Cunningham's 'shadow-boxers' catch Faithful with late punch
Galway 1-14 Offaly 1-13
POOR finishes and fade-outs became something of a bugbear for Galway's hurlers last season but they reversed that trend with an impressive comeback on their first outing of the new year.
The emo kids of the inter-county game, who suffered some alarming swings of form and confidence in 2013, looked a beaten docket when their experimental line-up trailed by seven points in the third quarter of this quarter-final in Tullamore.
But some astute substitutions and some impressive leadership by Niall Healy, Jonathan Glynn and newcomers Padraig Landers and Cathal Mannion saw them battle back to pip Offaly at the death and also earned a useful early-season crack at the Cats.
"Ah Kilkenny will be a bit like ourselves at this stage of the season: shadow-boxing!" manager Anthony Cunningham demurred afterwards but he couldn't hide his delight at the way his side rallied in the final quarter.
Their fightback included a penalty earned by Glynn in the 46th minute and expertly tucked away by Healy.
That barnstorming duo were vital to Galway finally prising open a previously watertight Offaly defence, and the introduction of bustling Niall Burke and Landers (U-21 last year) also proved vital.
Galway opened with just five of last year's championship starters and looked decidedly rusty, failing to score until the 16th minute. Offaly, who shot six wides by half-time and were equally experimental, should have had a much bigger interval lead than 0-7 to 0-5.
Offaly's new manager Brian Whelahan was one of hurling's greatest ever wing-backs and their defence, led brilliantly by James Rigney, initially looked to have taken serious inspiration from him, constantly winning their personal duels, laying off neat passes and using the low ball forward particularly well.
When Coolderry's Kevin Connolly bagged 1-1 within two minutes of the re-start, all the home side had to do was close the game out, so questions will be asked about why they didn't after leading by 1-11 to 0-7 on 48 minutes.
Whelahan admitted some personal culpability in waiting so long to make his changes after Healy and Glynn started to get a run on them.
"We were seven points up and going well but we ran out of a bit of legs, got a big raggedy, and maybe bringing three on together so quickly wasn't great," he admitted, explaining that he felt some of his subs needed more training before their introduction.
But his hand was forced when Rigney was forced off with a worrying-looking knee injury and the loss of the Kinnitty man certainly left some holes which Galway quickly exploited.
Like their opponents, Offaly still have a lot of regulars to return. Their attack featured only two regulars (Joe Bergin and Sean Cleary), they had new men at full-back, centre-back and full-forward and the Geraghty twins are both still U-21 this year.
Some of their newcomers were also being played out of position but Whelahan was happy with their endeavour and his only quibble was that their defence stopped giving direct ball into their forwards who, apart from Bergin, were already struggling to win primary possession against the likes of Johnny Coen and Fergal Moore.
Bergin forced a great save from Colm Callanan after 16 minutes, but Offaly 'keeper James Dempsey did even better. He made three good saves, including one instinctive stop off a Conor Cooney snapshot in the 27th minute and a brilliant one with his foot to foil Healy in the late stages.
The Craughwell flier still managed to haul his side back into it and, with two minutes of proper time left, Jason Flynn got the equaliser and Galway then got a contentious free-in after Glynn made a spectacular catch of the puck-out.
Many thought the big Ardrahan man had subsequently charged but referee Patrick Murphy not only gave Galway the marginal call but brought it forward 13 metres for dissent. Healy popped it over for their first lead of the day and within minutes Burke had grabbed the insurance point.
"It didn't look too good for us with 20 minutes to go but we were in hard luck for a couple of goals and we can't complain about the spirit they showed," Cunningham said.
Scorers -- Galway: N Healy 1-3 (1-0 pen, 0-1f), J Glynn 0-4 (3fs), D Glennon 0-2, C Mannion, P Landers, J Flynn, K Hynes, N Burke 0-1 each. Offaly: J Bergin 0-7 (6fs), K Connolly 1-1, S Cleary 0-3, K Brady, B Carroll 0-1 each.
Galway -- C Callanan; F Moore, R Burke, J Coen; K Hynes, D Burke, S Og Linnane; P Brehony, A Harte; C Cooney, J Glynn, C Mannion; R Cummins, N Healy, D Glennon. Subs: K Hynes for Brehony (inj, 12), N Burke for Hynes (41), P Landers for Cummins (43), J Flynn for Cooney (58).
Offaly -- J Dempsey; N Wynne, D Kelleher, J Rigney; D Morkan, B Watkins, D Mooney; G Conneely, K Brady; S Cleary, J Bergin, P Geraghty; K Connolly, S Gardner, T Geraghty. Subs: D Kilmartin for Conneely (60), M Cleary for Rigney (inj,60), B Harding for Cleary (62), B Carroll for Brady (61), D Dolan for Geraghty (72).
Ref -- P Murphy (Carlow)