Offaly are seldom ruffled as they grind down Carlow

 

TWO messiahs from the club scene, Tommy Lyons and Bobby Millar, rubbed shoulders at Dr Cullen Park yesterday as they jockeyed to lead their faithful from the wilderness of Division Four.

Perhaps Offaly can't quite see the promised land yet but the evidence of the past few months in general and yesterday in particular suggests that the worst days are behind them. For Carlow, something as unusual as a parted sea might be necessary.

Having lost already in this league campaign (to Sligo), Carlow needed a victory yesterday to keep in touch with Offaly whose impeccable record so far in the proceedings makes them the team to beat. Carlow never came close and, more critically, Offaly never played particularly well.

Cutting back on the short passing game which became a sort of county trademark during the early years of Eire Og's remarkable renaissance, Carlow left Colm Hayden alone in the full forward line as they tentatively pulled players further back. Joe Murphy drifted in Trevor Giles fashion back behind his half back line as Carlow seemed to tacitly accept that they weren't going to win the midfield battle.

The tactic of isolating Hayden looked likely to pay some unlikely dividends early on when, after just ten seconds, a bouncing ball deceived the Offaly full back Larry Carroll, only for Hayden to be pulled down by a posse of desperate defenders. Thereafter, however, Offaly seldom looked ruffled at the back. With Joe Murphy riding shotgun back with his own defence, Kevin Guing or Phil O'Reilly were free to cover and to build.

In midfield, Offaly were more enthusiastic and a little broader of shoulder. Ciaran McManus, still playing for the under 21 side, had a fine game, contributing energetically to both defence and attack and scoring the second half goal which put the game beyond doubt.

Up front, the promise lay in the variety of ways Offaly have found to score. After the county finished getting over Eugene McGee and the great years, it had to begin getting over Peter Brady and the great pity that he wasn't going to win all Ireland's on his own. For nearly half a decade, every ball had to be played to Brady, every free had to be taken by Brady and every big loss had to be blamed on Brady.

Yesterday, Peter Brady had three points from frees and had a quiet game. The easing of the pressures and the county's dependency on him might yet make Brady a great forward to watch once again. Yesterday, however, in an attack where Anthony Kelly managed four points from play, he was nothing more than a big name decoy.

Seemingly about to spring his charges from football's basement, Lyons will already have an eye on causing some mischief when the championship rolls around.

Carlow took the lead early yesterday through a Sean Kavanagh free kick, one of 17 frees awarded in a scrappy first quarter. Offaly weren't long in replying through McManus and after a couple of hairy moment in the first five minutes they shut down the shop in defence.

Finbarr Cullen, one of that generation of Offaly footballers whose underage promise was so plentiful, just got on with the job of work. Offaly's half backs have sworn off glamour, applying themselves to the generally conservative ethos of always having a hand on their man's jersey. Cullen still manages a score or two every game.

Offaly, winning the midfield battle and snuffing out every attack, just ground Carlow down in the first-half. The ball out of defence was delivered early most of the time and at a suitably bewildering variety of lengths and angles. Offaly were by no means dazzling and heavy work may have sapped their limbs but a pattern was evident throughout.

By half time, they were six points to two ahead, Carlow not having scored at all between the fifth and 30th minute. The natives in the crowd of 2,000 were getting restless.

The second-half brought more grim relentlessness from Offaly and just nine minutes in the suspense was drained from the match when McManus linked well with his under 21 colleague, Colm Quinn, and finished the move by drilling the ball low and hard into the net.

Carlow saw a slim chance of redemption when a few minutes later Sean Grennan was sent to the line as a warning to all those tempted to swing their fists in what was becoming an increasingly niggly affair.