Connolly on fire as 13-man Coolderry ease through
Coolderry (Offaly) 1-22 Mt Leinster (Carlow) 1-16
They were supposed to have retired to the reading room by now, Coolderry, this ageing team that most of Offaly imagined last spring would be relegation material.
Instead, they're high-kicking towards a Leinster semi-final, all that early season gloom packed tight in their memories like gunpowder. Even reduced eventually to thirteen men in Tullamore yesterday, they still had too much craft and savvy for the salty challenge of Mount Leinster Rangers.
The game was tough, sometimes, mean-spirited, yet Coolderry met it on their own implacable terms.
And, leaning back on a wall in the dressing-room tunnel afterwards, manager Joachim Kelly took us to the epicentre of their psyche. "We knew they were coming up all guns blazing" he said of the Carlow champions. "Some fella from the Carlow team said they were ten points a better team than Offaly, so that was a motivating factor. We weren't going to allow that.
"I love a challenge. The reason I came in this year was that everyone was writing Coolderry off, people saying they were going to be fighting relegation in the Offaly championship."
Instead, they won that championship, going unbeaten for nine games. To do so, they had to drill deep into reserves of character that were, again, explored to their full depth yesterday. In fact, Mount Leinster Rangers had accumulated three bookings inside the opening 15 minutes, their intent clearly to rattle a few local cages.
Given Coolderry would, in time, lose centre-back, Kevin Brady, to two yellows and midfielder Mark Bergin to a straight red, maybe that strategy was deemed to have worked up to a point.
But the Carlow champions were undone by the scoring power of three Offaly men in particular, goalkeeper Stephen Corcoran, and corner-forwards Brian Carroll and Kevin Connolly. Between them, these three contributed 1-17 of Coolderry's winning score, Corcoran nailing five monster frees from inside his own half, team-captain Connolly delivering a remarkable 0-7 from play and the evergreen Brian Carroll chipping in with a personal tally of 1-5.
Mount Leinster made the brighter start and it took Coolderry until the 18th minute to edge in front for the first time through a Connolly point (0-6 to 0-5) only for the Carlow men to respond immediately with a brilliantly worked goal, Jack Murphy and Michael Malone setting up Chris Nolan for a decisive finish.
But just 60 seconds later, 35-year-old Carroll responded in kind for the Offaly men, firing home brilliantly off his left side after good build-up play between Martin Corcoran and Conor Molloy. Coolderry never trailed thereafter and, with Connolly tormenting a succession of markers, they got to the midpoint leading 1-13 to 1-9.
Just six minutes after the resumption, Brady got his marching orders after an incident in which Rangers' Malone also received a booking and, with Richard Coady now operating as their extra man, the Carlow side had momentum.
But they spurned a vital 42nd minute goal-scoring opportunity when midfielder Gary Lawlor fumbled the sliotar when looking clean through from Edward Byrne's kicked pass.
A goal then, would have reduced the margin to a single point, but Coolderry got the next two scores to go six clear and you couldn't escape the sense that Brian Kelly's brilliant 53rd-minute goal-line clearance effectively killed off any chance of a Rangers' victory.
Not even Bergin's 60th minute dismissal, for what looked like a retaliatory strike on Richard Coady under the stand, or the awarding of a penalty to the Carlow champions two minutes into added time (Corcoran brilliantly saving Kevin McDonald's effort) could re-ignite the Mount Leinster challenge.
Essentially Coolderry's sharper, smarter hurling got them over the line, no-one catching the eye more than captain Connolly.
The 27-year-old hasn't played for Offaly in two years due to work commitments, but admits he might "give it a rattle" again this year, good news, surely, for Kevin Martin. In the meantime, he believes Coolderry can be anything they choose to be.
Yesterday was, he declared, the most physical game they'd faced this year. "They were hitting hard from the first ball" he said of the Carlow champions. "But we knew they were going to do that. We were expecting it."
And all that relegation talk about Coolderry in spring?
"It didn't come from within our camp, I can tell you that for certain" he said emphatically. "We know what we have in our camp and we believe in each other. But yeah it was black and white that we were favourites to be relegated in the Offaly championship this year and we didn't lose a game in nine."
Yesterday brings that tally to ten, Coolderry now travelling away to the winners of tomorrow's quarter-final between Ballyboden St Endas and Clonkill. Bergin, who had an outstanding hour yesterday, will miss that game through suspension. If these Offaly men fail, it won't be through a deficit of heart.
SCORERS - Coolderry: B Carroll 1-5 (0-3 fs), K Connolly 0-7, S Corcoran 0-5 (5 fs), M Bergin 0-3, C Molloy 0-2. Mount Leinster Rangers: C Nolan 1-3, D Byrne and D Murphy (2 fs) 0-3 each, J Murphy and E Byrne 0-2 each, M Malone, T Joyce and J Nolan 0-1 each.
COOLDERRy - S Corcoran, S Connolly, T Corcoran, S Burke, B Teehan, K Brady, B Kelly, M Bergin, D King, E Parlon, C Molloy, M Corcoran, B Carroll, J Brady, K Connolly. Subs: C Parlon for Brady (half-time), W Malone for M Corcoran (45 mins), D Parlon for E Parlon (47 mins), D Miller for Carroll (64 mins).
MOUNT LEINSTER RANGERS - D Grennan, G Kelly, R Kelly, M Doyle, K McDonald, R Coady, G Lawlor, D Phelan, D Byrne, J Murphy, M Malone, E Byrne, D Murphy, C Nolan, J Nolan. Subs: P Coady for Murphy (38 mins), T Joyce for Phelan (43 mins), W Hickey for Lawlor (52 mins), J Kelly for Nolan (62 mins).
Ref - J Keenan (Wicklow).