Kevin O’Brien reports from Parnell Park
RARELY HAS A county needed a victory like Offaly did against Dublin in the Leinster hurling U20 quarter-final last night.
They arrived into the game against the 2017 All-Ireland minor semi-finalists as underdogs, but a sizeable away crowd travelled to Donneycarney in the hope they could pull off an upset.
Offaly hurling was on its knees following relegation to the third tier Christy Ring Cup, which arrived 21 years after they were last crowned All-Ireland champions.
Earlier this month, Kildare sent them crashing out of the Leinster minor championship at the quarter-final stage. It was another result that signalled a worrying future for hurling in the county. But there may be life in the Faithful yet.
John Murphy’s game-winning free at the death of extra-time sealed a Leinster semi-final showdown with Wexford next Wednesday night.
Offaly’s two first-choice free-takers Cathal Kiely and Brian Duignan – son of All-Ireland winner Michael – had already left the fray when the responsibility fell on Murphy’s shoulders. He didn’t blink.
“Cathal cramped up and went off injured, Brian had gone off injured – the two of them are our free-takers,” joint-manager Gary Cahill told The42.
“We had done it on the side the last couple of weeks. Any time we trained we’d have three or four lads (taking frees). Shane Hand (joint manager) was with John’s club last year and we said we’d let John go ahead.
“John’s a brother of Paddy who is an inter-county hurler as well. Nerves of steel. We’re only a step further, we’re still only in a Leinster semi-final. We’re probably a bit further than what we thought we would be, but sure it’s great to be there.
“Coming into the game, we’d looked at Dublin the last couple of weeks,” he added.
“They’re a good bunch of lads. There’s 23, 24 of them underage next year. We’re building a team for two to three years. It could have gone anyway.
“It was a good game of hurling, it was ding-dong, up and down. We were lucky enough the scores came out on our side in the end.”
After a campaign where so much negativity followed the senior team’s slide, there is hope these U20s can restore some of the pride that has been lost over the past 12 months.
“We were there at night-time when the seniors were training,” Cahill continued.
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“The seniors were training every bit as hard as us if not more. The break of the ball didn’t go their way, there was only one or two points in a lot of their games.
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“Could have gone anyway. For the younger lads coming up and even for the minors having a loss, they’re training equally as hard and we just got the break tonight and it worked for us.”
Cathal Kiely, fresh from being crowned Offaly’s Poc Fada champion a week ago, sent over 0-20 in an extraordinary night in front of the posts. His older brother, Offaly senior star Cillian, is the reigning All-Ireland Poc Fada champion.
A minor last season, wing-forward Cathal has now scored 39 points in his last three games in the competition.
“Unbelievable hurler and he’s still a young lad,” said Cahill. “He’s only 18 years of age. He’s there for another two years. The boys won a lot of frees, Cathal put the ball over the bar and he had a few from play as well.
“They worked together as a team and they worked for one another. They set their own standards and that’s the way we intend to go forward.”
Conor Quinn’s goal helped Offaly into a six-point lead at half-time in extra-time but Dublin posted 1-3 without reply in the second period to drag themselves back on level terms.
Then Sky Blues midfielder Michael Conroy went racing through and dropped his shot at the posts short, when a point might have sealed it for Dublin.
Offaly counter-attacked up field and the brilliant Liam Langton won the game-winning free that Murphy converted. Cue scenes of pandemonium with players and supporters at the final whistle.
“It usually happens at the start of extra-time that one team goes gung-ho. So we decided, ‘Okay, let’s go for it,’ Cahill explained.
“We’re after playing one or two games lately against senior teams where we looked to have extra-time.
“When it was happening, we sat back. So tonight we said, ‘We’re fit enough, we’ll go for it.’ We were kind of holding on in the end, lads started to cramp up.
“They’re only young lads, 18, 19 and 20 so in the end it could have gone anyway but luckily enough we got a free at the end and John Murphy stood up and put the ball over the bar.”
Having defeated Dublin in Parnell Park, with wins over Carlow and Westmeath already in the bank, they’re a win over Wexford away from reaching a provincial final.
“The lads are working hard and they set their own standards. It’s there for us. We’ll go and we’ll have a rattle at Wexford. Wexford are probably going to be favourites but we’ll go into the game and we’ll have a rattle at them and see what happens.”
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