Michael Brazil and Johnny Moloney with the Dowling Cup.
TIME will tell if we are witnessing the changing of the guard in Offaly football but Tullamore made a very important breakthrough when they snuffed the life out of Rhode in an engrossing Senior Football Championship final replay in Tullamore on Sunday.
Tullamore Court Hotel Senior Football Championship final replay
Once again it was a very low scoring encounter but over the two days there was absolutely no doubting the superiority of Tullamore. They were the better side in the drawn game and were only denied by a sensational Niall McNamee goal deep into injury time. Rhode's goal also came at the end of injury time here, an Anton Sullivan strike from what seemed to be a softly awarded penalty, but at this stage it didn't matter as Tullamore's lead was five points and they could not be caught.
It may not have been pretty and they left the door open for Rhode longer than they would have liked but Tullamore were clearly the better team on the day. They produced another defensive master class and while they were still quite wasteful up front, they were more efficient than they had been in the drawn game, they kept their shape better and they pushed forward with more venom when the winning post came into sight.
It was a superb win for Tullamore and the fact that they restricted Rhode to just four points speaks volumes about their display. It also raises plenty of questions for Rhode. They have been a phenomenal force of nature in Offaly football for the past twenty years and have contributed so much to the county.
They looked tired here, however, and the age of some of their players was obvious on a pitch that was heavy despite the unseasonably good weather. Alan McNamee, Brian Darby and Niall McNamee have a cartload of senior football medals between them and they tried their heart out here but in the white heat of battle, it was obvious that their legs couldn't do what they could a few years ago.
Tullamore won the midfield battle while Niall McNamee didn't score at all. Once again Declan Hogan did a magnificent marking job on him and a couple of his first half blocks and interceptions galvanised all around him. McNamee had only a couple of shots at the posts though he will be particularly annoyed at the free that he kicked wide in the 58th minute – it was a fairly straightforward free and Rhode needed it as they trailed by four points at that stage and it was crucial in the wind up as Sullivan's penalty would have been a lot more important if there was only three points in it (there was five at that stage). McNamee also missed a mark that he would normally score just before the half time break but no one in Rhode will be blaming him in the slightest for this defeat as he has won so many games for them down the years and he rescued them in the drawn game.
There was, however, no way that Rhode deserved anything out of this game. Tullamore never really gave them a look in and it was surprising to see three or four of their players hunting down Rhode forwards in possession. One of the abiding memories of the first half was three Rhode players biting at Ruari McNamee's heels in the fourth minute – on that occasion, they didn;'t do their job properly as they all stood off, a tackle wasn't put in and McNamee fired over a great opening point but for the most part, hands were stuck in, the attacker was forced away from the goal and Rhode just couldn't get shots in. Tullamore were absolutely relentless, remorseless in the way they played football and they also learnt lessons from the drawn game.
They had went back into a shell in the drawn game when it was there to be won but on this occasion, they were much better and more productive on the ball. They generally went forward rather than backwards and this was a big difference. It was Tullamore's first title win since 2013 and while they will be delighted with this, it opens up huge possibilities for them as they have some of the best young footballers in the county. Tullamore's history over the last fifty years does not suggest they will embark on a Rhode type dominance but they have the talent and they have the potential to win plenty more.
To the naked eye, this was a poor, mediocre game of football but it was as classical as a low scoring shootout can be. There were plenty of mistakes made, some poor football played and it was very defensive at times but it was completely engrossing. It was fiercely competitive and it was no place for the weak of heart. It was dog tough and any player hiding would have been very quickly exposed. It was football at its most human – yes there were errors, but it was so honest, so compelling, so enjoyable. The issue was in doubt until near the end and for much of the hour plus, there was only a point in it. There was loads of good football too, clever short passes, good ball into space and this was not a bad final.
It was all very tight in the first half, though Tullamore always looked to be marginally better. They went in leading by 0-4 to 0-3 at half time but had enjoyed more of the possession and seven wides was too many for them. Rhode lived on their wits a bit with an intuitive Luke Plunkett punch hitting the post in the 12th minute and the champions had Ruari McNamee to thank for being in the game at half time.
McNamee had an excellent first half with Tullamore surprisingly releasing John Furlong from a direct man marking job on him into a sweeping role. The Rhode centre forward took advantage, kicking all three of their points. The sides had been level on two occasions before Luke Plunkett and Aaron Leavy edged Tullamore two ahead coming up to the break. For a few minutes it looked like it could be one of those days for Tullamore – joint captain Johnny Moloney had a couple of bad wides and Tullamore would not have been over the moon with their first half display at the break.
They showed tremendous character in the second half. They got on top in most sectors, winning most of the individual battles and as the half wore on, Rhode's frustration became obvious to all. Their only point of the second half was a 32nd minute kick from Anton Sullivan that made it 0-5 to 0-4 and by the time he got his injury time penalty, Tullamore were through the gap.
They left the door open for a long time. Johnny Moloney (free), Aaron Leavy and Luke Egan had poor wides at a stage when Tullamore were turning the screw. Gradually, however, Tullamore made it count. Moloney's 49th minute free was crucial. Having missed his earlier ones, it was a big test for him but he held his nerve and it also gave the new champions a two point lead.
Diarmuid Egan, a lion hearted warrior for Tullamore, made it a three point game in the 50th minute and a superb score from Nigel Bracken gave them the security of a four point lead with four minutes left. Rhode found that they had nothing left in the tank. Their forwards just couldn't get their hands on the ball, though Conor McNamee did have a wide shortly after Niall missed his free.
Fittingly the last point came from John Furlong and it meant that the late goal was only a footnote in this game. Furlong had another sensational game. His tackling, his turnover of balls, his work rate and his use of the ball once again took the breath away and he was a deserving choice as man of the match. He made a couple of mistakes but it was as close as you can come to a flawless performance.
Tullamore had plenty of other heroes. Declan Hogan's performances on Niall McNamee over the two days will be spoken about for a few years to come while Kevin O'Brien worked his socks off in defence before being replaced, probably as a precaution after picking up a yellow card. Johnny Moloney deserves huge admiration for the way he stuck with things on a day that not everything worked out for him and he really stood up to be counted in the closing quarter.
Michael Brazil was once again brilliant at midfield. He didn't score but his work rate was phenomenal and he cut out the errors that had put a damper on a sensational display in the first game, when he kicked three fantastic points. Aaron Leavy worked very hard beside him and Tullamore took the midfield honours.
Up front Luke Plunkett had his best game in the Tullamore colours. He had a particularly good first half when he got two points and got on a lot of ball while he continued to work with great honesty in the first half. Diarmuid Egan was another who showed a great work ethic – he often broke the line and wasted very little ball. Ciaran Egan had a very hard working first half and it was overall such an honest Tullamore display.
Rhode will be the first to admit that they were beaten by the better team and they will take this defeat on the chin. They just weren't good enough over the two days and in truth the writing has been on the wall for them since they suffered a shock first round defeat by Durrow. As a unit, they just didn't hit their usual high notes this year and they will face significant challenges to turn it around next year.
Like Tullamore, they were completely honest in the way they played and they did have a few players who stood out. Dylan Kavanagh was immense at times in their defence while Ruari McNamee showed his class in the first half. Anton Sullivan continued to try hard throughout while Darren Garry turned over a good bit of ball but ultimately, Rhode did not have match winners coming to the surface in the second half, no one riding to rescue them and it just didn't happen for them on the day.
Tullamore: Johnny Moloney (1f) and Luke Plunkett 0-2 each, Aaron Leavy, Diarmuid Egan, Ciaran Egan, Nigel Bracken and John Furlong 0-1 each.
Rhode: Anton Sullivan 1-1 (Goal from a penalty), Ruari McNamee 0-3.
TULLAMORE: Corey White; Nigel Bracken, Declan Hogan, Paul McConway; Kevin O'Brien, Johnny Moloney, Oisin Keenan-Martin; Michael Brazil, Aaron Leavy; Harry Plunkett, Diarmuid Egan, Ciaran Egan; Luke Egan, Luke Plunklett, John Furlong. Subs – Shane Dooley for Ciaran Egan (39m), Ciaran Burns for O'Brien (42m), Tom Furlong for Harry Plunkett (60m), Michael Fox for Luke Plunkett (62m).
RHODE: Ken Garry; James McPadden, Conor McNamee, Keith Murphy; Brian Darby, Dylan Kavanagh, Niall Darby; Alan McNamee, Anton Sullivan; Pauric Sullivan, Ruari McNamee, Ciaran Heavey; Darren Garry, Aaron Kellaghan, Niall McNamee. Subs – Gareth McNamee for Pauric Sullivanh (HT), Shane Sullivan for Heavey (44m), Glen O'Connell for Kellaghan (52m).
Referee – Fintan Pierce (Raheen).
MAN OF THE MATCH
John Furlong (Tullamore): A tough call between Tullamore's Declan Hogan and John Furlong. Furlong's performance, however, was so complete, his football so relentless, his tackling so brilliant that he couldn't be overlooked. It has been a sensational year for the Offaly U-20 star.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Nigel Bracken's 56th minute point was crucial. It gave them a four point lead and the cushion to get home while it was also an excellent score from out on the left wing.
Fintan Pierce was not a factor in the result and was very fair in the way he refereed. At the same time, there were quite a few questionable calls here, particularly when it came to frees not given. Both sides had an equal amount of grounds for complaint here and they probably balanced out. Pierce has a policy of letting play run and frees were hard earned. In a way, this contributed to the entertainment value on offer, the toughness of the football. He didn't show cards softly and he was right to put Tullamore manager Niall Stack out from the sideline near the end after he appeared to come into contact with a Rhode player.
The decision to give Alan McNamee a reprieve from his red card in the drawn game proved to be a major talking point around this replay. The big talking point, however, is the poverty of Rhode's display. Alan McNamee will surely wind down his career in the next year or so, if not now, the clock is ticking for Brian Darby and Niall McNamee's influence will dwindle as he moves up through his thirties, even if he still has days where he shoots the lights out. Shane Sullivan was a late sub on Sunday and is also at the end stage of his career. Rhode don't have ready made replacements for these and will have noted that one of their best emerging forwards, Aaron Kellaghan was taken off here after struggling to get into the game. It would take a very foolish man to write Rhode's obituary at this stage but some of their cloak of invincibility has slipped this year and we will have to see if this slippage continues or if it can be arrested.
On an almost summer like November day, the O'Connor Park pitch was in fantastic condition and there was a great atmosphere.
Tullamore play Naas in Newbridge on Sunday, November 21.
Wides: Tullamore 12 (7 in first half); Rhode – 8 (4 in first half).
Yellow cards: Tullamore – 1 (Kevin O'Brien); Rhode – 2 (Anton Sullivan and Pauric Sullivan).
Black cards: 0.
Red cards: 0.
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