PREVIEW: Sitting ducks Offaly on high alert for Louth ambush

Sitting ducks Offaly on high alert for Louth ambush

Offaly goalkeeper Paddy Dunican.

OFFALY manager John Maughan certainly won't have to worry about any sense of complacency ahead of this Sunday's big Leinster Senior Football Championship first round encounter with Louth in Navan.

Offaly wouldn't have been taking anything for granted anyway but they received a very big wake up call with a bad beating by Derry in the National Football League Division 3 final in Croke Park last Saturday.

Offaly performed very poorly in a 0-21 to 1-6 defeat and it could have been much worse. Stand in keeper Peter Cunningham saved an injury time penalty from Shane McGuigan while the winners missed a couple of other decent goal chances.

As it was, it was a very thought provoking defeat and ones that raises questions about Offaly's prospects. It also raised questions about the wisdom of playing Saturday's final. With the championship a week later, Offaly had the option of not playing it but they sought the fixture, on condition that it was played in Croke Park.

It is too soon to judge the wisdom or other wise of playing the final. The Louth result and performance will dictate those answers but at the moment, you can assess it both ways. Maybe a wake up call was exactly what Offaly needed after a very successful league campaign and the performance will have them on high alert for the Louth game. It also leaves them with a big point to prove and that is no bad thing.

Yet, it also provides challenges. It will be Offaly's third hard game in a row in the space of three weeks and their bodies will be sore. The nature of Saturday's defeat may also have been damaging and Louth have the benefit of a week without a game.

John Maughan insisted after Saturday's game that he had no regrets about playing the final and time will tell if it was the right move.

Offaly could badly do with winning this one. Promotion to Division 2 means that it is already a very successful year. That was a huge step forward for Offaly, a real bonus and they achieved it on merit. They almost certainly won't be winning the Leinster or All-Ireland championship this year and taking the leap to Division 2 football is a huge achievemejnt.

However, a defeat by Louth would taint the year, take a small bit of the good out of it. They really need to beat Louth and get a cut at Kildare in the Leinster quarter-final. Offaly were beaten by Kildare by four points last year while they almost defeated Meath two years ago, and they really need to beat a Kildare or Meath.

It is an important part of their progress but Offaly won't be looking beyond Louth. They are sitting ducks for Louth, their form in winning promotion has given Mickey Harte's ample warning, their performance last Saturday will have given them optimism and confidence. Harte will have seen nothing to be afraid of and Offaly are vulnerable to being taken out by one good shot. Harte will try and replicate elements of the way Derry played. Particularly by pushing up on kickouts and not allowing Offaly keeper Paddy Dunican to place players and have them build from the back.

It will be interesting to see what strategy Offaly come up with to counter this. They will expect Louth to operate a similar pressure game, albeit at a lower level than Derry could manage, and John Maughan's plan B will be absolutely crucial. Offaly were outplayed at midfield last Saturday, they couldn't cope with Derry's power and pace and Louth will be trying to exert similar pressure on them.

Louth, however, are unlikely to be as potent as Derry were. Mickey Harte's presence as manager has added a tantalising extra ingredient to Louth and the expectation is that they will improve under his watch. The Tyrone man has a tremendous footballing pedigree and their fitness and physicality should come on.

At the same time, they are coming from Division 4 football and Offaly are favourites to win. Louth did well to win promotion from Division 4 and they are improving but it is important not to give them too much respect, to go out with full belief that they can win. Louth were in Division 4 for a reason and they also lost their first game here, a 1-15 to 3-8 defeat by Antrim – the Ulster men staged a great late rally to shock Louth.

Louth have improved significantly since then. They beat Leitrim by 0-19 to 0-10 and had an impressive 3-18 to 1-14 win against Sligo to book their semi-final place. They won promotion to Division 3 with a convincing 1-23 to 1-15 win over Carlow and them and Antrim did not avail of the option of playing a league final.

The Mickey Harte factor is important in this game. His track record with Tyrone was tremendous and appointing him was a coup for Louth. It is a factor that shouldn't be over played. Harte has no magic wand and while he will bring Louth on, he can't turn fish into pedigree bulls, he can't transform a Division 4 side into All-Ireland champions in a year.

Offaly have their own high profile manager in John Maughan and he has had more time to work on his team than Harte. The Mayo man is now in his third year and he knows his players inside out at this stage. They have made definite improvements under him.

Last Saturday's defeat, particularly the nature of it and how poorly they competed, was a blow but it was only a bad day at the office. They just couldn't get up to the power, pace and intensity that they needed and again, time will tell if this was a temporary aberration or evidence of a more profound problem.

Louth will provide some of the answers. Offaly will have to be on full guard for this one. They did really well to get promotion to Division 2 and the joy of the players after they beat Fermanagh in the semi-final was understandable. It was their first experience of a big senior inter-county success and they deserved to bask in that. It does, however, come with a caveat. Offaly did well very well to win their three group games and the Fermanagh one and the Limerick and Fermanagh games in particular were the types that they have lost in the past.

They got across the line on this occasion and that represented progress but the split league suited them. Limerick and Wicklow came up out of Division 4 last year while Tipperary will be there next year. Offaly did well to top it and playing Fermanagh in the semi-final was a much more favourable task than Derry. Would Offaly have fared better against Derry in a must win semi-final than in a league final, where the result didn't really matter? You would like to think so and Limerick were only four points off them in the semi-final but we don't know.

Offaly should be able to get the Derry game out of their system this week. They will learn from it and it gives management a chance to assess their tactics and come up with alternative plans in case of things going wrong.

It will be interesting to see what team management start on Sunday and how much they read into Saturday's performance. Will players pay the price for performing poorly and the team freshened up or will it be taken as an aberration and the same side started?

You can make an argument for either one but it is hard to penalise a couple of individuals for what was a collective failure. There is a case for starting Niall McNamee and Offaly looked a lot better with him on the field last Saturday – he was introduced after 25 minutes. The wiser option may be to keep him in reserve. It is doubtful if there is a full seventy minutes in him at this stage of his county career and the value of him coming off the bench in a tight championship match is immense.

And Offaly have to legislate for this being a tight championship match, one that will go down to the wire. It is not impossible but it is unlikely that either side will pull away for a convincing win and McNamee can have a huge bearing on the result.

Johnny Moloney returned to action late on in Saturday's match and that is good news. It increases the options at management's disposal. They have the option of starting him at centre half back if they decide that Carl Stewart is not ready yet for the championship – the Clara man did well in centre half back after Moloney got injured but is very much a work in progress as he builds his fitness and strength. Moloney could also be used at midfield or in the attack and he is a very useful option to have – whether as a starter or a sub.

It is very close to a 50/50 game but Offaly can survive. They had been playing very well before Saturday and they won't want the season to end so quickly. Their pride was hurt on Sunday and they will be trying to fix that. Championship is a very different story than a league final where promotion is already assured.

And while Louth command the utmost of respect, they are coming from Division 4 while Offaly have gone up to Division 2. Those type of statistics do matter and Offaly can qualify for a renewal of hostilities with Kildare.

Verdict – Offaly.

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