Rouse, his brother John, Stephen Darby, and Alan McNamee answered the SOS after Kerryman Stephen Wallace and his backroom team were relieved of their duties in the wake of their Leinster championship defeat.
They immediately set about prevailing upon Darby’s son Brian to reverse his decision to retire, and called up a number of players who had fallen out with their predecessors. Of those, John Moloney started and, like Darby Jr, had a major influence on Saturday.
Moloney finished with four points, three of which came from play in the first half when switched to full-forward. He should have had a goal too but Peter Healy got back to deny him, though may have fouled Moloney in doing so.
Darby provided outstanding leadership, not to mention energy. The Rhode defender made a number of key dispossessions, especially in the first half, and bombed forward regularly from corner-back.
In the second half, he scored a point from distance. He also took possession almost on the Antrim endline before weighting his pass to Bernard Allen to perfection, allowing the attacker to rocket a shot to the net in the 50th minute and send Offaly clear.
Jamie Evans added another goal in injury time and though James Smith beat Alan Mulhall at the other end 30 seconds later, it was far too late for Antrim.
“There’s no such thing as redemption in football or hurling, there’s the next game you play,” reasoned Rouse afterwards.
“We prepared for this game, not for the last one we played. Those players deserve absolutely everything that they got this evening. You saw the reception that they got from the Offaly supporters coming off the field at half-time because those people recognised effort. And you saw the reception they got at full-time with all the Offaly people on the field.
“It’s been a long time coming for them, there’s some really good footballers in that dressing room, really good footballers who can be very good footballers if they keep at this.”
Rouse agreed that the period just before half-time, where Offaly finished with three points to lead 11-9 at the interval was significant.
Antrim had been on top for periods of that first half, and they were given a lifeline when Nigel Dunne, who scored three points in the first half, was sent off for an off-the-ball incident in the 44th minute. But this was where Offaly then showed their spirit, continuing to play with an absence of fear and eventually making light of their numerical disadvantage.
“It’s not an unopposed training session where you can just go out and run through your moves. This is a thing where you’re playing an opposition who came down here with legitimate expectations of victory,” said Rouse.
“They probably smelled a little bit of blood in the water with us, and what we did was, we just went toe to toe, and fortunately enough, we drove on when it was there to be won. That’s the most encouraging sign. We didn’t attempt to fall over the line here, it wasn’t a belly flop. We went for it, we kept going for it.”
His Antrim counterpart Lenny Harbinson was magnanimous in accepting the better team had won but was entitled to wonder what might have been if midfielder Conor Murray hadn’t been forced off in the 23rd minute with a leg injury.
“I was reasonably happy with how it started in the first half,” said Harbinson.
“The game was pretty much nip and tuck. Losing Conor in the middle of the park was a blow because it took momentum from the engine room. Having said that, in the second half we had the spare man but as always happens in these games, you would have thought Offaly were the team with the spare man. They kicked on and the better team on the day deservedly won.
“Sometimes what happens when a team goes down a man, everybody else on the team adds 5% to their own game and possibly that’s what happened here.”
B Allen 1-2 (0-1f); J Moloney 0-4(1f); N Dunne 0-3; J Evans 1-0; A Mulhall (2fs), S Tierney (1f) 0-2 each; B Darby, N Darby, S Nally, M Brazil, C McNamee, C Donohue, A Sullivan 0-1 each.
P McBride 0-6(3fs); J Smith 1-0; R Murray (1f), C Duffin, S Beatty 0-2 each; P McAleer, M McCarry, K Healy 0-1 each.
A Mulhall, B Darby, J Lalor, S Pender, D Hogan, P McConway, N Darby, M Brazil, J Moloney, C Donohue, S Nally, C McNamee, B Allen, A Sullivan, N Dunne.
R McNamee for Nally (44), J Evans for Donohue (58), S Tierney for Allen (64), D Dempsey for Hogan (66), J Hayes for Sullivan (68), E Carroll for Moloney (70+2),
A Hasson, K O’Boyle, P Gallagher, N Delargy, P Healy, M Sweeney, J Laverty, P McAleer, C Murray, P McBride, M Fitzpatrick, R McCann, K Healy, R Murray, C Duffin.
S Beatty for Murray inj (23), N McKeever for O’Boyle (28), M McCarry for McKeever (53), J Smith for McCann (54), O Eastwood for K Healy (58), P Branagan for Laverty (61).
: M McNally (Monaghan).
Offaly’s three-point burst at the end of the first half to send them in two points in front, having been playing catch-up for most of the period.
Offaly had 13 scorers in totting up 2-20. Talk about playing with no shackles.
For the Offaly management team.
They probably had little to lose given the circumstances of their instalment but they made some changes in personnel and set-up, and elicited the desired response.
Niall McKeever was excellent against Kerry at this venue nine years ago before embarking on an AFL career. His return to Tullamore was not memorable, as he suffered the ignominy of being replaced after being introduced as a sub.
Antrim funnelled 13 players behind the ball but Offaly were still able to find space in front of their inside forwards, and make hay with supporting runners. Antrim poured forward when in possession and caused problems in the first half but could not sustain the effort, even when Offaly were reduced to 14 for almost a half hour.
Antrim lost the influential Conor Murray to what seemed an ankle injury after 23 minutes and Kevin O’Boyle came off five minutes later.
Murray was a significant loss.
A number of contenders but joint honours go to returning duo Brian Darby, who retired at the beginning of the year, and John Moloney, who had chosen to make himself unavailable. Darby made a number of key interventions, attacked regularly, scored a point and made a goal, while Moloney kicked four points, including three from play when switched to full-forward.
Both teams went out to play which is always a help but there were few complaints about Martin McNally’s performance, his sending off of Nigel Dunne coming on the advice of his fellow officials.
Offaly outlast the team that beat them in the Leinster Championship (Wicklow) and advance to the second round of the Qualifiers on June 23. Antrim can get their club championship underway.