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Offaly silence the `back door' knockers

OFFALY rarely just win All-Ireland finals. Instead they steamroll their way to victory in dramatic fashion, usually with late goals.This year their hurlers did what no county has ever done before. They played eight games to win the All-Ireland championship and at the end of all that they looked the fittest, freshest and most convincing hurling team we have seen in 1998.

For that reason they have once again broken away from the shackles of GAA history and tradition. After losing two games out of the eight, Offaly had to put on a super show yesterday to silence the knockers who were saying that they should never even have been in this final.

Today the knockers are silent. Offaly pulverised a gallant Kilkenny team in the second half of this fabulous All-Ireland final and not even the most conservative of GAA traditionalists could argue with their right to be called Guinness All-Ireland champions of 1998.

Heroics and Offaly hurling and football teams seem to go hand in hand in the modern history of the GAA.

And yesterday there was no shortage of heroics from Offaly and to a lesser extent Kilkenny. One of the truest tests of a great player is his ability to recover from adversity during the course of a high-profile game such as yesterday's. Most players are not able to do that.

But we need only look at the Whelahan brothers performance in this match to see how great players can take control of their own situation, even when in serious trouble. Brian Whelahan got off to a disastrous start in the half-back line.

The reports we had heard on Saturday night that he had contracted a serious cold towards the end of the week seemed to be true as Brian was only a shadow of his former self.

Then the Offaly mentors made the first of a few brilliant moves when they switched Brian to wing half-forward and put Michael Duignan to the half-backs to mark Brian McEvoy.

SOON the big Birr man came into the game scoring a fine point and generally getting more into the action. In the second half he was moved to full-forward to confront the brilliant Pat O'Neill, who had been lord of all he surveyed from the start.

This switch was the winning of the game without a doubt. Whelahan beat O'Neill in the air, scored one goal and two points from play and two points from frees. A tally of 1-6 from Brian's efforts proved how a great player can overcome disaster and still triumph.

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His younger brother Simon also got off to a very poor start and could only watch as his man, Charlie Carter scored a great goal in the 10th minute.

But once Duignan was switched to right half-back, Whelehan gradually recovered his composure behind him and gave an exhibition of defensive play in the second half. One incident four minutes from the end when Simon literally threw himself head first between the flying hurleys of two Kilkennymen to flick the ball away was sheer brilliance.

I thought things looked good for Offaly before the start when I noticed that Michael Duignan was in an unusually animated condition. Anybody who knows the St Rynagh's player will vouch for the fact that he is usually seen but not heard. But here he was `razzing up' his teamates, shaking his fist and demanding all-out commitment. If Michael Duignan was that worked up, then surely Offaly could not lose.

And Duignan went on to play a pivotal role in this game because when he was switched back to mark the previously rampant Brian McEvoy it changed the face of the game and left Kilkenny with serious forward problems.

McEvoy had scored two points before that switch but his contribution to the remaining 50 minutes of the game amounted to just one more point and nothing at all in the second half.

Even though this was an extremely tight-marking game, it showed once again the capacity of hurling to keep 65,000 people spellbound. The number of times some of the best hurlers in the land were forced to KICK the ball away because of the incredibly tight marking and harrying of the man in possession shows just how close the teams were in every sense of the word.

But unlike football, hurling has the wonderful ability to switch the play from one end of the field to the other in two or three seconds and this is what makes even such a tight-marking march as yesterday's miles ahead of even good football games. If only we could get the ball moving like that in football what a wonderful game we would have!

KILKENNY will be disappointed with this defeat and the manner of it. They led for all but one minute of the first 45 minutes and looked to be matching Offaly in the key areas with Pat O'Neill brilliant at full-back and Canice Brennan at No 6.

But the improved form of Johnny Pilkington at midfield for Offaly was probably a surprise for Kilkenny and Pilkington's display was vital because Philip Larkin was playing so well for Kilkenny.

Looking at DJ Carey yesterday one could not help feeling that the people who enticed or encouraged him to change his mind about retiring last Spring were wrong.

He never really coped with the strong, forceful and fair hurling of Kevin Martin and DJ's failure to find the net from the penalty in the 57th minute only summed up his overall performance. Kilkenny changed their style somewhat for this game in that they went in for a lot of ground hurling, certainly more than they usually play. The rather heavy pitch did not suit that style and possibly they would have been better to stick with their normal game.

But Kilkenny simply did not have the physical power in their attack to cope with the rock-solid Offaly defence. They needed a man like Joe Errity to steamroll through for a few scores and they did not have such a person.

As the game wore on the Kilkenny attack, bereft of the genius of DJ Carey, went from bad to worse and the meagre tally of just two points from play from their forwards in the whole second half proved that.

Offaly simply had too many heroes on the day for Kilkenny to cope with. The Whelehans, Duignan, Kevin Kinahan, Pilkington, Joe Errity and different Dooleys at different times were all inspiring figures. Between them they posed massive problems which Kilkenny sometimes coped with but eventually collapsed under the strain.

Undoubtedly there will be mass turmoil in graveyards around Ireland as GAA traditionalists spin in their graves at the notion of a team winning the All-Ireland hurling title after being beaten twice (almost) along the way. But no fair-minded person watching Offaly's awesome second-half performance, could possibly argue with a system that produces such champions.

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