Carlow clash gives Offaly a chance to lay down marker
KEVIN EGAN COLUMN
Last Sunday, Mayo played Roscommon in a Division 1 football contest that was broadcast live on TG4, and midway through the first half, a landslide victory for Mayo was on the cards. They were utterly dominant in every aspect of play, and while there was a strong wind behind them, their control of the physical exchanges was such that you couldn’t rule out a 15 points plus margin of victory by the end.
Through a combination of Mayo slowing up and Roscommon mounting a late comeback, it didn’t work out that way, and consequently, the stage has been nicely set for the two counties’ clash in the Connacht championship on Easter Sunday.
From a Mayo perspective, they missed a trick. A big win over their hosts would have inflicted considerable psychological damage, and completely undermined the momentum that Roscommon built up over the first three weeks of the league. They could have given themselves a huge head start in advance of next month’s game, and possibly even made it feel unwinnable from a Roscommon perspective.
It seems strange to say this when we consider that the last two games in Tullamore between Offaly and Carlow ended with fully deserved wins for the away side, but on current form, Offaly have a chance to strike a real blow in advance of the Joe McDonagh Cup, and they need to succeed where Mayo failed.
These two counties are slated to meet in the final round of games, in Carlow, and there is every chance that if Offaly have taken care of business at home to Kerry the previous week, this May 13 contest will determine who advances to a championship final, most likely against Laois.
A landslide victory tomorrow is not likely. Kildare beat Carlow by 0-25 to 0-11 in round one of the league, but since then, Tom Mullally has reintroduced hurlers of real quality, and that showed last time out against Down. Denis Byrne at centre-back, James Doyle at midfield, Marty Kavanagh at centre-forward and Paddy Boland at full-forward – all of these played pivotal roles for Carlow a fortnight ago, and all of them were absent when they travelled to Newbridge a month ago.
But a landslide win is not what Offaly need here. It’s far better for this group of players to have a chance to take on something close to the best that Carlow have to offer, so that a win will represent meaningful form in advance of the infinitely more important summer clash. Because Carlow have prevailed on their most recent trips to Tullamore, a solid Offaly win by four or five points would signal a clear shift in the balance of power, and that’s a message this group needs to send.
With the pressure of needing to pick up league points alleviated by three early wins, and the fact that a win against Kildare will secure a league final spot regardless of the result here, there is a real chance to play with freedom and intent. Hopefully that shines through tomorrow afternoon.
Longford win creates a paradox
Due to the way the fixtures have fallen, there’s a very real chance now that the Offaly footballers will play host to Down on the final day of the football league with promotion on the table.
Tipperary continue to be in terrible form and even allowing for Offaly not exactly shooting the lights out right now, Liam Kearns will expect to pick up a win against one of his former counties next weekend, meaning that Offaly should have eight points on the board going into the last round of games.
In terms of scoring difference, Westmeath’s rather ludicrous +51 balance means that nobody will beat the Lake County on that measure, but the neighbours have to pick up a win in Fermanagh tomorrow week to keep their chances of reaching ten points alive, and that’s far from certain. The dream result for Offaly there is a draw, but even if Fermanagh win that game, Cavan could still do Offaly a favour on the final day by taking points off the Erne County, which would leave Offaly in a situation where a win over Down would be enough to secure promotion.
And while Cavan probably won’t have anything to play for against Fermanagh, the depth in Mickey Graham’s panel is immense. James Smith, Gearoid McKiernan and Jason McLoughlin are all working their way back to full fitness, and they would all expect to start in the summer, but can Graham drop anyone from a team that has won a perfect five out of five? Personal considerations will keep the Breffni men sharp in that tie.
However, there is the second layer to the very real prospect of promotion for Offaly, and that’s the aspect of whether or not this group is actually ready for Division Two football – because on the face of it, that’s not obviously the case.
Of course, it would be a nice problem to have, and on paper, Offaly in 2024 should be a better team than Offaly in 2023. Very few, if any, of the current panel would be likely to think about retirement, barring a serious injury, while it’s logical to assume that at least some of the players unavailable this year (Eoin Carroll, Jordan Hayes, John Moloney, Paddy Dunican) might make themselves available too. Add in an extra year of growth and development for some of the younger players, a possible return from injury for Eoin Rigney or Kieran Dolan, and there’s a lot of talent lurking out there.
The flip side of that is that the same argument could have been made from 2022 into 2023, but it didn’t work out that way. And one thing is for sure – nothing that Offaly have done in any of their five games this year is Division Two form.
There’s a lot to like about the character required to prevail in three tight finishes, and winning becomes a habit, absolutely. But there is a marked step up in quality from Division Three to Division Two, more than there has been for some time. Meath, Cork and Louth are all making real forward progress and they’ll all still be there, while whoever comes down from the top tier will be the type of opposition that Offaly simply aren’t used to playing. It could be the making of this group of players, but it’s a double-edged sword too, should this scenario come to pass.
Árd Scoil Chiaráin bid for success
A final shout this week goes to the other Offaly teams and players in action; to all footballers in the LGFA third level finals, but most notably Kate Kenny and Róisín Ennis in the elite competition, the O’Connor Cup; to the handful of players from this side of the border in the Moate Community School junior team that will play an All-Ireland semi-final against St Mary’s, Midleton this afternoon (Friday), and of course to the senior camógs, who face a daunting trip to Wexford.
However, it would be only right to finish off by applauding the efforts of Árd Scoil Chiaráin, and wish them the best in tomorrow’s All-Ireland final at Tuam Stadium against St Joseph’s Secondary School of Spanish Point in Clare.
A wonderful run by the school’s juvenile team earlier this year was the first sign of a resurgence of the footballing fortunes of this school, but at senior level, under the guidance of former Offaly footballer Paul McConway, this group has gone from strength to strength and now stands on the cusp of a memorable success. The famous north Galway stadium has witnessed some incredible games and some seismic GAA moments down the years, and this group of students are certainly capable of adding to that lore tomorrow.