward line subsequently but with little success, and his return to try his luck again on Martin later on was an ominous sign.
``This time, we did it in style,'' said Pilkington. From once they drew level in the 47th minute, Offaly cut loose.
They outscored Kilkenny by 2-5 to 0-4 in the remaining 23 minutes. Getting even, with a Whelahan point from a free, was a watershed in the story of this game.
Offaly had been nicking at Kilkenny's heels for most of the game until then, and three times they were just a point behind.
When Whelahan pointed, following a foul on himself by O'Neill, Offaly saw the title looming in the mid-distance. Joe Erritty came thundering through on a solo-run, threw half the county of Kilkenny out of his way, and put the ball in the far corner of Joe Dermody's net.
Erritty added another point 1-13 to 1-9 and Kilkenny rallied sporadically. Martin Hanamy was booked in the 57th minute for a high tackle on goalbound PJ Delaney.
The semi-penalty was taken by Carey, with Brian Whelahan trotting back to take his place on the line. Carey went for a goal but managed only a point; Kilkenny were now rolling downhill.
Offaly were not for stopping. On 65 minutes, it stood at 1-15 to 1-13, and Offaly were coming in droves.
John Troy got a touch to a loose ball and played it away to John Ryan. He fed Erritty on his left and Birr's man-mountain was off again; he mis-hit his shot but, without batting an eyelid, he flicked it inside to Brian Whelahan and the bookies wiped the board.
Two further cameos illuminated what remained. Michael Duignan, reborn under the care of Bond, came speeding out of defence, swerving around colleagues like a slalom skier.
He pointed. After the run, he had no other option.
And as the fans ringed the pitch, and the players started to realise that Kilkenny were dead and buried, Martin produced a stupendous piece of skill on the left wing, nonchalantly playing the ball over the head of an opponent, and running around the other side to collect it.
At this stage, the forwards were out of puff and Martin settled for playing it to no-man's land. The game, too, was on its last legs and the team that time almost forgot drew a veil over a season we will never forget.
Kilkenny got their hands burned when Offaly turned up the heat. But they made a massive contribution to a memorable occasion that defied the low-key build-up.
Pat O'Neill and Canice Brennan, at the heart of the defence, repelled countless Offaly attacks in the first-half.
Offaly were seduced by the thought of picking off long-range scores against the breeze. More often than not, the result was that it dropped into the hands of either O'Neill or Brennan.
Greater subtlety would be required to get around these twin towers. Whelahan and Erritty found the way but the quality of Offaly's ball from the middle of the field and the half-back line also improved after the break.
Pilkington and Johnny Dooley both moved on a lot of ball in both halves but Philly Larkin, in particular, and Peter Barry were not without their moments in the middle of the field either.
Duignan, the immaculate Hubert Rigney and Martin put up a wall across the half-back line in the second-half, while behind them Simon Whelahan, Kevin Kinahan and Martin Hanamy chased and harried, blocked and hooked, tackled and jostled.
Kilkenny enjoyed ever-diminishing returns in the second-half. The tightness of the Offaly defence frustrated Andy Comerford, Ken O'Shea, Carey, PJ Delaney, Carter and even their most dangerous man McEvoy.
The first-half was a hurried affair. Even Carter's 12th minute goal, following some hesitation in the Offaly defence, did not settle the game down.
Further points by Comerford and McEvoy left Kilkenny 1-4 to 0-3 ahead. Offaly went into one of their phases of hurling with three quick points from Troy (free), Brian Whelahan and Troy again.
The trading continued and left Kilkenny two up at the break 1-7 to 0-8 the wides count revealed Offaly's inefficiency in the early stages. They had six wides on the board compared to Offaly's six.
Among Whelahan's many contributions was to settle the Offaly forwards. He offered a focal point to their attacks, standing out in front of O'Neill and winning valuable ball.
All leave was cancelled in the Kilkenny defence. Billy Dooley pulled out the field and Willie O'Connor, sensing Whelahan's potential, stayed close to home.
Whelahan brought out the best in his colleagues. Erritty came to life.
Paudie Mulhare, a first-half sub for Gary Hanniffy, concentrated on working up and down the left channel and broke up an amount of play.
It was an unlikely alignment, prematurely cobbled together because of Whelahan's 'flu. The wonder is that we wondered at all, the season just over should have prepared us for anything.