Offaly having lost to Wexford in their first game, who subsequently lost to Dublin. Cork put up a strong challenge before going under to Tipperary in Munster, and the Rebels are strongly fancied in most quarters, a fact accepted even by Offaly forward Brian Carroll.
“You can’t blame people, Cork have a super team at the moment. We were hugely disappointing against Wexford, we didn’t perform on the day, gave away a couple of soft goals. We seemed to be doing alright at times but we were not clinical enough and failed to score a couple of penalties. Cork ran Tipp close so as far as the public are concerned, they are 10 points a better team than us. We would be hopeful that getting them at home, we are going to give them a rattle at least.”
Give them a rattle? Cork would need to be wary of this one, and very wary. A couple of years ago, at around this same time of the season, Offaly went to Páirc Uí Chaoimh to play Cork, again in the qualifiers – it was a humiliation, a 19-point hosing, Cork winning by 1-27 to 0-11. You think that didn’t hurt?
“It was one of the worst defeats for Offaly,” says Carroll, who was substituted on the day. “Cork wiped the floor with us. We were badly prepared, our minds were not right. And you don’t go into a situation like that against Cork with the hurlers they have – no better team to punish you. They will fire over points all day, they will run through you, they will offload the ball – they have super hurlers all over the field, far too experienced to try and face in a situation like that.”
Take it as read, then, that the defeat will be to the forefront of Offaly minds this Saturday, and even if the game isn’t in Birr, the spiritual home of hurling in the county but still being renovated. O’Connor Park will still provide a hot welcome for Cork.
“Tullamore is a fine ground with great facilities, and we train there at the moment – we know it well,” says Brian. It’s not the biggest pitch in the country and its tighter spaces will militate against the Cork running game.
Offaly have a young side but under manager Joe Dooley, in his second season at the helm, they will expect to make further progress. The championship loss to Wexford was a setback, but just a few weeks earlier Offaly had achieved their first major goal of this season when beating that same Wexford team in the Division Two league final, to earn promotion to the top ranks next year. For a young side with ambition, that was a big win.
“We definitely treated the league final like a championship match,” Carroll agrees, “It is hugely important for Offaly going forward that we got back to Division One. We see what is after happening with Dublin this year, the strides that they are after making on the back of Division One hurling. It was hugely important to us that we beat Wexford. We knew that we had to play them again in championship and we had to lay down a marker, albeit it did not stand to us on the day.”
Penalties cost Offaly in Wexford, two missed opportunities in a seven-point loss, two poorly-taken shots, the second of which was by Carroll himself. “Sometimes you would wonder if there is an advantage in the penalty. Joe Bergin (Offaly full-forward) had clear sight of goal and he was after rounding his man when he was pulled down – it was an open goal at that stage, and nothing came of it. Okay, it is up to us to finish the penalty but you saw in the Cork/Tipp match as well, the big turning-point in that game was when Brendan Cummins made the penalty save (after Timmy McCarthy had the ball in the net but was called back). Sometimes it is no advantage at all; I don’t think it should brought in closer because it takes a brave man to stand in front of the ball as it is, but certainly three in the goal is a tall ask of any player and they are very rarely converted.”
One for the law-makers to address.
In the meantime life goes on for another few days at least for one of either Cork or Offaly.
It’s arguable that the most critical game of all is in Tullamore.
Cork would be advised to be well prepared; anything less, and it will be a long road home.