Niall Darby celebrating Rhode's draw in the SFC final.
RHODE will find themselves in the very unusual situation of being underdogs when they take on Tullamore in the Tullamore Court Hotel Senior Football Championship final replay next Sunday – the news on Tuesday morning that Alan McNamee has got his red card rescinded and will play in the final was a boost to the champions.
A brilliant Niall McNamee goal almost at the end of injury time gave Rhode a second chance in the drawn game and they really got out of jail that day.
The initiative often switches to the team that escapes in a drawn game and history is littered with examples of them taking second chances. It is very much set up for Rhode to do this and there is no side better equipped in Offaly to take a second chance than Rhode.
The reigning champions were mightily relieved to get out of O'Connor Park the last day without a defeat. They were on the ropes for much of the second half and had them went down to a four or five point defeat, Rhode would have took it on the chin, walked away, congratulated Tullamore and accepted that the better team had won on the day.
Yet they got away with a draw and it very much sets them up for the replay. They were lucky to survive.
As brilliant as the finish was, Niall McNamee's equalising goal was doused in good fortune. Tullamore coming the wrong way out the field when they had possession on the Rhode '40' inside the final minute of injury time, a less than clinical pass but one that was still good enough to be gathered, yet was picked up off the ground. A free brought forward for a player jumping in front of Anton Sullivan. That made a huge difference and even then, Sullivan's kick in may have been miscued. It fell into the one pair of hands that Rhode wanted on the ball, the ones that Tullamore didn't but even then they had enough bodies back to protect their goal. Instead, McNamee hit a shoulder which pivoted him to the left and his finish was right out of the top drawer.
It was a dramatic end to an engrossing game of football. It was low scoring, 1-8 each, but it was as exciting and as entertaining as such a game could be. Much will depend on how both sides respond to what happened the last day.
It was almost like a win for Rhode, a defeat for Tullamore but it was neither and the reality is both sides have a chance to do it all again.
It is true that Tullamore will seldom get as gilt edged a chance to win a game again. Rhode had been down to fourteen men after Alan McNamee was red carded in the 23rd minute – McNamee's appeal was successful on Monday evening after the Offaly GAA Hearings Committee decided that referee Marius Stones was wrong to send him off. Tullamore had the strong wind in the second half, they were five points up with seventeen minutes left and the game was theirs to lose.
They almost lost it and in some ways were fortunate that they weren't beaten. It could have been a two point game when McNamee got that goal – Michael Brazil's closing point for Tullamore would not go over every time he shoots while Rhode missed some chances at the other end.
Tullamore have only themselves to blame for not winning the first game. When the winning post came into sight, they got quite nervous. Mistakes crept into their game all over the field but most damagingly, they became way too defensive. They pulled players back, they went backwards with the ball and they invited Rhode onto them.
That wasn't something that suddenly happened in the white heat of a county final battle. It has been a feature of Tullamore's play all year and they have often been guilty of too much lateral passing rather than truly going for teams. It was particularly obvious in the closing quarter of the drawn game and Tullamore have huge lessons to learn.
Both sides will be struggling for freshness on Sunday but Tullamore will be particularly badly hit in this regard. By the time of the replay, they will have had players in action in two U-20 football games and a senior “B” hurling final and there are a lot of players suffering from fatique. Tullamore have had a gruelling fixtures schedule from the Offaly County Board. It is one of the symptoms of being a dual club but their complaints at the load being forced on some of their brightest young talent are legitimate.
It has cost them the services of one of their brightest football stars, Cormac Egan, who sustained a bad hamstring injury a few weeks ago. With Egan on board, Tullamore probably would have won the drawn game – he would be unlikely to go back with the ball and his pace would panic any defence. Of course you can also argue that Rhode would be a very diffferent side with defenders Eoin Rigney and Jake Kavanagh on board.
Tullamore, however, haven't had much chance to freshen up for Sunday. The Offaly Competitions Control Committee were amenable to the postponement of the U-20 football final this week but it required the agreement of Na Fianna and that wasn't forthcoming. Na Fianna would have ran into their own difficulty if it was put back a week as there were fears that Clodiagh Gaels wouldn't release their players ahead of the senior “B” hurling final but it is a pity that Tullamore weren't facilitated and their young players given a break.
It is an awkward situation and it will also be debated if Tullamore have done everything they could to protect players themselves. A number of their players cramped up during their U-20 semi-final win over Wheery and they were slow about taking them off – it is an invidious position for a team management and they would be understandably wary about taking off players in a game that could still go wrong for them. Tullamore hurlers didn't start Luke Egan in their senior “B” semi-final win over Clara and he came on atr half time.
Diarmuid Egan was very shook after the game following the heavy knock he took in Alan McNamee's dismissal but he played the full hurling game for Tullamore on Sunday and should be fit to take his place.
Much has been made of the fact that Tullamore only introduced two subs in the first game, yet had a panel of 37 named in the programme. The truth is that Tullamore are not different than any other team in this regard. They may have an enviable array of talent, they may have players that should be able to win a few championships but at the moment, their senior football team is operating out of a limited pool. The bulk of those 21 subs were members of the Tullamore squad that won the Junior Football Championship and the vast majority of those won't be considered for use in the replay.
Rhode have had a chance to prepare differently for the replay. St Michael's were beaten by Na Fianna in the U-20 semi-final on the Tuesday after the drawn game but Rhode hadn't many players involved in that and have been able to recover proper.
They do have concerns. Anton Sullivan is a concern after injuring his shoulder in the first match. Getting Alan McNamee back is a huge bonus for them but they can't afford to be without Sullivan.
It is hard to know what way this game will go. We can expect Rhode to go better and they retain the potential to blow a side out of the water. They know how to play and win finals and Tullamore have only a handful of players with that experience – Declan Hogan, Paul McConway, Kevin O'Brien, Johnny Moloney, Michael Brazil, Shane Dooley and Nigel Bracken.
They have been the dominant club in Offaly for a long time and they are an unstoppable force of nature on their day. They have Niall McNamee, a player who can win games almost on his own. Niall McNamee got a spectactular point and a goal for Rhode the last day but was actually quiet enough for the most part. He could be a lot more influential the next day while Rhode will also be hoping to get more out of Anton Sullivan, Ruari McName and Aaron Kellaghan – Sullivan finished superbly while Kellaghan had a fine first half.
Rhode have the capacity to improve further and if they do, they will be very hard to beat. Still, the odds do favour Tullamore. They should learn more from the first game and they also have the capacity to improve. To win, Tullamore will have to change their attitude. They will have to be braver, to take more chances and attack with more pace and intensity. They will have to take risks and trust themselves.
This could leave them open but Tullamore need to find the faith that they are good enough. And they do look to be good enough – they got in their own way two weeks ago. Whether Tullamore can click or not and build on what they have done remains to be seen. They have that capacity but you can't trust Tullamore to do it.
It creates the scene for an engrossing final. The impression does remain that Tullamore may be slightly better than Rhode at the moment, that they have a marginally better balanced team and better young players. Time will judge on that but it is possible that Tullamore have more room to improve. The million dollar question is will they make those improvements and will they attack the game in the way it needs to be taken on and in the way Rhode will do if they get into a winning position.
Verdict – Tullamore.
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