But, as Offaly manager Brian Whelahan said, he “didn’t make the rules” and their ability to respond to the threat of relegation, after trailing by seven points and playing the last 20 minutes with 14 men means they deserved to survive.
Having no automatic promotion for the Division 2A champions surely sticks in the craw of some Kerry hurlers and supporters, but their manager, Eamonn Kelly, said his side have already eclipsed their own expectations for the league.
“I suppose you could hang on that, but from our point of view our aim this year was to try and win the Christy Ring. We never actually targeted winning the league. We got on a run and we built on it. We were thrilled to be crowned league champions last week,” he said.
“But I think for Kerry hurling we now know what’s required to hurl in the next level and that’s where we need to go to. Try and win the Christy Ring and build on it from there, then we try and make the step into 1B.”
Before the throw-in, all the smart money was on a straightforward Offaly win. But it was only after Sean Cleary’s sending off ten minutes into the second-half that they seemed to realise they had to hit their peak to survive.
In the end Stephen Quirke goaled twice in the last 18 minutes to exaggerate the winning margin.
In the early exchanges, Kerry looked like the side that had been hurling at the higher level all season. Offaly players looked like they were weighed down with the expectation of victory and the fear of failing to earn it.
With a grand total of 3-40 from the league before this game, Shane Nolan was obviously going to be the source of Kerry scores, so it was all the more baffling that Offaly afforded him his own private acre early on to hit four points as Kerry charged into a 0-7 to 0-0 lead.
At that stage Whelahan cut a prowling figure on the sidelines as he cajoled his side into the tie. He could see the prospect of relegation becoming all the more vivid with each Kerry score.
“We were at sixes and sevens, but I think we hurled with a fair bit of fear and anxiety about us in the first 15 minutes,” said Whelahan. “But once we settled we started to hurl, to support one another a lot better and use the ball a lot better.”
Brian Carroll and Cleary got Offaly up and running, and, with Conor Mahon also settling into a decent performance, the midlanders slowly found their feet.
Crucially, after they had earlier fluffed four goal chances, Joe Bergin rattled the net just before the break as Offaly managed to level matters at half-time, 1-8 to 0-11.
The exchange of scores continued after the restart until Cleary was sent off for an incident reported by the umpire while he was on his way to the line to be replaced by Shane Dooley. Cleary was well across the sideline and Dooley was on before referee Johnny Ryan reached the Shinrone man, but nevertheless the red card was flashed and the change was negated.
As we’ve seen so many times previously, the sending off resulted in the numerically disadvantaged team improving their efforts and Quirke’s two goals came in a spell where Offaly outscored Kerry by 2-9 to 0-1. The reality of the situation and Offaly’s superior fitness told in the end.
“We firmly believe we were the better team coming into today but our confidence had taken quite a beating,” said Whelahan.
“The defeat by Antrim hit the squad very hard, it hit everyone involved in the squad very hard, and to try and get the confidence up and to get lads playing the way we know they can play, was tough coming into today.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t make the rules. We probably shouldn’t be getting the second chance today. Kerry should be up and I make no bones about that but we didn’t make the rules coming into the league and I’m very grateful for that second chance.”
Scorers for Offaly: S Quirke (2-1), J Bergin (1-1), B Carroll (0-8, 5fs), C Mahon, S Dooley (0-2 each), C Egan, K Connolly, D Currams, S Cleary, T Geraghty (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kerry: S Nolan (0-8, 3fs, 1 65), C Harty (0-2), D O’Connell, B O’Leary, P Boyle, B Brosnan (0-1 each).
OFFALY: Conor Slevin; N Wynne, G Healion, J Rigney; B Harding, C Egan, C Parlon; K Connolly, Ciarán Slevin; B Carroll, D Currams, C Mahon; S Quirke, S Cleary, J Bergin. Subs for Offaly: P Geraghty for Ciarán Slevin (29), C McDonald for Healion (50), S Dooley for Bergin (51), T Geraghty for Quirke (65), K Brady for Connolly (70).
KERRY: T Flynn; B Murphy, T Murnane, T Casey; S Weir, D Dinneen, D O’Connell; J Griffin, C Harty; B O’Leary, D Collins, S Nolan; K Carmody, P Boyle, J Egan. Subs for Kerry: B Brosnan for Carmody (28), P O’Connor for Brosnan (51), J Leahy for O’Leary (54), P Lucid for Boyle (63).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary).
Joe Bergin’s goal two minutes before half-time gave an altogether different twist to the scoreboard at the break. His goal gave Offaly the lead for the first time and they never relinquished it afterwards. Kerry’s energetic start died a quick death after that.
What did Sean Cleary do to be sent off? Neither manager could shed light on the incident, but clearly the Offaly full-forward was involved in some incident, which was pointed out to Johnny Ryan.
Nine minutes in and the scoreboard read: Kerry 0-7 Offaly 0-0. Was it football or hurling one might ask? Kerry looked like a top ten side in that opening spell, while Offaly looked bereft of ideas.
Kerry were well served by top scorer Shane Nolan and he was central to all of their attacking flourishes. But Offaly’s Brian Carroll was the key man. When his side were up against it in the first half he hit four points and weighed in with another four after the restart.
At times Brian Whelahan looked panicked on the line, but he was at his best to try and rise a challenge from his anxious team. Once the order to stop landing balls on top of the Kerry sweeper got on to the field, his side looked a lot more efficient.
Johnny Kelly had a fine game. He let the game flow from start to finish – he awarded only ten first-half frees – and the red card to Cleary was the only time he had to go to his book throughout.
Offaly meet Kilkenny in the Leinster championship quarter-final in 11 weeks time, while Kerry meet Derry in the Ring Cup in three weeks.