By Mark Jones
Dublin 1-12, Offaly 0-13
Dublin may have triumphed for the first time in six seasons over what can be termed serious opposition, but last Sunday’s passage to the Leinster football final was never smooth. In fact, in a compelling, but dour, contest, it was Offaly who probably should now be preparing for the decider rather than the All-Ireland qualifier series.
What little skill that adorned this game at Croke Park was delivered mostly by Vinny Claffey, Sean Grennan and Roy Malone, but, crucially, Offaly failed to their chances. For once the normally reliable Ciaran McManus was culpable in this department, not because of any lack of commitment, but, rather, his wayward finishing. A total of one point was all that accompanied his name at the end of proceedings, though it’s no exaggeration to say that McManus could have headed back to Tullamore with 3-4.
He had a goal chance saved by Stephen Cluxton early in the second half; another shot smacked against the post, and then he found himself in a position to win the match in the dying seconds: With Dublin ahead by two and Offaly pouring on the pressure, the ball broke to McManus in the square, and given his frustrating day, it wasn’t surprising that he ballooned his difficult attempt high and wide.
So, Dublin’s survival was less down to their own performance than to Offaly’s shortcomings. If Ian Robertson, Coman Goggins, Paddy Christie and Darren Homan gave everything to the cause, the winners struggled throughout for any control. Claffey gave defender Martin Cahill a roasting, Grennan was the most influential figure in midfield and the Dublin forwards were far too predictable. So how did they get out of this scrape?
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
"The players . . . battled," was Tom Carr’s verdict. "Obviously, it’s a huge relief to win a big game in Leinster at last. I mean we haven’t beaten the likes of Offaly or Kildare or Meath for quite a while and that criticism has been correctly leveled at us. But now we’ve gone one step in answering our critics."
Dublin turned over 0-6 to 0-5 in front, but it was Offaly who’d experienced most of the ill-luck by that stage. On two occasions, the woodwork came to the Dubs’ rescue and Offaly had already lost their captain, Colm Quinn, with a hamstring strain. There was some leveling of matters when an out-of-sorts Ciaran Whelan was also forced to retire due to concussion,o but it was the Midlanders who were left to rue missed opportunities when the only goal of the game was scored in the 41st minute.
An innocuous-looking high ball from Senan Connell should have been dealt with by the Offaly defense, but somehow Roberston got a hand in the right place to deceive goalkeeper Padraig Kelly. Offaly complained to deaf ears that Robertson was in the square too early, and, suddenly, Dublin had a four-point advantage.
"We actually recovered very well from the goal," said manager Padraig Nolan, "but when we were dominating toward the end, we made the mistake of trying for goals when we should have been taking points."
Malone wasted a free, McManus was deprived by the post, and even though Vinny Murphy brought more than just physical presence into the mix when he came on as a substitute (Murphy should haveve been booked for his intimidating tactics), he still managed to pay his way with two scores as Offaly’s frustration intensified.
Nolan was asked if the upcoming game in qualifying series against Louth was any consolation.
"No, and it’s a load of rubbish to think that we’re happy to have a second chance," he said. "We came up to win and our aim at the start of the year was to win a Leinster title. I expected to win this game right up to the final whistle."
He wasn’t the only one in a Croke Park crowd of over 32,000. Quite a few Dublin supporters were thinking the same thing.
Tyrone 3-7, Derry 0-14
First it was Ulster champions Armagh, then it was the other main threat, Derry. Tyrone have worked their way to a provincial decider via the toughest route possible. A case then of young dogs for the hard road?
Despite the calming presence and experience of the likes of Peter Canavan, Finbarr McConnell and Brian Dooher, this is a Tyrone side that is harvesting the fruits of underage success. Kevin Hughes, Declan McCrossan and Cormac McAnallen have blossomed into full-fledged championship performers, and while last Sunday’s winners at Clones might not be the most physically powerful lineup in the country, they showed they weren’t about to be messed with.
If some of the tactics of both teams bordered on the reckless, with referee Paddy Russell flashing yellow cards all around him, Tyrone gave as good as they got as Derry struggled to rediscover the class that once made them so feared. Both Anthony Tohill and Dermot Heaney failed to make the required impression in midfield, while there was never enough spark in attack from Enda Muldoon and Gavin Diamond.
However, Derry’s main problem surfaced in defense, where manager Eamonn Coleman was forced into a reshuffle after full-back Kevin McCloy had to pull out with an injury just before the throw-in. McCloy’s replacement, Niall McCusker, himself had to depart because of injury on 15 minutes, and with Sean Marty Lockhart and Paul McFlynn battling to hold the fort, Tyrone were able to cash in.
Gerard Cavlan had soloed through for an early goal, though he clearly took way too many steps, which, it is to be hoped, will be brought to referee Russell’s attention at some stage this summer. But the real damage occurred during a three-minute spell just after the interval when Tyrone struck for two goals. A wonderful flowing move that had the Derry rearguard at sixes and sevens culminated in Stephen O’Neill setting up Dooher for a spectacular finish. Then the highly impressive Cavlan drove a perfect free straight to O’Neill, whose crisp shot made it 3-6 to 0-8.
"We conceded three goals, scored none," pondered Coleman, who could be facing another sideline ban after he ran onto the pitch to remonstrate with a Tyrone player after Fergal Crossan was tackled heavily. "Goals win championships and Dooher’s was the real killer, but I was annoyed when I saw our player getting hit. I don’t know what the umpires were standing there doing. A player goes off with a blackened eye and a cut face and all you get is a yellow. The rules say if you strike, you walk."
Those key goals had followed some turgid football, but just when it looked as if what had been a negative game might burst into life, Tyrone took their foot off the pedal and suddenly Derry were able to claw their way back into contention courtesy of four Paddy Bradley frees in succession. The gap was down to three points with eight minutes left as Tyrone’s inexperience showed.
"Toward the end we gave away a lot of ball in the middle of the field," admitted joint-manager Eugene McKenna, "so we definitely have a lot to work on. We won’t be getting carried away with these two victories; that certainly won’t happen once the players have a chance to look at the video."
With Peter Canavan steadying his team in those closing stages, Derry still had an opportunity to steal the honors when Bradley found some space. However, goalkeeper McConnell brought off an excellent save.
Kerry 1-15, Limerick 0-10
It wasn’t quite the massacre that most observers had predicted. The All-Ireland champions made a first, uneasy step in defense of their crown at Killarney last Sunday in the end making their way into the Munster final and a date with either Cork or Clare.
Trailing by just three points 20 minutes into the second half, Limerick gave a good account of themselves while an upset was never really possibility.
"Let’s say, I wasn’t so much worried as concerned when they came at us in the second half," confessed Kerry manager Paidi O Se. "Limerick had nothing to lose."
Ultimately, O Se’s furrowed brow disappeared when Mike Frank Russell cut through for a magnificent goal.
Russell’s searing 30-yard run culminated in a perfectly struck left footed shot past Alan Kitson in the Limerick goal. After that, Noel Kennelly, John Crowley, William Kirby and Russell himself added points, and Limerick’s challenge was over.
O Se took Maurice Fitzgerald off early in the second half, explaining his decision with the news that Fitzgerald had spent a week in bed with tonsillitis, and while Kerry were just about competent, it was the all round excellence of Russell, who finished with 1-4, that made the difference.
"He was on fire from the start," O Se said. "It was a fantastic goal because up to then it had been touch and go."
Limerick, who now meet Westmeath in the qualifiers, were best served by Stephen Lucey, Diarmuid Sheehy, Jason Stokes, John Quane and Colm Hickey.
Westmeath easily got the better of Wexford in an All-Ireland qualifier first-round replay at Mullingar last Saturday. There was no repeat of the excitement of the drawn game as the winners strolled to a 1-16 to 1-8 success. Joe Fallon, with 0-6, and Ger Heavin, who contributed 1-3, were the main scorers for Westmeath.
In the other remaining first-round game, Donegal proved too strong for Fermanagh, running out victors by 0-15 to 1-6 in Enniskillen. With Adrian Sweeney, Brendan Devenney, Brian Roper and John Gildea in superb form, Donegal led by 0-9 to no score at the break. A massively disappointing Fermanagh display improved slightly during the second half, but Mark O’Donnell’s goal hardly made a difference.