Offaly 4-18 Antrim 3-23
Offaly slid further towards the trapdoor with a two-point Joe McDonagh defeat at home to Antrim in Bord na Mona O’Connor Park.
After defeats to Laois and Westmeath in their opening two fixtures in this tier two hurling competition the Faithful County sacked manager Kevin Martin and installed interim boss Joachim Kelly.
Different faces, but same result as they slumped to a third loss on the bounce and remain rooted to the foot of five-team table.
Their destiny is no longer in their own hands and not even a win in their final game, against Kerry in Tralee in a fortnight, may be good enough to keep them out the Christy Ring Cup - hurling’s third rung.
The hoped-for bounce that Kelly’s arrival as manager, he’s a hero of the 1981 and ’85 All-Ireland wins, never arrived and now they are mired in desperate trouble.
This game ended 14-against-14 following a sending-off in each half, though the fact is the home side weren’t able to profit from playing with an extra man for nearly 45 minutes, looking every inch a team short of confidence.
They did mount a late come-back, scoring 1-03 in the closing minutes, but it wasn’t enough. Antrim play Westmeath in their final game next weekend - win that and they’re into the Joe McDonagh Cup final.
There were plenty of incidents in the first quarter of this game, which was a good job because there wasn’t an awful lot of hurling played.
In the first minute Antrim corner-back Phelim Duffin went down off the ball and stayed down, requiring several minutes of treatment and no action taken by the match officials.
On seven minutes the man alongside him, full-back Martin Burke, was sent off, shown a straight red card by referee Liam Gordon following consultations with his two linesmen and umpires at the town end of the ground.
Burke was involved in a bust up after a free in was awarded to Offaly, meaning the the visitors were going to be short staffed for more than an hour of play. Shortly after lively Faithful County wing-forward Colin Egan had to be taken off due to an injury following a meaty challenge.
Finally though the hurling broke out and Keelan Molloy put the Saffrons back in front with a goal following slick build up play involving the influential Neil McManus and Ciarán Clarke.
Offaly struck straight back though taking route one - the puck-out found it’s way to full-forward Oisín Kelly to batter it into the net.
This should have steadied the home ship, but they went in two points down at the break, 2-10 to 1-11, thanks to Molloy’s second goal - McManus again involved in the build-up with the referee playing a good advantage.
The fact that Antrim always seemed to have a free man from their own puck-out despite only having 14 players gave them a platform to build attacks and must surely have given Joachim Kelly pause for thought.
He didn’t think over it for two long, making two further switches in personnel at half-time - David Nally for Dermot Shortt in defence and Sean Cleary for Shane Dooley in the inside forward line.
It didn’t have the desired effect as Antrim tagged on a pair of scores within 90 seconds of the restart. In a hectic spell Offaly hit back with two of their own and went back into the lead thanks to Joe Bergin’s emphatically struck goal.
This was tier two hurling, make no mistake, with the sort of touch and sloppy execution that would be sorely punished in either the Leinster or the Munster championships, but it was exciting and end-to-end which offered good value for the small crowd in Tullamore.
The balance tilted again with 53 minutes on the clock and Antrim with their noses in front 2-16 to 2-15 when Offaly substitute Conor Mahon planted a shoulder into chest of wing-back Matthew Donnelly in front of the referee and a linesman, earning a red card and his marching orders.
Offaly reacted brilliantly to this with Oisín Kelly getting his second goal of the contest, spotting space, running into it and hammering it past keeper Ryan Elliot to leave it 3-15 to 2-17 with quarter-of-an-hour remaining.
It was a question of who would blink first and it was, without question, Offaly. They go into their final game with their eyes wide open - their fate is no longer in their own hands.
Offaly: Eoghan Cahill (0-01, 1f); Ben Connelly; Dermot Shortt, Pat Camon; Cillian Kiely (0-01), Shane Kinsella, Mark Egan; Aidan Treacy (0-03), Paddy Murphy (0-01); Colin Egan, Joe Bergin (1-05, 3f, 2 ’65’), Peter Geraghty (0-2); Shane Dooley, Oisín Kelly (2-02), Kevin Connolly (0-01).
Subs: Conor Mahon for Egan 15 mins; David Nally (0-01) for Shortt HT; Sean Cleary (1-00) for Dooley HT; Kevin Dunne for Murphy 40 mins; David O’Toole Green for Camon 49 mins.
Antrim: Ryan Elliot; Stephen Rooney, Martin Burke; Phelim Duffin; Paddy Burke, Daniel Kearney, Matthew Donnelly; Neil McManus (0-10, 7f), Nicky McKeague (0-01); Nigel Elliot (1-01), Ryan McCambridge, Keelan Molloy (2-00); Ciarán Clarke (0-03), Joe Maskey (0-01), Eoin O’Neill.
Subs: James McNaughton (0-04) for O’Neill; Eoghan Campbell (0-03) for McCambridge 35 mins; John Dillon for Kearney 57 mins; Daniel McCluskey for Clarke 73 mins.
Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway)