OFFALY'S All-Ireland camogie dream was crushed in devastating fashion at Croke Park last Sunday.
The Faithful girls led all the way following Arlene Watkins' cracking 20th minute goal but similar to the '95 All-Ireland hurling showdown involving the same counties, plucky Clare snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and Offaly had precious little time to stage a meaningful recovery.
Thirteen years ago it was sub Eamon Taaffe that broke Offaly hearts. And on this occasion it was another Clare sub, 17-year-old Shnagh Enright from Kilmaley, that inflicted the damage, hand-passing the decisive injury-time goal 'Flaherty-style' and condemning Offaly to a painful defeat.
Coincidentally, both goals by Taaffe and Enright were executed at the Canal End and also, not that he'll want reminding, Joachim Kelly figured prominently in both games, as a selector with the senior hurlers in '95 and manager of the camogie side.
Remarkably, it was a case of 'sixth time lucky' for Clare. The Banner girls drew with Galway and Dublin in the 2003 & 2005 All-Ireland Finals respectively, only to lose the replay on each occasion. They also reached last year's decider and held the lead drifting into injury-time but a late goal from Derry's Aisling Diamond denied them ultimate success.
So one couldn't begrudge Clare their moment in the limelight - they'd endured a lot of cruel luck too - but it was a pity it had to be at Offaly's expense!
It was Clare's fourth occasion to savour All-Ireland glory as they were previously crowned junior kingpins in 1974, '81 and '86. Offaly have yet to experience victory and their only previous All-Ireland Final appearance was seven years ago when they lost heavily to Tipperary, 1-7 to 4-16.
Carina Roseingrave's early goal helped Clare establish a rather fortunate 1-2 to 0-4 advantage after thirteen minutes. Offaly stuck rigidly to their game-plan, played fast, open and skilful camogie and not suprisingly they prised open their opponents rearguard and at the interval they enjoyed a 1-7 to 1-3 cushion.
The tactic of deploying corner forward Fiona Stephens as a third mid-fielder wreaked havoc for Clare's defenders and this, coupled with Arlene Watkins' fabulous control, led directly to Offaly's only goal. The 'Faithful' girls did strike six first half wides and considering they'd the lion's share of possession, a four-point lead didn't reflect their supremacy.
Clare, who were phsically stronger and keen to avoid a fourth All-Ireland Final loss since '03, upped the ante on the resumption and they exerted enormous pressure. The Offaly attack struggled to make inroads and three of the starting forwards were called ashore and sub Jean Brady, who was introduced to this sector, was taken off within twelve minutes and that was a harsh call.
Offaly's defending was simply heroic in the concluding half with Elaine Dermody, Sheila Sullivan and Michaela Morkan stubbornly repelling all that was flung at them. Clare twice got to within a point (1-6 to 1-7 44 mins & 1-7 to 1-8 46 mins) before scores by Morkan (free) and Tina Hannon (the possessor of great pace and skill) gave the Faithful girls a 1-10 to 1-7 advantage with six minutes of normal time remaining.
Laura Linnane's pointed free cut the gap to two and with referee Una Kearney indicating there'd be two additional minutes, the excitement and tension level grew significantly. Offaly, it seemed, had one hand on the cup only to see it swiped from under their noses.
Goalkeeper Audrey Kennedy saved smartly from Fiona Lafferty's strike and as Dermody attempted to tidy up, in nipped Enright to 'hook her', gain possession and hand-pass to the net. Offaly argued the legality of the hand-pass but their protests were waved away. A difficult chance to level it was presented to Michaela Morkan and her shot from a long range free agonisingly fell short.
When the long whistle shrilled, Offaly were devastated and distraught, while Clare were elated as victory erased the bitter memory of previous haunting defeats. Offaly certainly possess the potential and ability to bounce back but it won't be easy as this loss was as harrowing as it gets.
There was some consolation for impressive centre back Michaela Morkan as she was named Player of the Final, although as already mentioned, there were also masterful defensive displays from Sheila O'Sullivan and Elaine Dermody. The classy Dermody was gutted following Clare's second goal however but for her steadying influence and lengthy clearances the Banner girls would have got in for more scores.
Karen Nugent covered a lot of ground and delivered in a lot of intelligent ball towards the forwards from mid-field. Siobhan Flannery was a loss when she was forced to go off owing to an injury she picked up in the opening half. Tina Hannon picked off four top-drawer points and when she ran at Clare they looked in serious trouble until they moved Kate Lynch across to mark her. Arlene Watkins was menacing and sharp in the first half but she was starved of second half possession and wasn't as influential when she was switched to the wing.
Corner back Aoife Kelly, daughter of Joachim, was replaced at half time and re-introduced as a corner forward as part as a double substitution along with Aoife Corrigan, daughter of selector Mark, and perhaps it might have been wiser to bring back in Michelle Davis. Davis hadn't performed as well as she can but her experience and eye for the target could have made a difference.
St Sinchill's Jean Brady, too, didn't get very much time to make an impact - less than twelve minutes. Shinrone's Jeanette Feighery, who wasn't listed in the panel submitted to the programme nor in the squad pen pictures, held up the sliotar well and no doubt, if she hadn't been hampered by injury and was fitter, she'd have posed far more headaches for Clare.
Clare's experience of appearing in the finals of '03, '05 & '07 stood them in good stead and also the fact they played at a higher level than Offaly in the league and at minor level. Even when they struggled to break down Offaly's defence, they refused to panic and they kept battling to the bitter end.
Goalkeeper Denise Lynch foiled the Faithful with two crucial second half stops. Kate Lynch and Deirdre Murphy were inspirational during the concluding half while Carina Roseingrave and super-sub Shnagh Enright took their scores well.
Offaly were first off the mark. Michelle Davis played a clever hand-pass to Siobhan Flannery and the Player of the Match from the Minor 'B' All-Ireland Final clipped over a lovely point. Clare nipped in for their opening goal in the 5th minute.
The Banner girls were awarded 'a dubious' free out which 'keeper Denise Lynch delivered long. Sharon McMahon and Laura Linnane combined to release Carina Roseingrave and she blasted to the roof of the net at the Hill 16 end.
Flannery replied with an 8th minute converted free after Fiona Stephens had been fouled by Clare full back Siobhan Lafferty. Sharon McMahon (free) raised a white flag for Clare, 1-1 to 0-2.
The Faithful girls were level by the 10th minute. Tina Hannon surged through the heart of the Clare rearguard and sent a crisp strike off her hurley between the posts. Karen Nugent then placed a nice pass to her Drumcullen club mate Fiona Stephens and she found the range, 0-4 to 1-1.
Clare, managed by Colm Hanley, regained the lead in the 13th minute as Roseingrave slotted over a point following a good delivery from mid-fielder Chloe Morey.
Offaly dominated the second quarter, scoring an unanswered 1-3, however, this return didn't adequately reflect their superiority. Centre back Michaela Morkan dropped over a terrific point from a mammoth 66m free, but she and Siobhan Flannery were off target from the placed balls in the minutes that followed. Offaly deployed Stephens as a third mid-field and she picked up a lot of possession.
The Faithful girls roared ahead in the 20th minute. Nugent off-loaded to her captain and mid-fielder partner Marion Crean whose delivery reached Arlene Watkins. The Birr attacker showed a clean pair of heals to Lafferty and she left the net dangling with a stunning shot. Watkins, brimming with confidence, quickly added a point and Hannon made it 1-7 to 1-2 in the 28th minute after she was set up by sub Jeanette Feighery.
Clare sub Fiona Lafferty went on a great run but her shot went flying wide past Audrey Kennedy's left hand post. And on the stroke of half time Claire Commane stroked over a point for the Banner girls. Half-time: Offaly 1-7 Clare 1-3.
If the second quarter belonged to Offaly, well then the third was 'owned' by a fired up and resilient Clare outfit. Almost immediately from the restart Claire McMahon and Lafferty lashed in testing cross-bar height shots but no scores accrued. With Deirdre Murphy steering the ship from mid-field and Kate Lynch doing a good marking job after her switch to put the shackles on Tina Hannon, Offaly struggled to get the sliotar beyond mid-way.
Laura Linnane dispatched three accurate frees and after 44 minutes the minimum separated the sides, 1-6 to 1-7. Offaly were seriously under the cosh, and in desperate need of scores and in the 43rd minute there were sighs of anguish as Clare custodian Denise Lynch denied Feighery. Lynch came to Clare's rescue again in the 46th minute when she stood up bravely to save a shot by Offaly sub Jean Brady. However, all wasn't lost as Fiona Stephens passed to Tina Hannon and the Naomh Brd player floated over her third point.
Clare reduced the arrears to one point again, 1-7 to 1-8, after sub Shnagh Enright hit the target. Sharon McMahon and Enright were both off target before Offaly pushed three points clear, 1-10 to 1-7 with 54 minutes elapsed, courtesy of points by Michaela Morkan (a 21m free won by Watkins) and Hannon (after the sliotar was held up inside by Feighery).
Linnane registered her fourth point in the 56th minute following a foul on Roseingrave and as the game drifted towards additional time Offaly looked to have one-hand on the New Ireland Trophy. But as we all know two points is the most precarious lead in gaelic games and so it proved. Offaly 'keeper Audrey Kennedy reacted brilliantly to save a blistering Fiona Lafferty shot and as full back Elaine Dermody attempted to clear the danger she was dispossed by Shnagh Enright who hand-passed to the net.
Offaly tried desperately to salvage the situation and in the 62nd minute Michaela Morkan saw a long range free drop marginally short. There was no time left and with it went Offaly's hopes of a first ever All-Ireland title at this level.
OFFALY: Audrey Kennedy; Aoife Kelly, Elaine Dermody, Karen Brady; Sheila O'Sullivan, Michaela Morkan, Linda Sullivan; Marion Crean (capt.), Karen Nugent; Siobhan Flannery, Tina Hannon, Michelle Davis; Fiona Stephens, Natalie McCabe, Arlene Watkins.
Subs: Jeanette Feighery for N McCabe (21 mins), Lorraine Keena for A Kelly (half-time), Jean Brady for M Davis (37 mins), Aoife Corrigan for S Flannery (49 mins), Aoife Kelly for J Brady (49 mins).
CLARE: Denise Lynch; Cathy Hally, Siobhn Lafferty, Aimee McInerney; Kate Lynch, Dee Corcoran, Jane Scanlon; Chloe Morey, Deirdre Murphy (capt.); Aoife Ryan, Sharon McMahon, Laura Linnane; Carina Roseingrave, Claire McMahon, Claire Commane.
Subs: Fiona Lafferty for C Morey (22 mins), Shongh Enright for A Ryan (41 mins), Aoife Ryan for C McMahon (47 mins).
REFEREE: Una Kearney, Armagh..