Offaly relegated to third tier with sobering loss to Kerry
Kerry 1-18 Offaly 1-16
It was a day many feared would come, but when it did, few Offaly people could comprehend their spectacular fall from grace, with relegation to hurling's third tier confirmed yesterday.
Twenty-one years after lifting the last of their four All-Ireland SHC titles, the Faithful departed for the Christy Ring Cup, having come up short against a Shane Conway-inspired Kerry.
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Such a result would have been scarcely believable during the heady days of the 1980s and '90s, when two Liam MacCarthy Cup successes were secured in both decades.
Their remarkable tailspin has been documented extensively in recent years, with three relegations in the past 12 months, between league and championship, sounding the death knell for hurling in the county.
Bouncing back from the Ring Cup next year is no formality, given the apathy which has set in, and with key marksmen Joe Bergin and Shane Dooley edging ever closer to retirement, darker days may be ahead.
Offaly legend Joachim Kelly replaced Kevin Martin - sacked after defeats to Laois and Westmeath - in the Faithful hot seat, but the expected 'bounce' of a new face at the helm didn't materialise and things, perhaps, got worse.
Morale within the county was at an all-time low in the hours before throw-in, with rumours of unrest in the camp. Bergin, meanwhile, one of Offaly's finest players for more than a decade, was sensationally dropped. Few could rationalise how a fully-fit Bergin was left out. He was introduced after 24 minutes - for one of the biggest games in the county's hurling history.
Their cause wasn't helped in any way by the seventh-minute sending off of Peter Geraghty at a time when they led 0-4 to 0-0, as they played over an hour with 14 men against a sharp Kingdom side.
Dooley's missed penalty in the 12th minute was one of the game's defining moments as John B O'Halloran got down smartly to save and set about a change in fortunes.
Conway was unerring from placed balls, finishing with 0-11 from frees, but it was his exquisite pass to Pádraig Boyle to set up an injury-time goal which gave them a 1-7 to 0-6 lead at the break.
Their clever use of the ball, and utilisation of the extra man, stifled Offaly and despite Dooley's 39th-minute goal, the Kingdom wouldn't relinquish their lead as they outclassed their rivals.
Kerry boss Fintan O'Connor, who managed Offaly side St Rynagh's to the 2016 Offaly SHC final, was relieved to retain their place on the outskirts of hurling's top table as he heads into his fourth year in charge next term.
"It means an awful lot. It would have been a huge setback for the group and for everything that they stand for. If you get relegated, you're a failure, that's the way it's looked at. This gives us a chance to get better next year," O'Connor said.
"It means an awful lot to us because I can turn around to them in the winter and say 'we have to get better at this, we have to get better at that' and I don't know if I could have been looking them in the eye saying that next year if we were in Christy Ring.
"While there's huge satisfaction with being in the competition next year, there's no satisfaction in seeing the disappointment and misery in the Offaly lads. They gave everything they had with 14 men."
Scorers - Kerry: S Conway 0-11 (11f), P Boyle 1-1, J Conway, C Harty 0-2 each, J Goulding, P Kelly 0-1 each. Offaly: S Dooley 1-6 (0-6f), S Cleary 0-4, E Cahill 0-2 (2f), J Gorman, J Bergin, K Connolly, C Kiely 0-1 each.
Kerry: JB O'Halloran; J O'Connor, B Murphy, S Weir; D Goggin, M Boyle, D Collins; J Buckley, T O'Connor; M O'Leary, S Conway, P Kelly; P Boyle, J Conway, J Goulding. Subs: C Harty for D Goggin (h-t), M Slattery for Goulding (72).
Offaly: E Cahill; N Houlihan, B Conneely, M Egan; D Egan, C Kiely, E Parlon; S Kinsella, C Gath; S Cleary, D Gath, P Geraghty; K Connolly, O Kelly, S Dooley. Subs: J Bergin for D Gath (24), D Nally for C Gath (h-t), J Gorman for Kinsella (48), S Dolan for Connolly (57).
Referee: C Lyons (Cork).
Sunday Indo Sport