By Mark Jones
Offaly 0-19, Cork 0-15
DUBLIN — Now we know why they’re called the Faithful County. Somebody, somewhere must have had some faith in Offaly, because the rest of Ireland’s hurling community didn’t give them a prayer going into last Sunday’s All-Ireland semifinal at Croke Park. Up against the reigning champions and red-hot favorites, this was supposed to be a mismatch. Instead, it turned out as one of the great upsets in GAA history.
Offaly simply confounded the pundits, the preachers and maybe themselves as they stormed to a stunning victory. Two points adrift at the interval, they rocked Cork during the second half with a succession of scores and you felt that if the game had gone on any longer, the margin would only have grown wider.
Written off following a pathetic Leinster final showing against Kilkenny, and then unimpressive in their quarterfinal victory over Derry, Offaly at last found the sort of inspiration that brought them the Liam McCarthy Cup two years ago. As Cork were caught in a trap of overconfidence – a total of 16 wides didn’t exactly do their chances much good either – the Midlanders hit the front with five points in a row just after the break and they never looked back.
And this is the county that opposed the back door system, whereby the losing finalists in Munster and Leinster are allowed a second bite at the championship. Well, they’ve availed of it for the second time in three years and who’s to say they won’t repeat the glory of 1998?
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If anything, the clash between Joe Deane and Kevin Kinahan was a microcosm of the contest. Deane began in unstoppable form clipping over six points in the opening 20 minutes before Kinahan had time to blink. Offaly’s center-back looked to be in for one of those embarrassing afternoons which ends with a slow jog to the sideline long before the final whistle. Kinahan’s personal torture continued until the changeover by which time Deane had amassed eight scores, four from play.
"Kevin’s a very shy man," said Johnny Pilkington, "but this time there were a few words spoken in the changing room. But then he comes back out and catches two or three balls, throws Joe Deane to the ground and hits it out the field. I can’t tell you how that lifted us all."
Kinahan’s transformation was Offaly’s. Deane didn’t score from play again as the center-back dominated his man with a wondrous performance. Around him, Simon Whelahan hurled brilliantly and the players like Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Michael Duignan, Joe Dooley and Pilkington were rediscovering their 1998 form.
Equally, Gary Hanniffy achieved the unachievable by getting the better of Brian Corcoran, who was switched to the wing, and Ger Oakley answered his critics with a solid midfield contribution. "Being written off probably helped," admitted manager Pat Fleury. "It injured the players’ pride and helped them to concentrate. But we’re not going to get overexcited about it and go into the final in the wrong frame of mind. If that happens you come back down to earth very quickly. We’ve won nothing just yet."
The more Offaly prospered during that epic second half, the more Cork’s self-belief ebbed away. Hanniffy helped himself to three points, there were four from Pilkington and Johnny Dooley kept the scoreboard ticking from frees. Cork’s shooting had been poor enough before the break, but it seemed as if they still had enough in hand to justify their favorites’ rating. In the end, the wides were to prove costly.
Pat Ryan and Seanie McGrath both shot three, and Derek Barrett, Alan Browne and Deane had two misses apiece. "We probably lost the plot a bit in the second half, started going for goals too early," Jimmy Barry-Murphy said. "In fairness, we were chasing the game and never really looked like getting a goal. We always knew that they were capable of a brilliant performance out of the blue, but our attitude during the preparation had been first class and it was a case of too many players not finding form on the day. You really pay for that at this level."
When the two counties met in last year’s semifinal, Offaly had led by two points with eight minutes left. On that occasion, Cork hurled they way out of trouble with skill and exuberance, whereas, last Sunday they seemed to panic, bunching too closely together and searching for goals that weren’t there.
In the end, only full-back Diarmiud O’Sullivan won his personal battle over the 70 minutes. Elsewhere Offaly were able to hustle and harry enough to put themselves in a position for that marvelous second-half assault. Significantly, Cork could only manage one point from play after the break and Seanie McGrath’s score came in the first minute of injury time.
So where do Offaly go now? "Up to the Premium Bar," was Pilkington’s response. "Well, no, we’re five weeks before an All Ireland final and there’s still a bitter feeling from the 1995 loss. But we have a new found confidence now." As for Brian Whelahan, he could understand what Cork had gone through. "It’s very hard to win a game that you’ve already won," he said. "The pressure was on Cork big time, we just needed to ask the right questions."
They did, and Cork had no answer.
Offaly: S. Byrne; S. Whelahan, K. Kinahan, N. Claffey; B. Whelahan, J. Errity, K. Martin; Johnny Dooley (0-7), G. Oakley (0-1); J. Pilkington (0-4), G. Hanniffy (0-3), B. Murphy (0-1); M. Duignan, J. Ryan (0-1), Joe Dooley (0-2). Subs: P. Mulhare for Duignan, 70 mins.; C. Farrell for Pilkington, 71 mins.
Cork: D. Og Cusack; F. Ryan, D. O’Sullivan, J. Browne; W. Sherlock, B. Corcoran, S. Og O hAilpin; P. Ryan (0-1), D. Barrett (0-1); T. McCarthy, F. McCormack, A. Browne (0-1); S. McGrath (0-1), J. Deane (0-10), B. O’Connor (0-1). Subs: K. Murray for McCarthy, 49 mins.; M. O’Connell for Ryan, 55 mins.; N. Ronan for McCormack, 57 mins.
Referee: W. Barrett (Tipperary).