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Clare live to tell tale of Offaly backlash

CLARE 1-12 OFFALY 1-11 All-Ireland SHC Qualifier ANTHONY DALY could hear the storm brew long before he slipped into the eye of it. The first spits came in voices from an adjoining field.

"We went out to the back field for a few pucks beforehand to warm-up," explained the Clare manager. "And they (Offaly) were above in the other field. Jesus, you could hear them. I'd say they were ferociously fired up."

At last then, a hurling Qualifier with real heat in the grain. Offaly's quest for a sliver of self-respect caught surprising tenor in Portlaoise on Saturday evening and Clare had to chase them to the wire before securing a coveted place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

It wasn't wristy of elegant but, with rain and wind assailing O'Moore Park and both sides propelled by desperate energies, it never could be.

Colin Lynch and Michael Cordial both had their names in Ger Harrington's book for some introductory skelping before the sliotar had even been thrown in and, in a sense, that set the saucy rhythm.

The midlanders, so humiliated by Kilkenny a few weeks back, were hell-bent on redemption here. Ten minutes in, they led 0-4 to 0-1, the Offaly supporters in an attendance of roughly 3,500 bellowing their approval.

As Daly read it: "They may not be the greatest team that ever played, but their pride was at stake. You could see that. And this was always going to go down as two teams trying to dog out that last quarter-final place.

"Without taking away from Laois, Dublin or Antrim, you could say there's nine recognised hurling counties. And ourselves and Offaly, I suppose, are vying for number eight at the moment. That was the battle out there tonight."

And battle it was. With the wind at their backs, Offaly hurled smartly to build that early lead but, 23 minutes in, Niall Gilligan had hauled them back to parity, scoring all of Clare's 0-5. It was at this point that the dam seemed to break in Offaly's favour.

They scored 1-2 in a four-minute shell-burst, the goal coming from Dylan Hayden after Brendan Murphy had out-foxed Brian Lohan near the end-line and Brian Carroll's high delivery was allowed bounce.

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Throughout the field now, Offaly were winning key battles. Rory Hanniffy was a dominant force at centre-back and, Gilligan apart, the Clare attack was looking increasingly toothless.

On the edge of half-time, Offaly added three more points in two minutes, including a miraculous free from his own '45' by 'keeper, Brian Mullins. That left them 1-10 to 0-7 clear at the mid-point and, seemingly, well set for an upset.

Referee, Harrington, had to dispatch a number of emissaries to prise them from their dressing-room for the resumption and, eventually, they came bounding out over the advertising hoardings like loose horses having fun at Aintree.

Within 15 seconds of the restart, Aidan Hanrahan almost closed the door on Clare, his effort at a point dipping venomously over Davy Fitzgerald to rebound off the angle of post and upright.

our minutes in, Tony Griffin kicked to net after slipping behind Kevin Brady onto a clever Colin Lynch delivery. Now, with the gale at their shoulders, Clare were just a goal adrift. John McIntyre drew Brendan Murphy out to aid Offaly's midfield, Frank Lohan following. Containment had become the challenge.

Carroll lobbed a 44th minute free to keep them three points in the ascendancy but, critically, that would be Offaly's only score of the second period.

The younger Lohan now began to harvest a wealth of loose ball, Seanie MacMahon grew dominant in the centre and Lynch, typically, kept feeding the midfield furnace. But Clare were edgy and panicked, spilled careless wides, snatching at things like fishermen spooked by the weight on the line.

In the 47th minute, Mullins made a miraculous, point-blank save from Griffin and, moments later at the far end, Murphy was penalised for over-carrying when it looked as though he had been fouled by two Clare defenders. The next two scores were Clare's though, points from David Hoey and Gilligan (free), to draw them level with six minutes remaining.

Carroll had a quick opportunity to respond, but his effort drifted wide, leaving a distraught McIntyre holding his head in his hands. Moments later, Hanrahan was adjudged to have picked off the ground and Seanie MacMahon struck home a glorious winner.

It left Clare in the quarter-finals and facing a shoot-out against Waterford to ordain who tops the group and, thus, avoids the Munster and Leinster champions. But, as Daly read it "We've no hope against Waterford unless we up it at least 60 per cent."

For Offaly, there's what looks a token battle with Dublin to be played and then the rather convoluted process of hurling on to avoid relegation. Of more interest to McIntyre however was the efficacy of a proud fight.

"Our lads were heroic," he said. "We've been to hell and back over the past six weeks. We're all amateurs to a degree. But the flak that we've taken, the snide comments, the patronising, the pious platitudes, okay there was genuine pity and sorrow as well, but we don't want that. We're here to win. We're all hurling men, doing our best. But the only breaks we've got this year are bad ones.

"I must have driven over ten black cats."

SCORERS - Clare: N Gilligan 0-7 (5f), T Griffin 1-0, S MacMahon 0-2 (2f), C Lynch, A Markham and D Hoey 0-1 each. Offaly: B Carroll 0-5 (4f), D Hayden 1-0, A Hanrahan 0-2, B Mullins, G Hanniffy, B Murphy and S Brown 0-1 each.

CLARE - D Fitzgerald 7; F Lohan 8, B Lohan 7, G O'Grady 7; C Forde 6, S MacMahon 8, G Quinn 6; B O'Connell 6, C Lynch 7; D MacMahon 5, B Nugent 5, A Markham 6; T Carmody 5, N Gilligan 8, T Griffin 6. Subs: D Forde 5 for Nugent (24 mins), D Hoey 7 for Quinn (56 mins), A Quinn 5 for D MacMahon (61 mins), D O'Connell (not on long enough) for Forde (65 mins), D O'Rourke (not on long enough) for Griffin (71 mins).

OFFALY - B Mullins 8; K Brady 6, G Oakley 7, P Cleary 6; B Whelahan 7, R Hanniffy 8, B Teehan 8; M Cordial 5, G Hanniffy 6; B Murphy 6, M O'Hara 5, S Brown 6; B Carroll 7, A Hanrahan 7, D Hayden 5. Subs: D Murray 6 for Hayden (58 mins), J Brady 6 for O'Hara (60 mins).

REF - G Harrington (Cork).

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