’CLARE 1995 & ’97 All-Ireland SHC medal winner Ollie Baker finds him-self in an intriguing situation on April Fool’s Day at O’Connor Park as he will be trying to plot the downfall of his native county and get one over on his former team mate, the feisty and fiery Davy Fitzgerald.
Offaly and Clare collide in an Allianz NHL Division 1B fifth round encounter where there is a huge amount at stake, particularly for the hosts.
Clare, with four victories under their belt to-date (they overcame Wexford by 3-16 to 0-18 last Sunday), are safely through to the Division 1B final on Sunday, April 8 regardless of the outcome and if Offaly could pull off victory, then they are odds on to join them thanks to their plus 16 points score difference.
So the prospect of two battles with Clare in successive Sundays could be on the cards! However, Limerick and Antrim, who meet in Casement Park on Sunday, aren’t out of the hunt to join Clare in that final either. Offaly (+16) and Limerick (+3) are equal on five points while Antrim (-5) have four points in the bag and there are umpteen permutations. If Offaly lose or draw and Limerick win, then the ‘Treaty’ men will qualify for the final.
If Offaly lose and Antrim won, then Antrim would progress to meet Clare, with the winner going to Division 1A for next season and playing in this season’s NHL semi-finals proper. An Offaly loss and a draw in Belfast would see Limerick progress. Baker refused to be drawn on his pending side-line showdown with Fitzy.
“There is a subplot alright but the real issue is about Offaly and what we really need to get out of the game and we’ve to keep an eye on what Limerick are doing up in Antrim as well. Look that is what you are involved in sport for, for days like this.”
And he also urged ‘Faithful’ fans to come out and get behind his players. “There are huge issues at stake. We’ve thirty lads who are fiercely committed, have made huge sacrifices and they should be rewarded at the very least with a good attendance.”
He was pleased with the fighting spirit shown by his team after they trailed by six points to force a draw with Limerick. “We’re delighted to have fought back. They say sport is about swings and roundabouts. You go back to two weeks ago against Wexford and we were in that position and Wexford fought it out until the end because it was their do or die game.
“And I suppose we were in a similar situation this evening and fair play to Shane (Dooley) he stood up and took on the leadership and put the ball away especially considering he’d missed one earlier in the game. And Conor Mahon scored a fantastic goal.”
Baker added, “The lads fought it out and we were always looking to get something. Things didn’t go right for us. Some days you get results you don’t deserve and other days you get beaten when you deserve to win. We were flattered to come away with a result and we’re not going to be fooled by that but we’ll be buoyed by the confidence that we take from it and hopefully it will kick start our year into something else.”
Rory Hanniffy and Stephen Wynne both came off injured, with it later being revealed that Hanniffy sustained a broken thumb. Offaly didn’t score a point from play for over forty minutes and Baker commented,
“It was a real step up compared to what we have played in the last couple of games and maybe it took our lads a bit of time to adjust. We’ve been sailing through the games in parts over the past three weeks and that came back to haunt us. And now we understand what the intensity level is. Limerick brought serious intensity and the tackling they were doing was savage, particularly in their full back line and our lads have to be aware that’s the minimum requirement you are going to face in terms of defences.”
Offaly did produce some passages of good first half play and Baker agreed, “I would have felt we were the better team in the first half and still we went in two points down (1-7 to 2-6). And I think we certainly missed four or five good scoring chances. We played some nice, crisp hurling, moved the ball well and we were on top in our half back line and we just seemed to fade out of the game a small bit.”
He concluded, “Our goal at the start of the season was for the game against Clare to be a competitive situation. I think the players have learned an awful about them-selves. We could have thrown in the towel and didn’t. We learned a real harsh lesson below in Wexford and the players saw the reversal of that tonight and you only improve if they learn and take on the lessons.”