When the referee blew it

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE 1998 ALL-IRELAND SHC SEMI-FINAL REPLAY/Monday, August 24th, 1998:Seán Moran reflects on the weekend drama at Croke Park when, with Clare leading Offaly by 1-16 to 2-10, referee Jimmy Cooney called a premature halt to proceedings

YET AGAIN Clare find themselves embroiled in controversy this championship as Saturday's Guinness All-Ireland hurling replay ended in chaos.

This time, however, the All-Ireland champions are not centre stage. That distinction falls to Galway referee Jimmy Cooney, who whistled for full-time with more than two minutes still on the clock, not including injury time, leaving the GAA's Games Administration Committee little choice but to order a refixture, next Saturday in Thurles.

The scenes that followed only exacerbated the fiasco. Cooney was informed by his linesmen his timing was wrong and, according to some Offaly players, then determined to play on but instead was escorted off the pitch by stewards.

Offaly supporters took to the field and refused to move for an hour and a half, causing the All-Ireland under-21 B final between Kerry and Kildare to be abandoned.

Croke Park was stunned in the aftermath. Cooney had already attracted criticism for failing to play adequate injury-time in the drawn match and he couldn't have picked a worse set of circumstances in which to commit such an error.

It wasn't a great afternoon for Cooney, even apart from the terminal blunder. A few decisions went extravagantly Offaly's way. Michael Duignan could have been sent off twice, firstly for a serious foul in the first half for which he was booked and secondly for a reckless second-half challenge which - had he not the apparent insurance cover of a previous booking - would certainly have earned a caution.

In the 66th minute, Johnny Pilkington lost his temper and on any straightforward reading of the rules should have got the line. Instead he was booked in the company of Niall Gilligan, who must have felt aggrieved at his conduct being placed on a par with that of the Birr man.

On the early trend of the match, blowing up a couple of minutes early would have been an act of mercy. Offaly were so outclassed that their achievement in defying the odds during the drawn match was looking like an accident.

Trailing by eight points at half-time, the Leinster side were 10 in arrears with 22 minutes to go.

All the talk about Offaly never being beaten until the end sounded hollow as they floundered all around the pitch. Yet, improbable as it was, they did deliver on their pedigree by hauling the deficit back to three points when Cooney fatefully intervened.

Many of the team played in the All-Ireland final four years ago when they devastated a Limerick side cruising into the last five minutes five points ahead by scoring 2-5 in four minutes 14 seconds. No one would want their house riding on Offaly not reeling in three points over the best part of five minutes.

It's a terrible situation for Clare, who played superb hurling in the first half and were coping with the comeback. When the match ended prematurely the holders were actually on the attack. By the time this saga is resolved, they will have played (at least) five matches in eight weeks. Over the same period Kilkenny - who await the survivors in the All-Ireland final - will have played once.

Offaly started the match quite well, with the first two points of the afternoon, but problems began to emerge. Clare's rejigged attack was razor-sharp and quickly the sluggish performance of a fortnight ago faded into memory.

Manager Ger Loughnane made a couple of inspired moves up front at the start. Firstly he introduced in the left corner Barry Murphy, whose county career has never really fulfilled its promise. Murphy has great pace but has drifted out of too many big matches to have nailed down a permanent place.

On Saturday, however, he frazzled Simon Whelahan - a hero of the drawn match - with his speed. Two points for himself and an assist for one of Seán McMahon's 65s - Murphy drawing a great save from Stephen Byrne, impressive throughout in the Offaly goal.

Eventually Offaly's Martin Hanamy switched corners and the fun stopped.

Simon Whelahan's brother Brian suffered unwonted indignity in the company of Alan Markham, who exacted revenge on the Whelahan clan for his obliteration by Simon in the drawn match.

Markham, a newcomer this year, played with drive and finesse. He covered a huge amount of ground and frequently lost his distinguished marker, most tellingly for a 23rd-minute goal.

A fine ball from the excellent Liam Doyle put Markham in space and he roofed the shot to Byrne's net. By now a most harrowing defeat was staring Offaly in the face and two minutes later this bleak prospect was confirmed when Joe Dooley hit a penalty poorly and Anthony Daly blocked it on the line.

Clare's defence was at its most imposing. Brian Lohan, back in the side after suspension, was commanding at full back as were his brother Frank and Brian Quinn.

Doyle and Daly were dominant and McMahon was the usual epicentre both of defensive resistance and more adventurous detail.

He sent three 65s soaring over the bar in the first half.

Offaly's defence did what they could but looked a far more ragged outfit than two weeks ago until the miracle of the second-half renaissance was performed.

But it was in attack that they fell down most disappointingly. Needing an improvement up front, they moved in the other direction.

John Troy was passed fit but apart from a couple of sublime touches didn't look it. Paudie Mulhare, impressive the last day, withdrew after the death of his father on Friday and was replaced by Ger Oakley. For all they switched around, the forwards failed to exert pressure on Clare's defence.

Michael Bond's changes during the match wrought some improvements. Joe Erritty provided concentration and strength and Billy Dooley looked livelier than for a long while. They scored the goals that underwrote the recovery.

Brian Whelahan moved to midfield in an unlikely pairing with Johnny Dooley. The tide turned in Offaly's favour. A 10-minute spell when they outscored Clare 2-3 to 0-2 turned the match on his head.

In the 52nd minute, an attack featuring Brian Whelahan, Troy and Erritty ended with Billy Dooley, a half-time substitute, tapping through the chaos of a scattered defence into the net.

Six minutes later, Erritty was awarded a dubious penalty, which he emphatically converted, before a free by Troy cut the margin to three points, 2-8 to 1-14.

Clare rallied with two points from O'Connor and Markham. But Offaly had developed momentum with two points in reply from Billy Dooley and Brian Whelahan.

The four or five minutes in prospect at the end were about the most gripping you could imagine.

And imagining them was as close we got.

The teams met again seven days later in Thurles. Offaly won by 0-16 to 0-13 and went on to beat Kilkenny in the final.