I don’t know whether it was shock or despair or whether he was hoping something light would lighten the shock and despair, but Damian Martin was somehow trying to introduce a sense of hope after yesterday’s game in Tullamore.
“A few years before we made the breakthrough in 1980,” Damian said to me “we beat Wicklow by 0-3 to 0-1.”
I hadn’t the heart to say it to him but the only light visible at the end of any tunnel yesterday was those from the Carlow train which had just rolled over Offaly.
There won’t be any breakthrough in Offaly in a couple of years this time around. They’ve been slipping but they never expected to fall this far. Genuine Offaly people feared they might but when they just did, the fall was so hard it was almost concussive. When I met Brian Carroll afterwards, he looked and sounded numb. “This is the lowest of the low,” he said.
You have to give massive credit to Carlow but it’s hard to disagree with Brian because the pain was exacerbated by the massive sense of Offaly self-implosion. Eleven points up, and with Carlow having been reduced to 14 men after just ten minutes, this game looked done and dusted at half-time. Even though they had to face the strong breeze, you just felt if Offaly kept their heads, didn’t concede goals or stupid frees – cheap lifts as I call them – that they could manage the game completely on their terms. And Offaly just couldn’t.
They conceded a needless free just seconds into the second half. Marty Kavanagh’s point from the placed ball was the first big cheer from the Carlow crowd all day but they were in full voice two minutes later when Seamus Murphy had their first goal. After a long ball into the square, the ball should have been cleared until Murphy lunged at it to put the sliotar into the roof of the net.
Carlow’s second goal shortly afterwards also stemmed from a long ball in around the goal. Chris Nolan just got in front of Ben Conneely - who was trying to get the ball out to the side – and Nolan took the belt and flicked it to the net.
All of a sudden, the deficit was down to four points, Carlow had momentum and Offaly visibly began to collapse. Even though they had an extra man, three Offaly fellas were going up to contest their own puckout with two Carlow fellas. That third Offaly fella should have been staying down to try and snaffle the break but that lack of collective mental clarity underlined where Offaly’s heads were at when they needed to keep cool.
When you’re not fit, the first thing to go is your head, and I’m not convinced Offaly are fit. They were hunting in packs in the first half but that part of Offaly’s game completely deteriorated after the break. I don’t know whether it was just down to fitness either because Offaly were so all over the shop that they looked like a crowd that just believed that – even with the breeze – that they’d still have enough to beat a 14-man Carlow side anyway. There didn’t seem to be any structure of what way they were playing the extra man in the second-half. They seemed to invite Carlow onto them. Nobody really knows what’s going on in fellas’ heads but if ever Offaly needed to be ruthless and clinical and clear-headed, yesterday was the day.
The sadness around Offaly’s situation was reflected in the absolute lack of belief their public have in their hurlers anymore. I arrived in Tullamore around 1.20pm but I was able to park right outside the hospital. I was nearly in shock. I expected a big Offaly following but there was surely more Carlow than Offaly supporters in the sparse attendance.
I walked into the ground alongside Tommy Murphy, the former Carlow PRO, who I’d often met during my time with Dublin. “It will be a travesty if we go down,” he said. “The boys have put in savage effort into this league in trying to stay up.”
You’d have to agree with Tommy. Given what Carlow had already done – drawn with Galway and Laois, and ran Dublin close – they deserved to stay up more than Offaly. They way they hounded and chased Offaly down also showed that Carlow have the work done.
It’s all fine margins, especially in dire weather conditions, but those margins could have been expanded into canyons by Offaly by half-time. When Offaly were ahead by 1-10 to 0-2, Joe Bergin – who was Offaly’s standout performer – played a fantastic pass to Shane Dooley. He was only ten yards from goal but Dooley somehow managed to blaze it over when it would have been easier to rattle the net.
Carlow were only clinging on by then. They were nearly gone over the edge or the precipice earlier in the half when Jack Kavanagh was blessed not to get a red card for a flick across a fella’s helmet. I’d say the referee John Keenan left him on out of sympathy after having already red-carded Eddie Byrne. Colm Bonnar took Kavanagh off straight away, probably fearful that he might get sent off. When Kavanagh pelted the hurley off the stand, I said to myself, ‘Carlow are goosed.’ They weren’t. They kept believing, kept going. And kept the scoreboard moving. Bonnar’s reaction at the final whistle summed up just how much it meant to him and the players. And their hurling public, especially those which had travelled. I met a good few of them afterwards on the pitch. “Dalo, make sure you give us a good mention now,” they said. “Carlow Rising.”
They are but this really is the story of how one county have kept working hard, and kept trying to pull themselves up by their boot-straps, and of another county which – despite all the warnings – just haven’t done enough to stave off what the prophets of doom predicted may be coming.
The only redemption for Kevin Martin and Offaly now is to win the Joe McDonagh Cup.
But none of the other teams in that competition, especially Laois, Westmeath and Kerry, will have any fear of Offaly.