Offaly confound critics to force Rebel collapse
OFFALY0-19 CORK0-15 HOW did we ever doubt them? History kept reminding us that Offaly hurlers are different, that they don't read from ordinary scripts and - most of all - that they regard adversity as a stranger waiting to become a friend.
Yet for all the advance warnings, the hurling world regarded Offaly with a sense of gentle pity as they prepared for a brutal execution by the heaviest guns in the business in yesterday's Guinness All-Ireland semi-final.
Offaly's pride would be splattered all over the Croke Park grass by the time Cork, the 3/10 favourites, were finished with them.
So much for theory - now to reality. Offaly sidestepped the surge of pessimism which even their supporters felt and ran wild and free, swishing Cork's ambitions aside with an almost casual disdain.
In the end they had four points to spare but were riding on such a high tide of vigour and confidence that their lead would probably have increased considerably if the game went on for ten minutes more.
Cork were a beaten docket, shuffling aimlessly amid Offaly's focused forces who seemed to know exactly that they were doing.
Their grip had tightened to such a degree that for the final seven minutes Cork were reduced to trying to manufacture a goal, which was always an unlikely escape route, given their poor goal rate over recent seasons.
Cork's point-taking took them to extraordinary heights over the past 15 months but yesterday they were seriously betrayed by their shooting. They shot 16 wides - ten in the first half - compared to Offaly's five.
Those statistics are hugely revealing, telling a tale of wasteful champions handing the initiative to a side for whom economy has always been a trademark virtue.
Indeed, when Cork emerge from a state of mourning to clinically analyse their defeat, the main focus of attention will be their inability to avail of a higher proportion of their chances.
Pat Ryan and Seanie McGrath both shot three wides, Derek Barrett, Alan Browne and Joe Deane shot two each on a day when the Cork fans in the 34,655 crowd must have thought that the posts were literally moving.
Cork's squandermania had a double impact. It planted the seeds of doubt in their minds while it encouraged Offaly to battle on, even when they were being out-played. That was crucially important from an early stage. Cork galloped into a three-point lead after three minutes and, frankly, you feared for Offaly.
Their full-back line was being pulled apart by Cork's lively attackers and as Joe Deane and Seanie McGrath danced and weaved into big gaps, Offaly looked to be in line for a Leinster final-like drubbing. It needed an urgent response and, this time, Offaly had the men for the big occasion.
They were level by 24th minute and actually pulled ahead in the 30th minute. Was this for real? Did the 3/1 outsiders not know their place? Obviously not and as they settled into a comfortable routine one could sense their levels of resolve rising as half-time approached.
Cork led by 0-12 to 0-10 at the interval and extended their lead to three points in 41st minute. Amazingly, they didn't score for another 18 minutes and added just one more point late on in a quite amazing second half collapse. Meanwhile, Offaly grew with the occasion, scoring some wonderful points as they returned to the peaks which brought them All-Ireland glory two years ago.
Their dominance grew all over the pitch and even when Cork sent on three subs in an effort to regain the high ground, Offaly continued motoring at a pace which few would have thought possible after the Leinster final.
Nobody epitomises the story of Offaly's incredible day more than full-back, Kevin Kinahan. He was teased and tortured by Joe Deane in the first-half as the Killeagh wizard drew him left and right, before whipping over some great points.
Deane finished the first half on eight points - four from play - and was heading on what looked an unstoppable march towards the man-of-the-match award.
It was all so very different in the second half. Kinahan re-asserted himself in front of goal and put in a majestic effort which was central to Offaly's revival. He was helped - it must be said - by Cork's tendency to drop high balls into the Offaly square. Kinahan was always going to win that particular battle with Deane.
If Kinahan had an outstanding second half, Simon Whelahan was super all through. He lit an early torch and ensured that it blazed for the full 70 minutes in a stunning performance which made him man-of-the-match. Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Johnny Pilkington, Michael Duignan and Joe Dooley were also back to 1998 levels.
And what of centre-forward, Gary Hanniffy? Handed one of the toughest assignments in hurling against Brian Corcoran, he gave a memorable exhibition.
Rarely has Corcoran been troubled so consistently. Hanniffy showed no respect for Corcoran's reputation and as well as fetching and passing well, he scored three priceless points.
It was that type of day for Offaly. Their willingness to take responsibility was in marked contrast to the Leinster final where the workload was pushed from one to the other, without anybody ever really taking charge. They had leaders all over he field yesterday whereas several of Cork's star names were subdued.
Corcoran, Sean Óg Ó hAilpín, Timmy McCarthy and Fergal McCormack were all hugely influential in their rise to the summit last year but it didn't happen for them this time. The midfield pairing of Pat Ryan and Derek Barrett didn't work as well as expected either.
It's possible, of course, that Cork were trapped in psychological bubble where over-confidence was the dominant currency.
Manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy repeatedly warned them of the dangers but, deep down, they reckoned that Offaly couldn't possibly make up so much ground after two poor showings, followed by the controversial departure of John Troy from the panel.
It wasn't exactly the ideal build-up but then this is Offaly. The county who singlehandedly opposed the `back door' championship system have availed of it for a second time in three years and are back in the All-Ireland final for the fourth time in seven years. Some record, some squad. Some story.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Simon Whelahan (Offaly)
SCORERS - Offaly: Johnny Dooley 0-7 (5f), J Pilkington 0-4, G Hanniffy 0-3, Joe Dooley 0-2, G Oakley, J Ryan, M Murphy 0-1 each. Cork: J Deane 0-10 (6f), B O'Connor, P Ryan, D Barrett, A Browne, S McGrath 0-1 each.
OFFALY - S Byrne; S Whelahan, K Kinahan, N Claffey; B Whelahan, J Errity, K Martin; Johnny Dooley, Ger Oakley; J Pilkington, G Hanniffy, B Murphy; M Duignan, J Ryan, Joe Dooley. Subs: P Mulhare for Duignan (70), C Farrell for Pilkington (71).
CORK - D Óg Cusack; F Ryan, D O'Sullivan, J Browne; W Sherlock, B Corcoran, S Óg Ó hAilpín; P Ryan, D Barrett; T McCarthy, F McCormack, A Browne; S McGrath, J Deane, B O'Connor. Subs: K Murray for McCarthy (49), M O'Connell for Ryan (55), N Ronan for McCormack (57).
REF - W Barrett (Tipperary).
WIDES - Offaly - First half: 2; Second half: 3. Total - 5
Cork - First half: 10; Second half: 6. Total - 16
FREES - Offaly - First half: 6; Second half: 4. Total - 10
Cork - First half: 6; Second half: 4. Total - 10
ATTENDANCE - 34,655.