For just the second time in the 19-year history of the qualifiers, Offaly have put together back-to-back wins and reached the third-round qualifier pot, where they will be the only team of the eight who will play their football outside the top two divisions of the National League in 2020.
Home draws against out-of-form sides London and Sligo have certainly played a big part in that but tallies of 1-21 and 3-17 in those two games, with both victories secured by double-digit margins, would suggest that John Maughan’s side might yet be capable of stepping up another rung or two in class next weekend. Certainly they were very impressive for long spells of this afternoon’s win over the Yeats County, banging in early goals from Niall McNamee and Shane Horan and then piling on the scores again after half time.
They’ll be a little concerned about kicking ten wides, about Sligo’s competitiveness in the kickout battle and the fact that they were outscored by 0-5 to 0-2 in the lead up to half time despite playing with the wind in that time; but as the team with the third highest scoring average per game in the championship this year (4-52 in three games, 21.3 points per game, behind only Dublin and Tyrone) they have a lot to be positive about in advance of next weekend.
The difference in confidence and momentum between the sides was obvious in the early exchanges after Offaly kicked three early points, all from dead balls, on the back of some good running football played at a very high tempo. They took a firm hold on the game then in the ninth minute when midfielder Peter Cunningham changed tack and hoisted a long ball in towards Niall McNamee.
The veteran full forward proved why his return was such a boost to John Maughan as he leapt up to field the ball and held off Peter Laffey before blasting a low shot into the corner of the net. Four minutes later the Sligo net rattled again after a wonderful team move. Cathal Mangan set up the attack with a superb mark at midfield and in a matter of seconds, Cunningham and Carroll helped to set up Shane Horan for his first championship goal for his adopted county.
Now seven points up and with the wind behind them, Offaly could have wrapped up the win by the interval. Instead, not unlike their first-round win over London when they went 20 minutes without scoring, they had a poor second quarter and were second best to the Yeats County in that time.
Pat Hughes and Niall Murphy chipped in with good scores from close range, Darragh Cummins got forward to split the posts from 30 metres out and Sligo also came desperately close to raising a green flag of their own, only to be denied by a stunning save from Paddy Dunican in response to Paddy O’Connor’s low shot.
A brace of scores from Cathal Mangan seemed to settle the home side around the 25-minute mark but Sligo outscored their hosts by 0-5 to 0-2 for the remainder of the half, the highlight from a Sligo point of view a lovely catch and kick score from Hughes on the edge of the square.
2-8 to 0-9 at half time but with Sligo’s wind advantage to come, the game was there to be seized by either team – and it was Offaly who seized it.
After five scoreless minutes at the start of the second half and wides at either end, Eoin Carroll burst past his man with a lovely flick of the ball to gain space and he set up Niall McNamee for a second goal, and almost immediately Sligo were a beaten team.
Possession continued to be relatively equally shared as Offaly’s own kickout misfired a little, while Neil Ewing hoovered up a lot of short restarts from Eamon Kilgallon, but the contrast in how the two sides converted that possession into scores was stark.
Paddy Dunican, Shane Horan and Bernard Allen all tacked on points before Sligo finally broke a 19-minute scoring drought with a superb arcing kick from Barry Gorman, and that was far too little and too late for Paul Taylor’s men, who drifted towards the final whistle, losing David Quinn to a straight red card on the way.
Scorers for Offaly: Niall McNamee 2-2 (0-1f), Bernard Allen 0-4 (0-1f), Shane Horan 1-1, Paddy Dunican 0-3 (0-2f, 0-1 ’45), Cathal Mangan 0-2, Peter Cunningham. Eoin Carroll, Anton Sullivan, Niall Darby & David Dempsey 0-1 each.
Scorers for Sligo: Niall Murphy 0-4 (0-1f), Sean Carrabine (0-2f), Paddy O’Connor, Darragh Cummins & Pat Hughes 0-2 each, Paul Kilcoyne, David Quinn & Barry Gorman 0-1 each.
Paddy Dunican; Declan Hogan, Eoin Rigney, David Dempsey; Cian Donohoe, Johnny Moloney, Niall Darby; Eoin Carroll, Peter Cunningham; Shane Horan, Anton Sullivan, Cathal Mangan; Bernard Allen, Niall McNamee, Ruairí McNamee.
Subs used: Mark Abbott for R McNamee (51), Paul McConway for Sullivan (63), Joseph O’Connor for Mangan (64), Shane Tierney for N McNamee (69), Clint Horan for Hogan (70), Nigel Bracken for Horan (70+2).
Eamon Kilgallon; Paul McNamara, Peter Laffey, Nathan Mullen; Darragh Cummins, Keelan Cawley, Gerard O'Kelly Lynch; Paul Kilcoyne, Adrian McIntyre; Karl McKenna, Paddy O'Connor, Mickey Gordon; Seán Carrabine, Pat Hughes, Niall Murphy.
Subs used: Neil Ewing for McKenna (9, black card), David Quinn for O’Connor (30, temp), Barry Gorman for Gordon (48), John F Carr for O’Kelly Lynch (51), Luke Nicholson for McIntyre (57), Quinn for O’Connor (62), Brian McGowan for Carrabine (70+2).
Referee: Brendan Cawley (Kildare)