By Mark Jones
Kildare 0-11, Offaly 1-8
Survival instinct. Now we know Offaly have it following last Sunday’s drawn Leinster football semifinal at Croke Park as sub Donie Ryan’s late goal set up a replay. But if Offaly deserve praise for a battling performance, Kildare should have known better than to have left the door open.
For much of a disappointing game, Kildare had the edge, yet they failed to score in the final quarter of an hour when even a single point might have scuppered Offaly’s chances. Those frantic last minutes were always going to be one chance and sure enough on the stroke of full-time, Offaly took it.
Bernard O”Brien was put through by Sean Grennan and when his shot smacked back off the woodwork, David Connolly found Ryan who blasted the ball home. Defiant — certainly. Robbery — probably.
And there was more to come. Offaly then won a free and goalkeeper Padraig Kelly was summoned up to take the shot from 55 meters. For a second, Kelly’s kick looked good, but it drifted wide and both counties were already thinking about part two on July 16.
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"Kildare were the better team on the day, no doubt about that," admitted Offaly manager, Padraig Nolan. "They were hungrier, fresher and we’re lucky to get a bite at it again. But as long as there was two or three points in it, there was always the chance of a goal."
For their part, Kildare didn’t have to be told that they should have won after opening up a five-point lead (0-10 to 0-5) 11 minutes into the second half. The loss of Karl O’Dwyer, a late withdrawal due to a broken finger, was a blow, and although John Doyle, Eddie McCormack and Dermot Earley pressured the Offaly rearguard, they didn’t get much change out of Cathal Daly, Barry Malone and James Brady.
Without O’Dwyer though, Kildare struggled to convert their skilful approach work and the usual array of hand-passes out of defense too often came to nothing.
"I’m never disappointed when I’m not beaten, I can assure you," said manager Mick O’Dwyer. "At some stage we had to die and I suppose we have to play a little bit better. There’s another day."
Offaly, too, lacked a cutting edge, but despite Kildare’s greater share of the play, they always managed to keep the deficit manageable. Mel Keenaghan came up with a good performance. However, Colm Quinn and Vinny Claffey, who had excelled in the earlier win over All Ireland champions Meath, never made their presence felt. For the most part, Ken Doyle, Glen Ryan and Anthony Rainbow were just too strong in the Lilywhites’ defense.
By the 55th minute, Offaly had cut the gap to just two points, but a Padraig Gravin free pushed Kildare three ahead again and it looked as if they were on their way to a second Leinster final in three seasons. Chances were missed at both ends, but Ryan made his count. Offaly will have Ciaran McManus back from suspension the next day, while Brian Lacey will be available for Kildare.
Armagh 0-13, Fermanagh 0-12
With three of last year’s provincial champions — Meath, Cork and Mayo — already down and out, it looked for a while last Sunday as if Armagh were about to join the exclusive club. But as a fiercely determined Fermanagh failed to take a couple of late chances, Clones was finally enveloped in the sound of celebrating Armagh supporters.
But there was no triumphalism after this grim contest, which sees Armagh through to another Ulster final, where they will meet the winners of Antrim and Derry.
"Petrified," was how Brian Canavan described his feelings in the closing minutes. "What a game Fermanagh gave us. I appreciate we are in the final, but that was too close for comfort."
Fermanagh could well have snatched it. First Rory Gallagher was just off target with a difficult angled free, and then his cousin Raymond had an opportunity to earn a replay from 45 meters out. Gallagher had the distance, but not the range and a relieved Armagh were through.
Ironically, frees had been Fermanagh’s staple diet during a game which was high on tension, but low on imagination. Only two of the losers’ total came from play and with Rory Gallagher obviously hampered by a knee injury, they were never able to put the squeeze on the Armagh defense.
The champions also had problems of their own. Diarmuid Marsden had to be stretchered off with a hamstring injury and his loss curtailed the normally effective Oisin McConville. However, Marsden’s replacement, Barry O’Hagan, contributed three valuable points and Cathal O’Rourke was impressive going forward.
At one stage during the first half, Armagh trailed by four points, but they responded coming up to the interval with scores from Stephen McDonnell, O’Hagan and the hardworking John McEntee. From then on, they always had the edge even though Fermanagh were never out of it thanks largely to Stephen Maguire who had a fine game at full forward.
Still, there was some personal consolation in defeat for manager Pat King who is stepping aside after four years.
"I think it’s fair to say we’ve come quite a distance over the four years," King said. "Quite possibly fresh enthusiasm might be the best thing to really push Fermanagh that extra little bit that will take them all the way to an Ulster title."
Clare 0-15, Tipperary 0-10
Where the hurlers failed, the footballers succeeded. There was no argument about the outcome of last Sunday’s clash in Limerick where Clare were convincing winners to set up a Munster final against Kerry on July 16.
It will be Clare’s first provincial decider since 1997, but they will have to improve significantly if they are to have any chance of upsetting Kerry’s ambitions. Meanwhile, Tipperary were silently cursing the progress of their hurling colleagues which deprived them of two key forwards in Brendan Cummins and John Carroll.
Once again, Tipp’s attacking threat depended almost entirely on Declan Browne. Kept in check for much of the contest by solid defensive performance by Padraig Gallagher, Browne burst into life during the closing stages and for the first time, Clare were under pressure.
They were leading by 0-11 to 0-6 when Browne moved up a gear to score four points in the space of six minutes. But Clare held on as Brian McMahon, Martin Daly and Ger Keane replied with points of their own. "With 10 minutes to go, I thought we’ve left it late, but we still have a chance," said Browne who scored eight of his side’s total, "but then they went up the field and scored a couple of points and our heads went down."
"We certainly had a few dodgy moments out there," admitted Clare goalkeeper and captain James Hanrahan. "But I thought we deserved to win it in the end. When Declan Browne gets the ball you never know what he’ll do, he’s a class act."
If Browne caught the eye for the losers, it was Donal O’Sullivan at midfield and wing forward Denis O’Driscoll who impressed for Clare. O’Sullivan won the vast majority of breaking ball while O’Driscoll was a constant threat to the Tipp defense with his solos and intelligent passing. However, his influence failed to spread throughout the forward line as Clare hit 10 wides.
"We didn’t put Tipp away when we had our chances," admitted selector Noel Roche, "but that’s something we can work on and at least we’re in the final."