Carlow preserved their division one status in the most dramatic of circumstances this afternoon in Tullamore when they came from 11 points and one man down at half-time to edge out Offaly in a windswept Division 1B relegation final.
The decline in Offaly’s fortunes has been discussed in great depth in recent seasons but there won’t be many defeats that were as painful as this one, where it looked for all the world as if Kevin Martin’s side was poised to cruise to victory after a one-sided opening quarter.
In a surprise to many, Carlow elected to hurl into the breeze in the first half and that decision appeared to backfire when they were overwhelmed in the early exchanges. Joe Bergin (2) and Kevin Connolly fired over early points, and then with eight minutes on the clock Bergin met a high, lobbing shot from Shane Kinsella with a well-timed overhead pull and gave Brian Tracey no chance in the Carlow goal.
The scale of the challenge facing Carlow grew steeper still when Niall Houlihan dragged down Eddie Byrne and the Mount Leinster Rangers man retaliated, swiping the hurl across the Offaly full back and drawing a straight red card from referee John Keenan.
Offaly continued to pile on the scores and while Chris Nolan got Carlow off the mark after 13 minutes, Shane Kinsella replied with a fine point to make it 1-6 to 0-1 after 14 minutes.
Shane Dooley had a glorious chance to extend that lead significantly midway through the half when Joe Bergin found him with a glorious cross-field pass and Dooley was left with just the keeper to beat from 15 metres, but his shot fizzed over the crossbar.
Carlow were on the ropes, but Offaly never found the knockout punch. Kevin Dunne and Shane Kinsella picked off nice points before the break, but Martin Kavanagh and Chris Nolan added Carlow’s second and third points with five minutes to go before half time and those scores proved crucial, both in terms of keeping the deficit manageable and with regard to the game’s momentum.
If 1-11 to 0-3 seemed like a mountain to climb, Carlow wasted no time in setting about their ascension after the interval. They won a free from the throw in, and now that the long ball was an option with the aid of the wind, they started testing the Offaly full back line, with spectacular dividends.
Twice long balls were sent sailing into the Offaly full back line in the space of ten minutes, twice Offaly let the sliothar hit the deck, twice Carlow pounced to deliver huge scores. Seámus Murphy kicked in the first, Chris Nolan adding the second as tensions rose in the ground.
Martin Kavanagh then pointed twice to cut the gap to two, and Offaly were in real trouble from their own puckout. When they went short, dropped balls and errant handpasses led to turnovers, when they went long they were outfought and outmuscled by the Carlow half-back line and midfield, with David English and Richard Coady absolutely imperious.
All that remained was for Carlow to take the lead for the first time and when they did, it was appropriate that it came from an Offaly error. Dermot Shortt failed to control a ball in the left corner of his full-back line, Seán Whelan nipped in and was fouled for Carlow to go 2-13 to 1-15 in front after 67 minutes.
John Michael Nolan added another and while Joe Bergin responded with a free, time ran out on the Faithful men as Carlow held on to preserve their top flight status.
Carlow: Brian Tracey; Michael Doyle, Paul Doyle, Alan Corcoran; Kevin McDonald, David English, Richard Coady; Jack Kavanagh, Seán Whelan; Seamus Murphy (1-01), Martin Kavanagh (0-08, 0-04 frees), John Michael Nolan (0-01); Chris Nolan (1-04), Eddie Byrne, James Doyle.
Subs used: Jack Murphy for J Kavanagh (34), Ted Joyce for J Doyle (60), Jon Nolan for J Murphy (66)
Offaly: Eoghan Cahill (0-01, free); Paddy Rigney, Niall Houlihan, Ben Conneely; Damien Egan, Pat Camon, Aidan Treacy; Shane Kinsella(0-02), Colm Gath; Kevin Dunne (0-01), Sean Dolan, Colin Egan; Shane Dooley (0-03), Joe Bergin (1-07, 0-04 frees, 0-01 ’65), Kevin Connolly (0-02).
Subs used: Andy Flynn for Houlihan (8), Conor Langton for Connolly (56), M Egan for Gath (70), C Taylor for Conneely (70).
Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow)