By Mark Jones
Offaly 0-16, Clare 0-13
DUBLIN — This time the result stood. No controversy, no sit-ins, no human error, simply a pulsating match that left Clare wondering where it all went wrong and Offaly celebrating their remarkable revival.
A refixed All-Ireland hurling semifinal replay that had the Thurles spectators gasping. Fast, furious and loaded with skill, this third encounter in a marvelous saga ended with no recriminations.
Earlier in the week, Clare manager Ger Loughnane had baldly stated that certain GAA mandarins would do all in their power to stop the county winning a second title in succession. Colin Lynch’s suspension, Loughnane’s own sideline ban and referee Jimmy Cooney’s time-keeping mistake were all somehow part of some elaborate conspiracy.
But as the outspoken Loughnane departed Thurles last Saturday at the close of a roller-coaster summer for his players, he had no public axe to grind.
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"If you hear anyone from Clare complaining," he said, "they don’t represent Clare hurling."
Because in truth, hurling itself had won the day. When the talking, the finger-wagging and the endless round of accusations stopped, both teams served up wondrous entertainment.
And it wasn’t as if Offaly had arrived in the semifinal via some tranquil route. Dismal losers in the Leinster final, they were subjected to a tongue lashing by manager Babs Keating, who promptly resigned. In came the unknown Michael Bond and, as if stung into action by Keating’s broadside, the players decided to show their real worth.
Now that Clare have been dethroned, Bond and his team have the opportunity to make up for that earlier humiliation when they take on Kilkenny in a novel all-Leinster decider. Given their gradual resurgence, Offaly must now be fancied to go all the way.
Although they stretched Clare all around Semple Stadium with a giddy mix of flair and pace while the champions struggled with too many wides from play, it took four stunning saves by goalkeeper Stephen Byrne to prevent the goal that surely would have shifted the balance of the game.
Byrne’s heroics were richly complemented by a defense in which Martin Hanamy, Kevin Kinahan and Brian Whelehan all played starring roles.
Following his difficulties with Alan Markham in the replay, Whelehan turned the tables on this occasion and held Markham to just a single point.
Clare only led for one minute of the match and Offaly clearly had the better of the first half, when they turned over 0-9 to 0-6 ahead. If their collective efforts were impressive, 35-year-old veteran Joe Dooley caught the eye with some magnificent scores. At last finding the form of his better days, Dooley would go on to finish with five points from play.
Even though their defense was as tight as ever, Clare struggled to take their scores. The nearest they got to Offaly was when Jamesie O’Connor knocked over two quick points to make it 0-12 to 0-10 with 12 minutes remaining, but with Byrne producing his string of marvelous saves, Offaly tore up the field and Joe Dooley, Gary Hanniffy, Brian Whelehan and Hanniffy again all found the target in a match-winning burst.
"We proved that we have great heart," said Whelehan, "and in the end of the day, heart is what wins games."
Manager Michael Bond was more cautious. "We have to come down from this quickly," he said. "Remember, we’ve won nothing yet, not even a Leinster final. Kilkenny are the form team, you saw the way they played against Waterford."
Certainly, Offaly will have less time than their opponents to prepare for the big day on Sept. 13. But having come through this titanic series of matches and having knocked out the reigning champions, their confidence is sky high. It could be Offaly’s summer after all.
Kildare 0-13, Kerry 1-9
Even with one giant step remaining in their long awaited season of content, the footballers of Kildare already have the seal of quality. Previously, they had despatched the powers of Dublin and Meath and last Sunday at Croke Park, 1997 champions Kerry also suffered in the All-Ireland semifinal. Three down and Galway to go.
Not since 1934 have Kildare made it to a September final, and while the margin over Kerry was minimal, they were by far the better team. Although Kerry had a goal by Denis O’Dwyer dubiously disallowed close to full-time, the protests were neither loud nor long. It was as if Kerry knew they had been comprehensively outplayed.
Kerry went into the game as favorites, but such has been Kildare’s progress this year under Mick O’Dwyer that the result was no surprise. The loss of their star player, Niall Buckley, with a thigh injury couldn’t stop the winners’ march.
Others such as Brian Lacey and Dermot Earley picked up the baton. Cornerback Lacey stuck to Maurice Fitzgerald like a limpet so that the mercurial Fitzgerald had to wait until the 56th minute for his first score. Earley, meanwhile, took over Buckley’s midfield role with aplomb and was head and shoulders above his marker, Dara O Se.
The prospect of O’Dywer putting one over his old county had loomed larger by halftime. Playing into the breeze, Kildare still contrived to lead by 0-5 to 0-4 as the Kerry attack struggled. O’Dwyer’s son Karl, who had been best man at Fitzgerald’s wedding, also tormented his former colleagues with a composed display and the deployment of Martin Lynch as a full-forward worked a treat.
It wasn’t all lost at that stage for a lackluster Kerry, but when Kildare came out and quickly increased their advantage to 0-9 to 0-4 as Eddie McCormack profitted from several charging runs by the inspirational Glen Ryan, the Munster champions were clearly in big trouble.
Given the limp nature of their attack, Kerry’s riposte was somewhat unexpected. Dara O Cinneide’s dangerous ball across the square was held up by John Crowley, who crashed in a shot off the post. Suddenly the margin was back to a point, but Kildare refused to panic even when referee Mick Curley disallowed Denis O’Dwyer’s late effort.
"I was a little worried when they got the goal," confessed Mick O’Dwyer, "but we got some great points after that. To be honest, this would be as good as anything I’ve ever achieved. You couldn’t differentiate between this and the wins I had with Kerry, they’re all special."
"Unbelievable," was captain Glen Ryan’s reaction. "We’re going to knuckle down now and try to finish the job."
None of the Kildare players have ever been in this position, then neither have their opponents, Galway. On final day, the wisdom of Mick O’Dwyer might just make the difference.
Kerry U-21B champs
Kerry managed to glean some satisfaction from last weekend’s action when their hurlers won the All Ireland Under 21 B title by beating Kildare on a scoreline of 3-9 to 0-17. Sean Twomey struck the match-winning point two minutes from the end.
Galway eased their way into the All Ireland Under 21 hurling final when they were comfortable victors over Kilkenny by 4-18 to 3-7, while the minor footballers of Laois qualified for another All Ireland decider with a 1-10 to 2-5 win over Kerry.