Vincent Hogan: Dooley left to ponder future after Cork cling on
Cork 2-17 Offaly 2-16
Like pilot fish drawn to the swell of a hurrying vessel, a clutch of media followed Joe Dooley upstairs into the musty committee room of Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
All around, Cork GAA's living and dead stared out at him from framed pictures. If this was to be Joe's last formal assignment as Offaly hurling manager, he would -- at least -- fulfil it in magisterial company.
Joe smiled. He understands the lust for requiem in this business and, after four years of trying to reignite Offaly as a force, he knew there was space held on a lot of back pages now for the last act of his story.
Space, you could say, for a death-notice. But the newspapers needed a body.
"It's not for this evening lads," sighed Joe. "To be honest with you, I didn't even think about it coming down here today because, if I did, I personally wouldn't be in the right frame of mind. We'll think about that tomorrow."
Offaly came up short on Saturday in Cork and, if Dooley had travelled south nursing a mild persecution complex, he returned home with little reason to decommission it.
A last-minute '65' from his son, Shane, had flown all the way to Donal Og Cusack's net, leaving Offaly just a point adrift and, suddenly, full of dander.
Yet, Johnny Ryan's whistle cut short their hope of redemption and Dooley and his selector Brendan Kelly were instantly drawn towards the Tipperary referee in pursuit of a doomed argument.
"How he added only one minute is beyond me," said Joe later. "Sure you get a minute for picking your nose these days. Another 20 seconds and we'd probably have got the draw."
It would have been a curious mugging had they succeeded. For Cork's hurling was generally the quicker and the crisper, their movement barely interrupted by Pa Cronin's 21st-minute sending-off for an intemperate swing of the hurley on Conor Mahon.
And yet, oddly, Offaly could and probably should have won this game. Their accumulation of 16 wides spoke of a carelessness in shooting that couldn't reasonably be sustained and they spurned more goal opportunities than any team has a right to expect against Cork.
Colin Egan did find the net in the ninth minute after a clever run by Dooley, but that effort was sandwiched between a brace of green flags at the other end, Cork seemingly intent on picking up where they'd left off in that heavy shelling of Laois.
Remarkably, their first two scores on Saturday were goals.
First, Cian McCarthy pulled first time after a third-minute John Gardiner delivery spilled from a defender's hand and, seven minutes later, Luke O'Farrell goaled at the conclusion of a smart movement initiated by Cusack's short puck-out to Shane O'Neill. It was the second time in quick succession that Cork's net-minder located O'Neill in isolation and Offaly were looking a little slow in calibrating their minds to the pace of the game.
That said, the sides were level in the 19th minute when O'Neill brilliantly parried a Dooley 20-metre free to safety and, with Offaly having already amassed six wides, Cork weren't exactly easing through the low gears.
Then Cronin got the line and, suddenly, the day lost its balance. "I heard the clatter, though I didn't see it," said Denis Walsh later, admitting that no one in the Cork camp was inclined to question the decision.
"Maybe it suited us because there was probably more space once we kept it away from the spare man."
To begin with, that man was Offaly's full-back David Kenny.
But Cork's tactic of playing the flanks rather than driving high ball down their opponents' throat enabled them win the remainder of the half 0-5 to 0-2, albeit a mite fortuitously.
On the stroke of half-time, Egan blazed a shot off the Cork crossbar after Brian Carroll's handpass opened the defence like a split peach and, seconds later, Dooley had a seemingly goal-bound shot deflected out for a '65' (which he missed).
Pat Horgan scored a point within 24 seconds of the resumption and, thereafter, all but slipped on a smoking jacket and slippers.
The Glen man looked imperious, moving from flank to flank without apparent exertion. Of Cork's six points between the 35th and 50th minutes, he scored five.
With Niall McCarthy now operating at midfield and Paudie O'Sullivan out to the wing, Horgan seemed to thrive on the extra space inside.
Still, Offaly had a rifleman of their own in Daniel Currams. Having scored a brace in the first half, he added three more from centre-forward in a remarkable burst between the 51st and 53rd minutes and might well have added a 60th-minute goal but for Cusack's wonderful reflex save after excellent work by substitute Cathal Parlon.
Thereafter, it looked as if Cork were seeing out time.
"Well, we were four points up in injury-time," said Walsh later, supporting that thesis. "I thought we played some great hurling. For long periods, we looked like the team with the extra man."
The game was slipping into added time when Cusack easily batted away a Mahon shot at the expense of that late '65'. Dooley's effort dipped wickedly over the head of a clearly startled Cusack and a game that had been petering out like a bonfire in heavy rain, suddenly erupted in flames.
That said, Ben O'Connor pulled another in a long succession of Cork wides at the Blackrock end before Ryan spread his arms, so it wasn't as if the momentum was exclusively Offaly's.
Still, defeat pulled a curtain on their season and, for Joe, quite possibly a managerial career.
If he was a poker player, he'd been forced to play with a deck bereft of royals. The recent farce of his team being prevented from training in Tullamore offered just a glimpse of the odds stacked against Dooley and his team.
They were down "eight or 10" first-choice players on Saturday and lost Stephen Egan to injury after 14 minutes.
"All these things add up at the end of the day," sighed Joe.
His future still the evening's best kept secret.
SCORERS: Cork -- P Horgan 0-10 (5f), C McCarthy, L O'Farrell 1-0 each, J O'Connor, B O'Connor 0-2 each, S O'Neill, T Kenny, P O'Sullivan 0-1 each. Offaly: S Dooley 1-9 (0-7f, 1-0 '65'), D Currams 0-5, C Egan 1-0, J Bergin, C Mahon 0-1 each.
CORK -- D Og Cusack 7; S McDonnell 6, E Cadogan 7, B Murphy 6; J Gardiner 7, W Egan 6, S O'Neill 8; J O'Connor 6, P Cronin 4; B O'Connor 7, C McCarthy 6, N McCarthy 6; L O'Farrell 6, P O'Sullivan 6, P Horgan 9. Subs: R Curran 7 for Egan (54), T Kenny 7 for N McCarthy (57), C Naughton 6 for O'Farrell (57), B Cooper (not on long enough) for C McCarthy (62).
OFFALY -- J Dempsey 7; S Egan (not on long enough), D Kenny 7, C McDonald 6; D Hayden 8, R Hanniffy 8, D Morkan 7; D Currams 9, C Mahon 6; J Mulrooney 5, J Bergin 6, C Egan 6; B Carroll 5, G Healion 6, S Dooley 7. Subs: B Mulrooney 6 for Egan (14), B Murphy 5 for Carroll (h-t), C Parlon 6 for J Mulrooney (47), J Brady (not on long enough) for Murphy (62), T Carroll for Healion (67).
Ref -- J Ryan (Tipperary).