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Irish GAA Preview: Offaly, Kilkenny shaping up as classic encounter

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mark Jones

DUBLIN — By rights, Offaly and Kilkenny shouldn’t be within an ass’s roar of the All-Ireland hurling final. Yet despite a roller-coaster summer, the two longstanding Leinster rivals will take the field at Croke Park on Sunday with no worries about the past.

Months of trauma both on and off the pitch have dogged both counties, but now all the bad days have been forgotten. With debates raging all this week over the strength of Offaly’s defense and the sharpness of the D.J. Carey-inspired Kilkenny attack, all eyes are on the Liam McCarthy Cup.

Back-door qualifiers, but hardened by their epic three game semifinal duel with deposed champions Clare, Offaly go into the game as the most marginal of favorites. Kilkenny haven’t had anything like the same number of intense matches. However, the manner in which they dispatched Waterford in the semifinal made everyone sit up and take notice.

But the underlying theme of this novel September pairing is triumph over adversity. At the risk of laboring the point, very few seasoned observers would have banked on Offaly meeting Kilkenny on hurling’s biggest day of the year.

For starters, spool back a bit to just over 12 months ago and the omens were far from good. Kilkenny were parting company with manager Nicky Brennan and his Offaly counterpart, John McIntyre, was also on the way out. Kevin Fennelly and Babs Keating came in to take their places, but there was still no light visible at the end of the tunnel.

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The two counties flopped in the National League and then, last February, Ireland’s most famous hurler, D.J. Carey, stunned his county and the rest of the country’s GAA followers in like measure when he announced his retirement at the tender age of 27.

"When the appetite goes, it’s time to move aside," was Carey’s rationale.

Kilkenny were in shock and the future looked bleaker than ever when not much more than a month later Carey changed his mind and famously ended the shortest retirement in the history of Irish sport.

Things were less dramatic down Offaly way, but different problems were bubbling beneath the surface. A number of players failed to turn up for a challenge game against Tipperary in May and a disgruntled Keating left his resignation on the county board’s desk.

Even though he was persuaded to stay on, there wasn’t much improvement when Offaly were humbled by a rejuvenated Kilkenny in a hopelessly one-sided Leinster final. Keating came out and savaged his players, comparing them to "sheep running around in a heap."

Midfielder Johnny Pilkington retaliated as the war of words between manager and players threatened to get out of hand. This time, Keating’s departure was permanent.

Meanwhile, Kilkenny, who had staged a fightback to see off Laois in an earlier round of the Leinster championship were suddenly feeling the sun on their backs.

"It’s a great relief," said manager Fennelly, "but we’re going to have to lift our game a lot to be genuine All-Ireland contenders."

Offaly, for their part, called on the services of an unassuming Galwayman, Michael Bond, in an attempt to salvage something from a season that had gone from bad to worse. But where Keating and McIntyre before him had failed, Bond managed to work his own brand of alchemy. Antrim were beaten by 2-18 to 2-9 in the All-Ireland quarterfinal and then Offaly showed their true colors as they eventually got the better of Clare — courtesy of some controversial timekeeping by referee Jimmy Cooney — in the third encounter of a dramatic semifinal.

Kilkenny too had completed their rebirth with an impressive display against Waterford. So it was set, the final that no one could have predicted.

On Sunday, Offaly will have their vaunted halfback line of Brian Whelehan, Hubert Rigney and Kevin Martin primed for the big occasion, while Kevin Kinahan and Martin Hanamy have also been outstanding in the last line of defense. Pilkington has justified his presence in midfield along with Michael Duignan and then there is the veteran Joe Dooley in attack, who is attempting to become the first Offaly player ever to win three All-Ireland senior medals. Last, but by no means least, add in a marvelous goalkeeper in Stephen Byrne.

In short, Offaly now look a well-balanced outfit. Despite the immovable Pat O’Neill at fullback, the class of Willie O’Connor, the potential of Charlie Carter and P.J. Delaney in the forward line, and Carey’s proven match-winning ability, somehow Kilkenny don’t appear as complete a team.

So, Offaly to shade the verdict and complete one of hurling’s most dramatic resurrections.

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