By Kieran Murphy
THIS was an immense result for Carlow hurling. After winning promotion to Division 1B of the national hurling league last season, it would have been a killer blow to go straight back down again. That was what Carlow were facing all week.
At 2.45 in O’Connor Park, Tullamore on Sunday they looked doomed when trailing by 1-11 to 0-3 at half-time. With Eddie Byrne sent off after only 10 minutes, the odds of an away victory were remote. The wind howled and while Carlow were playing with it in the second half they looked down and out.
Just like the week before Carlow had a nightmare start as Joe Bergin’s flick found the net when seizing onto a dropping ball. That helped his side into a 1-3 to 0-0 lead.
On 10 minutes, Eddie Byrne tangled with Offaly full-back Niall Houlihane. He had won the free but then seemed to hit out. After examining the nature of the Offaly player’s injury and consulting with a linesman, John Keenan sent off the Carlow man.
With James Doyle already assigned to a sweeper role against the wind, Carlow played with four forwards against six defenders for most of the half.
Chris Nolan got Carlow off the mark on 13 minutes. Despite their numerical advantage, Offaly were unable to turn the screw. Perhaps if Shane Dooley had found the net instead of shooting over the bar on 18 minutes, the Carlow challenge would have died.
Instead feeding off that let off, the visitors kept plugging away. After shooting three wides Marty Kavanagh finally scored a point. Chris Nolan added a point and John Michael Nolan worked hard to pick out Nolan who also found the Offaly posts just before the break.
Everything went right for Carlow in the opening minutes of the second half. They were awarded a free on the resumption which Kavanagh converted.
With the wind at their backs, they mixed it well and two route-one balls yielded goals for Seamus Murphy and Chris Nolan within four minutes of each other.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better start. A long ball in and somebody got a touch to it and it ended up in the back of the net,” noted Carlow centre-back David English after the game.
“There is a bit of luck to it but Joe Bergin got a similar one in the first half. It just goes to show, direct hurling isn’t completely lost yet. There is still a need for it.”
Seamus Murphy kicked in the first goal on 37 minutes and Chris Nolan got the deftest of touches with his hurl for the second. Carlow could even afford to shoot two wides after that but then Kavanagh knocked over three in a row with the last one coming after the visiting defence were asked some serious questions and answered them well.
After causing Carlow all sorts of problems last week, Shane Dooley only scored one point in the second half here. That came with 16 minutes to go.
Kavanagh converted a free himself and made a point for Chris Nolan to level the game. Bergin’s free restored the Offaly lead with nine minutes to go. Seamus Murphy levelled once more. The tension was gut-wrenching. Carlow were in sight of a famous victory.
The Offaly gambit of using the extra-man at the back to start a move from deep began to fall apart.
“You have to give huge credit to the forwards. They turned over so much ball. Nearly everything that landed in Marty’s hands, he did something with it,” pointed out English.
Bergin nudged Offaly in front yet again with seven minutes to go. Carlow were not to be denied. Kavanagh landed a free and a point from play. John Michael Nolan put two between the sides.
With the game going into injury time Bergin was on target for Offaly. Brian Treacy’s delivery went long. Carlow might not have won the ball but they didn’t let an Offaly hand take possession either.
That was vital and with neither side winning clean ball the full-time whistle ensured Carlow will ply their trade back in the newly revamped Division 1 hurling league next season.
“It is up there. We have been saying for many years we wanted to be up there with the top-tier teams. Offaly are a traditional (hurling) county so to come up here to their ground and get the win to secure Division 1 status is absolutely huge,” said English.
Carlow: Brian Tracey; Alan Corcoran, Paul Doyle, Michael Doyle; Richard Coady, David English, Kevin McDonald; Jack Kavanagh, Sean Whelan; Seamus Murphy (1-1), Marty Kavanagh (0-8, 0-5 frees), Eddie Byrne; James Doyle, John Michael Nolan (0-1), Chris Nolan (1-4). Subs: Jack Murphy for J Kavanagh (33 mins), Ted Joyce for J Doyle (59 mins), Jon Nolan for J Murphy (66 mins).
Offaly: Eoghan Cahill (0-1 free); Paddy Rigney, Niall Houlihane, Ben Conneely; Damien Egan, Pat Camon, Aidan Treacy; Shane Kinsella (0-2), Colm Gath; Kevin Dunne (0-1), Sean Dolan, Colin Egan; Shane Dooley (0-3), Joe Bergin (1-7, 65, 0-4 frees), Kevin Connolly (0-2). Subs: Andy Flynn for Houlihane (10 mins), Dermot Shortt for Treacy (h/t), Conor Langton for Connolly (55 mins), Craig Taylor for Conneely (69 mins), Mark Egan for Gath (69 mins).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).