Hanniffy inspired for Birr in tense decider
Birr 1-15 Kinnitty 0-15
THEY may have won a phenomenal ninth title in 10 years with this fourth in- a-row, but Offaly hurling kingpins Birr were made to fight until their fingernails virtually bled in Tullamore yesterday.
This was as tight and tense a tussle as befits any county final and Kinnitty -- back in their first final in 23 years -- gave the reigning Leinster champions and this year's beaten All-Ireland club finalists a battle they will long remember.
"It's getting harder every year!" chuckled relieved Birr manager Pa Joe Whelahan after their 22nd title.
Their legendary off-field general spent some time in hospital this summer with heart trouble, so to have him back in full voice for their last two games proved a massive boost.
As captain Rory Hanniffy observed: "It was only when he was gone that we realised how lucky we are."
Pa Joe wasn't Birr's only worry in a hectic few months yet they all came through the big tests yesterday. His son Brian (37), who got 25 stitches in a head wound in the semi-finals, started at full-forward.
There had been doubts too about goalkeeper Brian Mullins, who picked up an eye injury some weeks back, yet his reflexes proved razor-sharp when he made a spectacular save from substitute John Clendennen half-way through the second half that ultimately proved to be a game-saver.
The sides were level at half-time (1-6 to 0-9), even though Birr got a goal clear just seven minutes after throw-in, brilliantly doubled in overhead by Bryan Lonergan after Rory Hanniffy had split the defence with a run.
But Kinnitty quickly showed the class and spirit that had kept them unbeaten all summer and proved themselves worthy challengers.
Their defence, led by James Rigney and Liam Bergin, worked tigerishly for one another throughout and, upfront, Stephen Molloy, the McRedmonds and diminutive corner-forward Colm Coughlan (a son of Ger's) never let the champions settle.
Coughlan, brilliantly accurate from long-range frees and scoring 0-7 of his whopping 0-11 by half-time, had a fantastic match.
But at half-time, Pa Joe clearly got his point across as three quick Birr scores without reply put them three points clear within five minutes, the second off a mazy run by their best forward Dylan Hayden, who scored four points from play.
Yet Kinnitty, despite losing midfielder Enda Grimes to injury, refused to buckle and three times got the deficit back to two before the final 10 minutes, including a Coughlan '65 after Mullins' brilliant save.
Birr were forced to bring Brian Whelahan out as they struggled on the '45 and at times took the wrong options. But the introduction of Paul O'Meara for Whelahan steadied them.
And when the pressure was on some key men stood tall, not least full-back Niall Claffey and wing-back Brian Watkins who was excellent throughout.
Gary Hanniffy made his imposing presence count with some key blocks and breaks in the final quarter when Simon Whelahan's phenomenal engine was still running while many around him faltered.
Two of his frees and a point from O'Meara in a quick three-minute spell pulled them five points clear with three minutes to go.
A Fergal Kealey point and a free from his own '65 by Coughlan cut the gap back to just three, but Birr's big-game experience held them strong down the stretch.
Scorers -- Birr: S Whelahan 0-5 (0-3f); B Lonergan 1-1; D Hayden 0-4; G Hanniffy 0-3; R Hanniffy and P O'Meara 0-1 each. Kinnitty: C Coughlan 0-11 (0-7fs, 0-2 '65s); M McRedmond 0-2; F Kealey and R McRedmond 0-1 each.
Birr -- B Mullins; JP O'Meara, N Claffey, M Verney; B Watkins, P Cleary, B Harding; R Hanniffy (Capt), Barry Whelahan; D Hayden, S Whelahan, G Hanniffy; S Ryan, Brian Whelahan, B Lonergan. Subs: S Browne for Harding (46), P O'Meara for Brian Whelahan (52).
Kinnitty -- J Dempsey; P O'Donnell, L Bergin (Capt), B Coughlan; L Brewer, J Rigney, C Leonard; E Grimes, M McRedmond; R McRedmond, S Molloy, M Robinson; C Coughlan, F Kealey, O Kealey. Subs: J Kinsella for Grimes (9), J Clendennen for Robinson (40), A Tooher for R McRedmond (56), E McGuinness for Kinsella (60).
Ref -- N Flynn (Offaly).