By Mark Jones
DUBLIN – Offaly conclusively proved that their recent resurgence has been no one-season wonder when they lifted the National Football League title for the first time in the county’s history last Sunday, beating Derry, 0-9 to 0-7. Leinster champions last year and now deserving League winners with an unbeaten record from 10 games, the Midlanders have their eyes on the big prize later this summer.
With December conditions sweeping over Croke Park, the decider was never likely to be a classic of fast, open football. Freezing rain made for a slippery surface and an even more elusive ball, but Offaly adapted better to the sort of slog that would have well been beyond them a couple of winters ago.
Most rewarding for manager, Tommy Lyons, was the way his team dug in after totally losing the initiative during the second half and then finished strongly with two vital in the closing five minutes from Colm Quinn and substitute Barry Mooney.
With a titanic Leinster championship game against Meath looming on May 24, Lyons’s thoughts were, not surprisingly, on the future.
“This is really irrelevant as far as the championship is concerned,” he said. “If anything, it’ll increase Meath’s desire to beat us. The League will be a great thing for the lads to look back on in time. But nor right now.”
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If the satisfaction was somewhat tempered in the Offaly camp, the dismay was palpable among the losers. Having shown impressive drive after the interval to come back from a 5-point deficit, Derry completely lost their way in the finishing stretch.
For the most part, the performance of county which has already won the League title three times in the 1990s was hugely unconvincing. Sloppy handling, poorly hit passes and a bizarre insistence on hopping the ball on the slippery surface were the order of the day.
Both teams were forced into changes before the start, with Offaly’s Peter Brady ruled out with damaged ribs and Dermot Heaney succumbing to a hamstring injury, but the setback seemed to have no adverse effect on the winnners who were in front by 0-6 to 0-2 at the break.
The margin could have been much more as several inviting scoring chances were squandered. Chief culprit was midfielder Ciaran McManus, who drove an 18th minute penalty wide, and then the Derry goalkeeper scrambled back to save a goalbound lobbed shot from the outstanding Quinn.
Offaly’s six wides were worrying, but the pattern of dominance looked set to continue after the changeover when the wily Vinny Claffey kicked his second point. However, Derry finally roused themselves and a succession of scores from Dermot Dougan, Joe Brolly, Anthony Tohill, Paul O’Flynn and Gary Magill remarkably brought them level.
The Derry recovery seemed to have turned the contest on its head, but Offaly revealed the steely determination that has made them a new force at the top level of football. Quinn nudged his team ahead with a free and then Mooney settled the issue.
If the players were thinking ahead as captain Finbar Cullen accepted the trophy, the thousands of Offaly supporters in the crowd of 23,000 invaded the pitch to raucously acclaim the county’s second major piece of silverware in less than a year.
Offaly: P. Kelly; C. Daly, J. Ryan, D. Foley; J. Kenny, F. Cullen (capt.), J. Brady; R. Mooney, J Grennan (0-1); C. Quinn (0-2), J. Stewart, C. McManus (0-2); V. Claffey (0-2), R. Malone (0-1), P. O’Reilly. Subs: S. Grennan for Malone, 49 mins; B. Mooney (0-1) for O’Reilly, 58 mins.
Derry: E. McCloskey; P. Diamond, S.M. Lockhart, K. McKeever (capt.); P. McFlynn (0-1), H. Downey, J. McBride; A. Tohill (0-2), F. McCusker; G. Magill (0-1), G. Coleman, D. Dougan (0-1); J. Brolly (0-2), B. Murray, J. Cassidy. Sub: S. McLarnon for Cassidy, 40 mins.