Fight for survival goes down to the wire

OFFALY’S survival in Division 1 of the Allianz GAA NHL hangs in the balance following Sunday’s 1-19 to 2-19 reversal at the hands of Waterford in O’Connor Park.

OFFALY’S survival in Division 1 of the Allianz GAA NHL hangs in the balance following Sunday’s 1-19 to 2-19 reversal at the hands of Waterford in O’Connor Park.

The ‘Faithful’ failed to put away gilt edge goal scoring opportunities, while the ‘Deise’ pilfered two goals, both very preventable, and this essentially was the difference between the counties.

Wexford’s surprise minimum margin home victory over Cork means that it is all to fight for during the final series of fixtures on Sunday week, April 17.

Colm Bonnar’s Wexford travel to face Tipperary in Semple Stadium and if they gain a result – draw or win – then Offaly will have to equal that result away in the ‘Cats’ cauldron of Nowlan Park to ensure they survive in the top flight for another season at the ‘Slaneysiders’ expense. If Offaly suffer a sixth defeat of the campaign and Wexford steal a point or better against Declan Ryan’s men, then the ‘Faithful’ will go down to Division 2.

On hearing of Wexford’s victory over the ‘Rebels’, Joe Dooley mused, “That makes things interesting now. It also shows how strong Wexford are as well.”

The Offaly manager agreed it was all to play for again and he stressed the determination of all concerned to avoid the drop from Division 1.

“Wexford have to go to Thurles and get a win and we’ve to go to Nowlan Park and get a win to keep it in our own hands and that won’t be easy now because Kilkenny need to win their last game to make the league final so it is basically a league semi-final for Kilkenny. We’re going to have to treat the game very seriously because we don’t want to be relegated.”

Although he was satisfied Offaly registered 1-19 against quality opposition, Joe couldn’t hide his frustration at failing to secure victory over the ‘Deise’.

He outlined, “It is a game we should have won really. It could have gone either way. We had two good goal chances and probably conceded a soft goal as well. That’s the way it goes.

“The wind was strong and any time we got near Waterford they seemed to pull away again and get a couple of scores. Their second half goal was a bit of a killer. It was against the run of play and it gave Waterford that bit of breathing space.”

Joe Bergin troubled Waterford full back Wayne Hutchinson throughout, grabbing 1-2 and he was unlucky not to add a few more goals. His aerial domination resulted in Waterford dropping players back in front of him, particularly during the second half when Offaly were wind aided. “Waterford dropped lads back especially in the second half. Joe (Bergin) still scored a goal and created two great chances and I thought he hurled well and he scored a few points as well.”

Offaly captain Shane Dooley won the toss and opted to hurl against the strong breeze and at the break his side trailed by seven points, 0-10 to 1-14. Joe said this was a pre-planned decision. “We played against the wind in the first half last week (against Wexford) and it worked well for us so we said we’d do the same again.

We were probably reasonably well positioned at half time. Seven points down wasn’t a lot with the breeze that was there. And at the end of the day if we had taken our chances in the second half we would have won it.”

Wexford got the first point of the second half moving them eight clear and while Bergin’s 39th minute goal lifted Offaly cockles, it could have been an equalising score as a possible 1-2 was spurned in the moments immediately beforehand. Shane Dooley blazed an instinctive first-time strike wide, while sub Michael Cordial and Brian Carroll were off target with point scoring opportunities.

The manager reflected, “We’d two or three wides from play after half time when we needed to be narrowing the gap but in fairness to Waterford they led all through with maybe the exception of a few minutes in the first half. They are a strong team. They work fierce hard. They have a great work ethic and our backs got it hard to clear ball then. They were always under pressure.”

Offaly tallied 1-5 and 1-9 (2-14) in the second half of their fixtures against Wexford and Waterford, respectively, and during those seventy plus minutes (while hurling with the wind at their backs) just two points from play were recorded and both were last Sunday – a 55th minute score from sub Cathal Parlon and another from Brian Carroll on the stroke of full time. The remaining twelve points came from Shane Dooley placed balls.

When asked about the second half score return, Joe replied, “I think we scored 1-9 in the second half and we probably should have another goal and maybe three or four more points. We had a few wides (Offaly finished with 9 to Waterford’s 6). The breeze was tricky. It wasn’t down the field, it was a bit diagonal so it made it a bit harder on lads.”

With James Rigney, Paul Cleary, Joe Brady and Daniel Currams still sidelined with injury, Offaly will be hoping the hand injury sustained by Dylan Hayden isn’t serious. He was replaced by Michael Cordial at half time. Joe explained, “Dylan had a badly swollen finger. He has to go for an x-ray on it and hopefully he will be okay.”

With Waterford boss Davy Fitzgerald still serving out a suspension, selector Pat Bennett was on media duty. “To be honest we were dreading playing Offaly because they were buoyant after their win last week. It was a tough, hard and physical game and we’re delighted to be coming away with the points.”

With John Mullane unavailable as he is getting married on Friday and Eoin Kelly & Eoin McGrath not included from the start, Waterford handed debuts to corner forwards Brian O’Sullivan and Gavin Crotty and these two along with Shane Walsh amassed 2-7 from play between them. “We’ve played 31 guys in the NHL and it is great because we are trying to build a panel. We got some scores in the first half and there was a good spread of scorers. Our forwards moved well, but in fairness to Offaly they never gave up and it was anyone’s game there near the end. We probably got a lucky second goal. We’ll take it.”

With Waterford (on 7pts) and four other counties – Kilkenny (9pts), Galway (8pts), Dublin (8pts) & Tipperary (7pts) – still in the shake-up for the NHL Final, Pat is expecting an exciting final series of games – Waterford v Galway, Kilkenny v Offaly, Tipperary v Wexford & Cork v Dublin.

“Any team can beat anybody in this league. I’m surprised Tipperary won so easily especially when Galway were at home. But it sets it up for us as well. I mean we’ve got to beat Galway at home and we’re still in with a shout and that’s what we wanted because at one stage it was looking at one stage that the last three rounds would be irrelevant.”