OLLIE Baker certainly won’t remember his competitive debut as Offaly boss with particular fondness.
At blustery and chilly Kinnegad last Sunday they were comprehensively defeated by a fired up Westmeath side in the Bord na Mona Walsh Cup quarter-final.
Being frankly honest, the seven point reversal was kind to Offaly as they malfunctioned badly and Westmeath ‘keeper Shane McGovern hadn’t a save of any consequence to make.
As if losing wasn’t bad enough, the ‘Faithful’ finished with a ‘Baker’s dozen’ (13 players) as Shane Kelly and Ger Healion were both shown red cards.
And considering the manner in which rookie referee Paud O’Dwyer from Carlow was interpreting and applying the rules, the visitors were extremely fortunate not to lose a few more players as frustration set in and their discipline deserted them.
The Kelly dismissal was bizarre. He and his mid-field marker, Westmeath debut boy Aonghus Clarke, engaged in a bit of getting to know you niggle prior to the throw-in. Referee O’Dwyer flung in the sliotar which eluded both players who traded blows and an almighty shrill of the whistle followed.
Two red cards were brandished much to the bemusement of everyone at the venue and so we’d effectively a 14-a-side contest, well 14 v 13 from the 63rd minute on after Healion received a second yellow card. There were the quickest sending offs this writer has witnessed and yellows, not to mention a stern talking to, would have been sufficient.
Healion was somewhat hard done by as he appeared to stand his ground as David Fennell collided with him.
While the standard of refereeing left quite a bit to be desired, Offaly couldn’t use this as an excuse to justify their dismal performance.
They played second fiddle in practically every sector and even though the vibes emanating from the camp had been positive prior to this outing, this defeat should help focus minds and bring everybody back to reality.
A huge amount of work needs to be done prior to the start of the NHL Division 1B campaign which begins at home to Laois on Sunday, February 26.
Offaly lacked sharpness and this is understandable as at this time of year the focus would be on heavy stamina and physical work.
Yet this is a match they would have been expected to win and ‘on paper’ it seemed to be a pretty useful and experienced outfit that was on duty. Offaly, who defeated Carlow in the delayed Walsh Shield Final in 2011, now face a trip to Bellefield in Enniscorthy to face Wexford in the Walsh Shield semi-final this weekend.
There was a sizeable contingent unavailable to Baker and his selectors Paudge Mulhare & Mark Corrigan.
None of the Coolderry players are in with the squad at present as they are busy preparing for their February 11 AIB All-Ireland club semi-final showdown with Gort in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds. While David Kenny (who has been appointed captain for the year), Stephen Egan, James Rigney, Paul Cleary, David Franks, Dylan Hayden, Del Morkan and Conor Mahon also played no part on Sunday.
Westmeath manager Brian Hanley recently culled his training panel from 47 players down to 36 and they are obviously responding to his influence. They worked extremely hard and determinedly for each other. Their fitness, work rate and desire was superior and their reward for this victory is a semi-final clash against reigning All-Ireland champions Kilkenny or NUIG.
Offaly struggled miserably for scores. Just two of the starting forwards managed to get on the score-sheet and Shane Dooley was the only one to score more than once.
Their inability to win primary aerial possession in mid-field and the half forward division was frightening and when Westmeath put bodies back to bolster their rearguard, especially during the opening half when they hurled into the stiff wind, Offaly lacked the know-how and guile to deal with these tactics.
After 17 minutes, Offaly enjoyed a 0-4 to 0-1 lead. Shane Dooley and Sean Ryan slotted over points from play, while Dooley also converted a brace of frees. Westmeath’s reply came courtesy of a 6th minute Brendan Murtagh pointed free, awarded after Eanna Murphy was penalised for an illegal hand-pass. Hand-passing, indeed, proved problematic for Offaly with too many failing to reach their intended target.
Westmeath captain Paddy Dowdall and Dooley (following a foul on Killurin’s Dwayne Dunne who was making his senior debut) traded points. Frank Boyle and Dooley (free) traded points, 0-6 to 0-3 after 29 minutes, and the closing minutes of the half belonged to Westmeath whose confidence was spiralling the longer proceedings went on.
Paul Greville bisected the posts after he pounced on a wayward Diarmuid Horan clearance and Murtagh added a pointed free to leave the minimum separating the counties.
It seemed like Offaly might retire to their dressing room with the benefit of a slender cushion but deep in added time – the fourth minute – they were rocked. Andrew Mitchell hoisted in a high probing delivery that Offaly full back Peter Healion misjudged and Murtagh capitalised on the error by slamming home a fine goal. This gave Westmeath a 1-5 to 0-6 half time advantage and it was one they weren’t to relinquish.
The wind wasn’t as significant an influence during the concluding half and twice Offaly reduced the deficit to a point, 0-7 to 1-5 & 0-8 to 1-6, before the decisive strike arrived in the 47th minute.
Another high delivery resulted in consternation in the Offaly defence and Murtagh grabbed his second goal much to Healion’s disgust and ‘keeper James Dempsey may have felt he should have done better. Mitchell landed a magnificent long range point to make it 2-7 to 0-8 and there was a real pep in Westmeath’s step.
Offaly introduced Seir Kieran’s Sean Coughlan at full back and their best score of the match arrived in the 49th minute when Shinrone’s Mark Morkan got on the end of a Brendan Murphy cross-field delivery and fired over a point.
Dowdall, Murtagh and sub John Gilligan added further points for a Westmeath side who were thoroughly deserving winners. Gilligan’s score was the type you get when it is your day and it came just seconds after Shane Dooley’s 21m strike from a free was deflected over the bar.
Brendan Murtagh, Andrew Mitchell, Paddy Dowdall, Paul Greville and Adam Price were Westmeath’s top performers on a day that Offaly will want to erase from the memory quickly.
Westmeath: Brendan Murtagh 2-6 (0-5 frees), Paddy Dowdall 0-2, Andrew Mitchell 0-2 (0-1 free & 0-1 ’65), Paul Greville 0-1, Frank Boyle 0-1, John Gilligan 0-1.
Offaly: Shane Dooley 0-9 (0-7 frees), Sean Ryan 0-1, Ger Healion 0-1, Mark Morkan 0-1.
Westmeath 5 (3 1st half)
Offaly 7 (5 1st half)
Red (3): Shane Kelly & Aonghus Clarke (1 min), Ger Healion (63 mins).
Yellow (8): Paul Fennell & Shane Dooley (11 mins), Ger Healion (44 & 63 mins), Paul Greville (52 mins), Joe Bergin (59 mins), Eanna Murphy (68 mins), Conor Jordan (70 mins).
WESTMEATH: Shane McGovern; Paul Fennell, Adam Price, Conor Jordan; David Fennell, Eoin Price, Philip Gilsenan; Paddy Dowdall (capt.), Aonghus Clarke; Andrew Mitchell, Frank Boyle, Paul Greville; Brendan Murtagh, David Higgins, John Shaw. Subs.: Andrew Dermody for F Boyle (half time), Daniel Carthy for D Higgins (47 mins), John Gilligan for D Fennell (65 mins).
OFFALY: James Dempsey; Michael Verney, Peter Healion, Stephen Wynne; Eanna Murphy, Rory Hanniffy, Diarmuid Horan; Joe Bergin, Shane Kelly; Dwayne Dunne, Colin Egan, Brendan Murphy; Shane Dooley, Derek Molloy, Sean Ryan. Subs.: Ger Healion for D Molloy (35 mins), Mark Morkan for D Dunne (46 mins), Sean Coughlan for P Healion (47 mins).
REFEREE: Paud O’Dwyer, Carlow.