Saturday 24 February 2018

Baker gambles with reshuffle to stifle Rebels

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

IT MAY not have the fascinating 'frenemies' sub-plot of tonight's other big hurling Qualifier, but there's a massive amount at stake too in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

In any other circumstance Ollie Baker would be among the crowd in Ennis, intrigued to see how his two old Clare team-mates play out their big hurling duel.

But there's a little matter of Offaly's reputation to be sorted out elsewhere in their own visit to hurling's last-gasp saloon.

In his first summer in charge, Baker has had to pick his team up by their bootlaces after that horrific five-goal Leinster semi-final mauling by Galway and the draw, pitting them away to Cork, has done him no favours.

It is clear that Baker invoked the spirit of Ciaran Fitzgerald ahead of this battle.

Earlier this week he spoke of the fighting spirit that was once Offaly's greatest ace card.

"Anytime I played against Offaly the game would want to be over 10 or 15 minutes before you'd realise you had them bet," Baker noted.

"That never-say-die attitude and spirit, we need to get that back, that regardless of what goes wrong in a game, you have the mental attitude that you're going to come out and prevail in the end."

That's a big ask though against a Division 1 side who made the league final and threw down the gauntlet to Tipperary.

Offaly may have done well in an identical situation last year, when they forced two great saves from Donal Og Cusack and only lost by a point.

But they had a spare man for a lot of that game and now face a very different Cork side, which has been energised by new blood and new management.

Their own egos will certainly be frail after the way Galway opened up even someone as usually dependable as full-back David Kenny.

The scoreline wasn't entirely Kenny's fault; he was badly isolated and left vulnerable by Galway's ability to create space by using two men inside and constantly rotating their forwards.

But that's a tactic that hurling's upper tier, particularly Kilkenny and Tipperary, have been using for several years now and what was surprising was how Offaly didn't seem to expect or know how to react to it.

That's why it's not just the players' pride, but Baker's reputation that's on the line tonight and he has certainly applied the scalpel.

Harsh

Lusmagh's Eoin Kelly has been handed a championship debut in goals, a decision some regard as harsh because James Dempsey actually made two great saves against Galway.

Conor Hernon, who has done well off the bench recently, and former county footballer Sean Ryan, are both given starts ahead of David Franks and Cathal Parlon.

The defensive reshuffle allows Derek Morkan resume his best position at wing-back while, up front, the switches have put Joe Bergin back at full-forward, which some regard as his best spot.

The one positive Offaly took out of their last outing was their scoring rate (3-15) which, at least, fixed the wild shooting that was evident in their opening round victory over Wexford.

Defence will undoubtedly be the priority tonight.

Stopping Cork scoring goals, as Tipperary did, is absolutely crucial, but, up front, someone must now help Shane Dooley with the scoring load if Offaly's season is to continue.

Irish Independent

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