Brian Carroll (right) with fellow interim Offaly management members, Joachim Kelly and Paddy Kirwan at a game a couple of years ago.
WHILE results went exactly according to expectations, there was no shortage of talking points and controversy when the final round of group games in the Offaly Senior Hurling Championship took place on Saturday evening – a red card for St Rynagh's Joe O'Connor and an incident with a team mate that saw former Offaly hurling star Brian Carroll leave the venue in the last few minutes of Coolderry's defeat by Birr certainly provided plenty of drama.
The semi-finals on the weekend of September 26/27 will see St Rynagh's take on Birr in a repeat of last year's dramatic county final while Kilcormac/Killoughey and Belmont will square off in the other one.
The games took placed behind closed doors but supporters received a boost on Tuesday when it was announced that limited numbers of spectators will be allowed back into venues for the closing stages of the championship.
Under the Government's new Living with Covid plan, up to 200 people will be allowed to attend stadiums with a capacity of 5,000 or more from this Wednesday and it will be 100 people for games at other venues. In Offaly, this means that O'Connor Park in Tullamore and St. Brendan's Park in Birr could possibly host crowds of 200 people.
It will still provide a boost for people as the championships moves into the concluding stages – the Senior, Senior “B”, Intermediate and Junior Football Championship semi-finals are fixed for this weekend with O'Connor Park hosting the senior and senior “B” ones. The county ground will also host most finals.
Before spectators were banned from matches, the figure for 200 allowed included players, officials and stewards but now it is in addition to them, which will allow more people to see games.
All of this could change depending on Covid numbers over the coming week. The country is currently at level two under the roadmap guidelines and if it goes down to level one, the number allowed into bigger grounds will go up to 500. However, if it goes to level three, it will revert to the current situation where club and county championships can proceed without spectators and these will be cancelled all together if it goes to level four.
The local championships have been progressing well, despite the two week lockdown for Offaly, Laois and Kildare that saw them put on hold some weeks ago – despite the absence of spectators, there have been some great games as the championships have progressed every other weekend with no county complications taking players away from clubs.
Last weekend, attention was on the hurling. With St Rynagh's and Kilcormac/Killoughey already assured of qualification in senior, the big games were the meetings of Birr v Coolderry and Ballinamere v Belmont, with a semi-final berth on the line for the winners of each.
However, Birr and Belmont recorded big wins with Birr particularly impressive in a 3-19 to 0-11 demolition of a very off colour Coolderry. Belmont put in a storming closing quarter to pull away from Ballinamere for a 1-18 to 1-11 win.
Champions St Rynagh's had a 1-23 to 3-15 win over Shinrone, that was easier than the final scoreline would suggest as Shinrone's final goal came deep into injury time.
St Rynagh's win, however, came at a serious cost as dual star Joe O'Connor received a straight red card for an off the ball incident early in the second half of their win over Shinrone. St Rynagh's were actually in a bad position at that stage as they went three points behind soon after but they built up a serious head of steam in the closing 25 minutes to win. They will be deeply concerned at the possibility of having to face Birr without O'Connor, who has been in excellent form for them at midfield in recent games – unless they can prove that the red card was shown in error, O'Connor will serve a one match ban against Birr.
Kilcormac/Killoughey received a tough test from Seir Kieran, who were already out of contention before the final round. They won by 3-19 to 2-19 and the decisive spell came in the five minutes after the second half water break when they scored 2-2.
While the favourites won all four games, there were plenty of incidents. In the last few minutes of the Coolderry v Birr game, there were extraordinary scenes as Brian Carroll left the field after being apparently struck by one of his own team mates. Few people saw what happened on the field three minutes from time apart from a handful of players but what is certain is that a clearly upset Carroll came over to the sideline, gathered up his belongings in the stand as stunned subs looked on and headed for the exit with substitute Martin Corcoran coming onto the field about half a minute later.
The incident was not dealt with by match officials, who may not have spotted it, but will now have to be examined by Coolderry GAA Club, who will have to deal with the fallout from it.
At first it seemed that Carroll had been replaced by the Coolderry management but that does not appear to have been the case. A long serving Offaly star before retiring a couple of years ago, Carroll had been one of the few Coolderry players to rise to the Birr challenge in the second half of a very dark day for them, getting a couple of points from play and trying to drive on his team mates.
Carroll has been one of the Coolderry stars for several years as they have enjoyed some great success and there will now be speculation about his future, though he has the legs and form to continue playing for another couple of years.
Coolderry look to be heading for a transitional spell and they had the misfortune to come up against a Birr side in no mood for messing. Birr played excellent hurling on the day, controlling all sectors and they led by 2-10 to 0-3 after playing with a strong wind in the first half. A goal from the superb Niall Lyons ended the game as a contest after the resumption and while Coolderry did try to rally the forces, they were only fighting for pride at this stage and a very impressive Birr pulled away again in the closing few minutes.
The semi-final between them and Birr could be the game of the year. Birr looked destined to end an eleven year gap without a visit from the Sean Robbins Cup in last year's final but St Rynagh's snatched a terrific late snatch and grab raid to take the spoils.
In the other semi-final, Kilcormac/Killoughey will be favourites against Belmont but Belmont have improved as the campaign has progressed while they have been knocking on the door of a final breakthrough for a few years. This will be an intriguing game.
The Belmont defeat brought the curtain down on a year of promise and improvement for Ballinamere – they have had great underage success and look to have the ingredients to emerge as a force in the next few years but Belmont showed that they still have a good bit of road to travel, particularly physically.
There is no relegation play off this year as the Senior Hurling Championship will be increased to ten teams next year – the two senior “B” finalists will be promoted.
See Tullamore and Midland Tribune for detailed coverage of all the championship action and previews of this week's big football games.