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Offaly's Glorious First

by Con Houlihan was published in the The Irish Press on Wednesday the 9th of September 1981

Since the All-Ireland became a purely inter-county competition sixty years ago, only eight names have appeared on the trophy.

And the latest new name was in 1955 when Wexford at last reaped a harvest. But it wasn't their first attempt in a final - they had lost narrowly to Cork the year before.

And Galway last year had ended a long drought after they too had suffered defeat in the previous final.

And so Offaly yesterday found themselves facing not only the reigning champions: there was also the old husbands' tale that before being summoned to the round table you must already have been rebuffed at least once.

And the `traditionalists' - those amusing mystics who believe that it takes several generations to produce a hurler - looked on as Offaly's presence in the final as aficionados of the bullring might look on an Irish matador.

Galway were hoping to make history too - if on a lesser stage. They had never won the minor title - they were the only members of the round table not to have done so.

It was Offaly's first time being in Croke Park in a Hurling final of any kind. They won the junior title in 1929 - but the final was played in Birr. It was on a December Sunday - and only about five hundred watched. It was hardly a glamorous setting - but Mick Digan remembered it well. He played on the winning team on that near-Christmas Day long ago - when a pint of stout was eight old pence and a labourer was expected to survive on a little over a pound a week.

Mick, needless to say, is loyal to his generation - and reckons the Hurling was far better in his day. Players now, he says, cannot pull on the overhead ball.

And what does he think of men who like to run with the ball on the hurley?

`They're like a woman feeding hens,' he says. So now . . .

Mick lives snugly in his thatched cottage and didn't travel to Croke Park yesterday; he watched the battle on television. And he surely reflected on the great changes that have taken place in Hurling and in Ireland since that Winter day long ago when he won his place in the folk gallery.

Another man with cause to reflect on change yesterday was Tom Donoghue, Offaly's full-back. A year ago he stood on Hill 16 - and watched his native county wash away the bitterness and sadness of two generations.

Tom had played for Galway when they won their Under21 All-Ireland - but now he was nearing thirty, had drifted away from Hurling into Rugby, and in his wildest daydreams didn't see himself ever again playing in Croke Park on a final day.

Yet yesterday he was little more than an hour from the highest honour - and it wouldn't be a whit diminished if earned with his adopted county. His involvement made even more piquant the meeting of these Shannon-divided neighbours.

Another piquant aspect was that while the Offaly players spent Saturday night in their own beds, a big advance guard of their supporters invaded Dublin on the eve of the battle. It was as if they felt their early presence might be a blow in the psychological welfare, a little source of unease to Galway and their followers, who came as usual on the Saturday.

And by noon yesterday there were so many Offaly people in Dublin that you hoped no cow in the Faithful County would slip into a drain or no ass wander into a bog-hole.

And you feared that if the Martians landed there, not even the gallant Mick Digan would be able to do much about it.

The county of Galway was just as vulnerable: by half past one when their minors came out to do battle with Kilkenny, the Maroon-and-White was blossoming all over Croke Park. Seldom can the headquarters have been so well populated so early. Even then there were big queues outside the Canal Terrace, an almost-forgotten sight at a Hurling final.

And the Maroon-and-White forest waved in the very first minute as a flashing goal gave Galway the kind of start that helped their seniors topple Cork in that unforgettable semi-final of '75.

But Kilkenny showed the coolness that seems part of their heritage - and it was soon clear that this was to be a struggle that would continue all the way into the home straight.

Galway seemed the better in the first half - but the light wind blowing into the Canal goal was probably a factor in their apparent superiority. The teams were level going into the last quarter - and for about six minutes there was a fierce battle of nerves as both strove to pull clear.

Galway were the more dashing - but Kilkenny the more crafty. And in the last furlong they stole away in the fashion long associated with the Black and Amber. It was the old Kilkenny formula: look for the points and let the goals look for themselves.

The points came in a little stream -and you felt that `Flow on Lovely River' could be equally applied to Hurling. At the end it was 1-20 to 3-9 - and Galway were still without a minor title.

The setback didn't seem to worry their huge following and there was a carnival air as the champions ran out a few minutes before three. The biggest Maroon-and-White banner at the Canal End said with mock politeness, `We're Offaly Sorry'.

The banter in the crowd was friendly - and there was about as much danger of violence on the terraces as of a shower of snow. Despite the wind, the terrace crowds were sweltering and the ice-cream vendors would have been set up for life if only they could devise a method of delivering their merchandise from overhead.

The green pitch looked like an oasis - and you envied the players their freedom of movement. It is doubtful if many of them looked up to see the colour of the sky: it was dry-blue and the sun shone brightly into the eyes of those behind the Railway goal.

The march provoked such an orgy of flags and banners that you feared a clothing shortage; the National Anthem was guillotined by a hurricane of sound.

It came as a blessed relief when Frank Murphy loosed the ball -at last the mill of the mind could grind on something substantial. It eased the tension in the crowd - but the men on the field were obviously not as confident as their followers.

And there was thirty seconds of stuttering and stammering before Ger Coughlan uttered the first long sentence. It led to a free for his side - and Pat Delaney rifled over an eighty-yard point with the coolness of William Tell.

Michael Conneely's puck-out indicated the help given by the wind - and brought a Galway surge and a low shot from Joe Connolly. Damian Martin held it cleanly - but then went on a too-ambitious run that brought Galway a free. Joe Connolly lofted it over - the battle was truly on.

As the players settled, the Hurling began to glow - and now we saw Offaly's fierce determination and Galway's menacing fluency.

In that trying time for Offaly as they faced the champions and the wind, their hero was Get Coughlan. The little left half-back was playing as if he had the power of seeing the future: time and again he put his hurley in the hole in the dyke-wall.

His namesake Eugene at full-back was doing well too and even though the corner-backs, Tom Donoghue and Pat Fleury, were struggling, they were giving little away.

But outfield, Galway were playing majestically - as if determined not only to win but to silence forever those who doubted their standing. Seldom has Croke Park seen such magnificent points as flowed over the Canal goal. Whenever a Galway man shot, the ball seemed like a homing pigeon.

Only one thing marred this great first half: you had to pity the referee as he tried to chase away the bottle-carriers and the counsellors and the bone-setters and the physiologists and the next of kin and the sympathisers and the motivators.

There was a major hold-up in the tenth minute - and when play restarted, Johnny Flaherty made a little run and set up Pat Carroll for a great drive from thirty yards that went to the net off an upright. Offaly now led 1-2 to 0-3. By the mid-point of the half, the westerners were back in front, 0-6 to 1-2. And Steve Mahon was growing to such stature that Offaly were almost eclipsed in midfield. In the eighteenth minute he decorated his work with a mighty point.

In the twentieth minute Finbar Gantley rattled the bar above Damian Martin's head; the ball flew wide. The puck-out was returned - Joe Connolly was playing superbly and sent over another glorious point. Two minutes later John Connolly set the western crowd roaring as he went charging through. As he came into the small rectangle, he collided with Damian Martin. The ball ended up in the net - but a freeout was signalled. It hardly seemed to matter at the time - Galway were rampant. But it figured large in the pub enquiry.

Pat Delaney eased Offaly's pain with another great point from a free. Michael Connolly answered with an even better point from play. In the twenty-seventh minute Liam Currans at last showed a flash of his talent with a lovely lift-and-strike that brought a point. Noel Lane made a darting run and replied. Galway seemed to abound in confidence - and Joe Connolly especially looked infallible. At the other end of the field Niall McInerney was cleaning up like a sheriff in an outrageously romantic western.

Galway's half-time lead - 0-13 to 1-4 - seemed no more than their due. And if anyone tells you he foresaw the second half, he is either a liar or a prophet. It is true that the wind was a factor - but it hardly accounts for the change that came over Galway. If this had happened in the days of the Borgias, you would have suspected that someone had interfered with their interval drink. But in the third quarter - with Mahon still outstanding they won as much of the ball as before. But now the homing pigeons behaved as if a cat was in the loft. They stayed out - and as Galway's forwards lost their touch, they attempted to take the ball close in and go for goals.

At the other end Paddy Horan showed more sense. Despite Galway's big lead, he was content to take a point from a twenty-one-yard free.

Yet Galway seemed in no great danger - and at the mid-point of the half led 0-15 to 1-8. And their followers awaited the killing surge. It never came. Galway, in fact, had got their last score. The shots for points continued to go wide - and the few that were accurate and low brought out the best in Damian Martin. But Offaly's attackers were doing little better. The ball was not running kindly for Paddy Horan and Johnny Flaherty - and Pat Carroll was the most likely rainmaker.

But in looking back you could clearly see the part played by Offaly's half-forwards. Pat Kirwan and Brendan Birmingham and Mark Corrigan were not spectacular but they held down Galway's great half-back line. And now in the final quarter Joachim Kelly and Liam Currams began to flower in midfield. Behind them was the lion-hearted Delaney. Joe Connelly had inflicted a harrowing first half on him -and he had been glad of the cover given by Aidan Fogarty and Ger Coughlan. But he never lost head or heart - and his resurgence was a symbol of Offaly's sheer grit. In the twenty-fifth minute he scored a lovely point from play - it seemed to give Offaly the scent of victory. Then Iggy Clarke wided a seventy. Galway seemed becalmed. And then at last we saw a drop of the purest Flaherty a sweet point made the score 0-15 to I-10. Five minutes remained.

And there was more Flaherty to come. Less than two minutes later Delaney, Kelly and Birmingham combined to put the Offaly rover through. And from the razor's edge of the small rectangle he served up a triple-drop by palming to the net. All heaven broke loose - and its colours were green, white and gold.

Then Danny Owens - who like Brendan Keeshan came on as a second-half sub - hit a thundering point. Offaly were two up. Both subs excelled. Then Horan from a free made the final score 2-12 to 0-15. But I doubt if most of the Offaly crowd knew it exactly - they were gone out of their delighted minds.

And Tom Donoghue was marvelling at how his fortune had changed since a year ago he paid £2 into the Hill.

And a deputation from Kinnity were holding down Johnny Flaherty lest he be taken away into the heavens in a fiery chariot.

And back at home in his snug thatched cottage Mick Digan was saying to himself that the fire he had fomented was now a blazing beacon.

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