OFFALY and Derry have agreed to play the Allianz National Football League Division 3 final and it has been fixed for Croke Park next Saturday at 5.00pm.
While the game comes just a week before the Leinster Senior Football Championship opener against Louth, Offaly wanted it and they should benefit greatly from the experience of playing in Croke Park.
Offaly had the option of not playing a league final because of its proximity to the championship but once the GAA agreed to Croke Park as the venue, they wanted the game.
It is a somewhat risky fixture with the Louth game so close but management have taken the line that games are better than training and that playing in Croke Park will further develop the team.
It will be the first game for many of the squad in Croke Park, though several have played there before. Niall McNamee has played several games there while Ruari McNamee, Joe Maher and Jack Quinn have played colleges football there. Anton Sullivan, Eoin Carroll, Bernard Allen, Peter Cunningham, Cian Donohue, Eoin Rigney and the injured Johnny Moloney and Joe O'Connor all played there in Offaly's last appearance, a National Football League Division 4 final win over Longford in 2015.
Offaly have performed very well to date, gaining promotion to Division 2. They had wins over Wicklow, Limerick and Tipperary in the group stages while they withstood a late Fermanagh rally to win last Saturday's semi-final by 1-14 to 0-12.
They have made clear progress this year under John Maughan. Their best performance came in the win over Tipperary while the victories over Limerick and Fermanagh were very significant. These were the type of games that Offaly teams have lost in the past but on both occasions, they managed to pull it out of the fire and get across the finish line.
That is a big change for Offaly. While they struggled in the closing twenty minutes last Saturday, the result was the bottom line as a late Mark Abbott goal secured promotion. There were great scenes of celebration among the players and it was easy to see what the win meant to them.
Offaly were superb for fifty minutes against Fermanagh and a 0-14 to 0-7 lead was a fair reflection of their superiority at that stage. They did lose their way but they didn't fold and promotion to Division 2 represents a huge bonus for Offaly.
No matter what happens from here on, it means that 2021 has been a success for Offaly, even if a championship defeat to Louth would taint it a bit.
Offaly, however, will be putting Louth to the background for the moment and the focus this week will be all on Derry. It is a bonus game for Offaly and they will be aiming to play with a sense of freedom in Croke Park. The players should be given the opportunity of expressing themselves and allowing their natural flair to surface, while playing to the system that has served them well to date.
The challenge for them will be to retain the same energy levels and drive when things go wrong for them, as they did in the closing quarter against Fermanagh. Despite being down to fourteen men, Fermanagh had to get a run at some stage and it almost yielded a famous win. A defeat would have been a horrific pill for Offaly to have to swallow, especially the realisation that it was self inflicted to some degree. It didn't happen and Offaly deserve huge credit for that but in the white heat of battle, they did relapse into some old bad habits as they became cagey on the ball, playing too laterally or turning back. Some of the pace dropped out of their play, though fatique may have been a factor in this while Offaly also carried the ball into contact too often.
It was the polar opposite of what they did in the first fifty minutes and against Tipperary in their previous round. For the most part, they have shown how effective they can be when moving the ball quickly, playing at pace and mixing up long and short ball. Offaly are a work in progress but they are moving in the right direction and Saturday's final will tell more about them.
Derry will provide a great examination of where Offaly are. They topped Division 3 north with full points from their games against Fermanagh, Cavan and Longford while they had to work hard to beat Limerick by 0-17 to 0-13 in the semi-final last Saturday.
Offaly won't be reading much into Derry's games to date. They had a run away 5-13 to 0-9 win over Fermanagh in the second round and that suggests that Offaly will be up against it. However, they were certainly not comfortable against Limerick and that suggests that they have a very good chance.
Offaly won't be making many changes. Johnny Moloney is still injured and the team is likely to be very similar to the one that beat Fermanagh.
Many players are in great form. Peter Cunningham has found his best form again at midfield., Eoin Carroll's work rate is phenomenal there and Cian Farrell and Anton Sullivan are playing super stuff in attack. Ruari McNamee is playing the best football he has played at this level and the quality of his passion, the vision of his play is a great asset to Offaly. Bernard Allen was quiet last Saturday but his scores and intelligent forward play has been a big factor in promotion while Niall McNamee has made a great contribution off the bench – he will relish another match in Croke Park.
Derry are slight favourites but there could be a very big performance in Offaly and it could well bring a repeat of 1998 when they beat the northerners in the National Football League final.
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