Groundhog day for Offaly


A Groundhog sort of day. The TV cameras didn't make it (some industrial go-slow, apparently) to adorn the gantry scaffold, and one of the official linesmen was late for duty. To boot, holders Offaly marked their opening league match at Tullamore yesterday by falling to a late, late sucker punch that somehow contrived to leave them with a mere draw when nothing other than a win had looked on the cards for much of the second half.

Nobody, however, could deny Cork their salvage act. Not even Offaly manager Tommy Lyons, even if he did mention something about the visitors "stealing it." Philip Clifford's fisted goal - ironically enough from an area of the field where a goalkeeper can now only use his boot - in the 60th minute, from Mark O'Sullivan's cross, was generous reward for Cork's refusal to capitulate. As Cork selector Conor Counihan observed: "We were a bit lucky, but we did show tremendous character."

What was more on Lyons's mind afterwards was how Meath referee Sean McCormack had handled the game. A total of 56 frees (34 of them to Cork) and five "yellow" cards, all of them to Offaly men, certainly had the effect of getting the home crowd behind their side, until muted at the death by the late goal.

Certainly, even allowing for the stoppages and nit-picking from the match official, there was a lot of good football about in O'Connor Park as the new league campaign started. And, early on, a lot of it came from Cork with the twin threat of Padraig O'Mahony - who gave James Stewart such a roasting in the first-half that he was substituted during the interval - and Clifford doing much to cause heartache in the home defence.

Apart from a typical Roy Malone goal in the second minute, when the Rhode player collected a flick-on from David Connolly and soloed some 25 yards before firing low past Michael Maguire, Offaly had little to show for the opening 12 minutes as Cork deservedly opened up a 0-6 to 1-0 lead, playing some neat return football in the process.

However, from nowhere, Offaly got their act together and one of the most influential figures proved to be full-forward Frank Weir, a man who has resisted the lure of inter-county football until now. After kicking his first point in the 14th minute, Weir then turned provider for John Kenny and Malone before turning to his own scoring duties, his third effort a sweetly struck effort from over 40 yards.

So, Offaly had somehow managed to cruise into a two-points lead before Cork woke up again and, giving a hint of their character, had three successive points from Clifford, Brendan Walsh and O'Mahony in the minutes before the half-time whistle to regain the advantage.

In that first-half, Vinny Claffey had been virtually anonymous, chained as he was to Doheny's Michael O'Donovan, but he started out the second-half like a man with a new lease of life. He collected Roy Malone's pass within seconds of the throw-in to kick and a point and could, perhaps should, have added two goals in the next two minutes. He didn't, but the damage seemed minimal as Offaly added a further four points without reply. One of them, from Weir, was quite exceptional as he nonchalantly played the ball toe to hand with his right foot and then kicked it over with his left.

Cork stubbornly refused to lie down, though. Brendan O'Sullivan grabbed two points either side of an O'Mahony free to bring them within touching distance again, although it seemed that Offaly had finally jumped clear when Weir evaded his marker Ronan McCarthy once again to kick his fifth point from play and, then, Ciaran McManus rowed in with a massive point from all of 50 yards.

At this time, Cork, having used up all three substitutes, lost to Padraig O'Regan to injury and their cause looked to be a lost one. Not so. With the clock ticking down, Mark O'Sullivan showed great ball control near the touch-line and then centred for Clifford to punch home past Padraig Kelly, the last thing he, or any Offaly person in the ground, had expected.

"At least I've found a footballer," remarked Lyons of Weir. When? "Three years ago, but it's taken me until now to get him in." So, some good out of a trying afternoon for the Offaly manager, but Cork were far the more satisfied team leaving the Tullamore ground yesterday. Not just with the point, but with the manner in which it was achieved by fighting to the very end.

Offaly: P Kelly; C Daly, J Ryan, D Foley; J Kenny (0-1), J Stewart, F Cullen; J Grennan, C McManus (0-2, one 45); C Quinn, S Grennan, R Malone (1-2); V Claffey (0-1), F Weir (0-5), D Connolly (0-1, free). Sub: B Malone for Stewart (half-time).

Cork: M Maguire; N McCarthy, R McCarthy, M O'Donovan (Dohenys); M O'Donovan (Mallow), O Sexton, P O'Regan; N Murphy, F Collins; B Walsh (0-1), P O'Mahony (0-6, three frees), D Davis (0- 1); P Clifford (1-2, one free), C Crowley, A O'Regan. Subs: B O'Sullivan (0-2) for Collins (26 mins), K O'Connell for O'Donovan (Mallow) (38 mins), M O'Sullivan for Davis (53 mins).

Referee: S McCormack (Meath).