Longford's stunning comeback extends Offaly drought
LONgFORD0-16 OFFALY 0-13
The Leinster Championship may be in the murderous grip of all-conquering Dublin but there are smaller tales to be told and rights of tenure to be asserted.
Longford came to Tullamore to see who would have the dubious honour of facing the might of the provincial champions in two weeks.
Offaly, without a win in Leinster since 2007, were expected to reverse last year's defeat in the championship in Pearse Park but they were turned over in a remarkable comeback that will leave them with regrets for a long time.
When the teams met in the Division 4 league final last month Offaly produced a strikingly more accomplished performance, scoring four goals in a 13-point win. Their captain, Paul McConway, spoke in his victory speech of the eternal quest to bring Offaly back to the higher ground they once occupied. That is a long journey but it has grown longer after this surprise defeat.
Conor McNamee had a chance to secure a draw in injury-time but was denied by a brilliant save from Paddy Collum.
Longford began more fluently, building a three-point lead despite having to face the wind. But they hit a scoreless patch that ran for 24 minutes and in that phase Offaly, on either side of the interval, looked, as they had in the league final, the more talented team with a better finishing kick.
Having led by four at half-time they stretched their advantage with three scores that put them into a 0-12 to 0-5 lead. But Longford would not concede, and four scores in a row followed, which left only a goal in it with 15 minutes left. The small crowd of 4,959 wouldn't have a classic but they would at least have the consolation of a contest. Nearing the hour the gap closed to a single point as scores from Diarmuid Masterson and Peter Foy caused terror in the Faithful defence.
Now it became a test of Offaly's character. A pointed free by Willie Mulhall came as an enormous relief but Longford broke downfield and Ross McNerney scored to reduce it to the minimum again. Within a minute they were level, seven minutes from the end, through Colm Smyth, having clawed back a seven-point deficit. Nobody was pushing to place money on Offaly at this point. With four to go Dessie Reynolds restored a Longford lead that had vanished in the long ago of the first half.
Longford defeated Offaly in last year's championship by four points but the mood approaching this rematch had been decidedly subdued by their league final loss and the departure of key players from last year's campaign and even the recent spring. They counted eight missing from the win a year ago, including Paul Barden who retired over the winter and more recently, citing exam commitments, Sean McCormack.
McCormack was on the team that defeated Offaly in the regulation game of this year's league at Pearse Park in March and while they have much in the way of perspiration, the inspiration element has been slipping. Last night's team included five players making their first Leinster Championship starts, a indication of the rate of upheaval. The old mysteries of the championship though are a wonder; every county enters with hope and Longford, for all their troubles, won promotion a short time ago; they are not a side grappling with a crisis of form.
Longford, playing into the wind, began the match better, defending in numbers and moving the ball smartly up the field, quick on their feet and showing good control in the windy conditions. By the time Niall McNamee finally got Offaly off the mark in the 13th minute with a sweetly struck shot off his right, Longford had put three scores on the board. They benefitted from almost comically bad Offaly tackling at times, demonstrated most memorably by a witless challenge by Daithi Brady on Shane Doyle that gifted Longford a penalty on the stroke of half time.
By then Offaly had steadied themselves and taken charge, leading 0-9 to 0-5, a lead they managed to preserve to the interval after Michael Quinn's penalty effort, poorly struck on what looked like a patch of poor ground, was saved by Alan Mulhall. But with a strong wind to face they could not say they were out of sight.
Brian Kavanagh's free after 23 minutes had Longford leading 0-5 to 0-2 but a minute later the game began to shift and the final ten minutes had Longford on the back foot. A huge wind-assisted free from over 60m by Johnny Moloney was the first of seven Offaly scores in an eight-minute spell.
Offaly lost midfielder Niall Smith to a black card but Longford felt the increased pressure translate into a succession of yellow cards that decorated their entire half forward line. Willie Mulhall kicked three frees and there were sweet scores from Nigel Dunne and McNamee although they never threatened to score a goal.
Last year's win was Longford's first over Offaly in the championship since 1965. Now they have two in as many years while Offaly's wait for a Leinster Championship win, last achieved in 2007, goes on.
Scorers - Longford: B Kavanagh 0-5 (0-3 f); M McKeon 0-2 (0-1 f), C Smyth 0-2, R McNerney 0-2 (0-1 f), D Reynolds 0-2, R McEntire, D Masterson, P Foy 0-1. Offaly: W Mulhall 0-4 (0-4 f), N Dunne 0-3, N McNamee 0-2, B Allen 0-2 (0-1 f), J Moloney (f), J O'Connor 0-1.
Longford: P Collum; D Brady, B O'Farrell, C Farrelly; Colm Smyth, B Gilleran, D Masterson; K Diffley, M Quinn; R McEntire, F McGee, S Doyle; B McKeon, B Kavanagh, F McGee, R Connor. Subs: D Reynolds for McGee (33); R McNerney for Doyle (half-time); P Foy for Connor (54); L Connerton for McKeon (60).
Offaly: A Mulhall; B Darby, P McConway, D Brady; N Darby, J Moloney, J O'Connor; G Guilfoyle, N Smith; E Carroll, N McNamee, A Sullivan; B Allen, N Dunne, W Mulhall. Subs: C McNamee for Smith (19, black card); J Ledwith for McConway (54); P Cunningham for Allen (58); C Donnie for Carroll (68); N Bracken for Dunne (68).
Referee: P O'Sullivan (Kerry).
Sunday Indo Sport