By Mark Jones
Offaly 3-17, Wexford 0-15
There was hardly time to bid farewell to this Wexford team of the 1990s as Offaly turned on the style with a spectacular exhibition of scoring in last Sunday’s Leinster hurling semifinal at Croke Park. All the talk was on the All-Ireland champions and their razor-sharp form, but this was the end of an era for Wexford.
Manager Rory Kinsella, a selector in the marvelous championship season of 1996, announced he was stepping down and a few of the Wexford players, most notably Martin Storey, will be considering their futures.
What’s also certain is that there was no sign of the old Wexford that captured that historic All-Ireland, as well as two Leinster titles, in recent seasons.
"We haven’t conceded three goals in a long time," Kinsella confessed. "We were nervous on the ball. Our first touch wasn’t good. But there have been a lot more good times than bad over the last five years."
And what of Offaly? Before the game, there were genuine worries that the reigning champions were struggling just to field a competitive team. Manager Michael Bond insisted that the injury list was so bad that at times only nine players out of 27 were fit enough to train. After Sunday’s sizzling performance in front of 52,000 spectators, you have to wonder how good Offaly will be when everyone is healthy.
Two of the winners’ three goals were scored in a devastating opening eight minutes. John Troy bagged the first when he evaded the attentions of Ger Cushe, latched onto Brian Whelahan’s high ball and finished emphatically. Then Michael Duignan surged in from the right wing as the Wexford defense hesitated fatally, and even though he had untold options, Duignan decided to go solo and hit another shot past Damien Fitzhenry.
To their credit, Wexford refused to fold and three points in a row from Storey, Rory McCarthy and Paul Codd saw them draw level by the 25th minute. But Offaly’s grip on the game never loosened and the veteran Joe Dooley, who finished with an impressive 1-5, was at the end of a slick move for goal No. 3, which made it 3-6 to 0-10 at the break.
Wexford desperately needed to start the second half with a couple of quick scores, but they had to wait until the 12th minute by which stage Johnny Dooley had widened the gap. From then on, Offaly were in command and now Kilkenny are waiting in the Leinster final.
"There’s an awful lot of good teams out there at the moment," ventured Bond, "but we aren’t going to hand back the McCarthy Cup that easily."
Kilkenny 6-21, Laois 1-14
What a difference a year makes. This time last summer against the same opposition, Kilkenny escaped with their lives. Last Sunday, at Croke Park, the margin was a massive 22 points as Laois were destroyed by a blur of superb stickwork.
Ken O’Shea struck for three goals, D.J. Carey helped himself to a couple and the precocious Henry Shefflin clipped over 10 points in a display that at times bordered on the contemptuous. Save some extraordinary resistance from Niall Rigney, who contributed a marvelous 1-8 to his side’s lost cause, Laois were totally outclassed.
"We were sweating blood last year," said the winning manager, Brian Cody, "but we had asked the lads to go out and impose themselves on the game."
And that’s exactly what a fast-moving Kilkenny did. There was some assistance from a poor Laois defense, but Carey and O’Shea took their chances with real hunger.
With a halftime scoreline of 5-12 to just 4 points, Kilkenny were
entitled to go down through the gears and their job was made even easier by the sending off of Laois’ Cyril Cuddy. Laois go into the millennium with the dubious record of never having won a championship game in the 1990s. Last Sunday, they never remotely looked like altering that depressing statistic.
Derry 4-16, Down 4-8
Derry booked their place in the Ulster hurling final when a strong finish saw them overcome the challenge of Down by 4-16 to 4-8 at Casement Park. Trailing by five points with 10 minutes left, Derry stormed back with a dramatic scoring burst of 2-7 to take the honors.
The inspirational Oliver Collins started the amazing turnaround when he smashed home a shot for Derry’s third goal and then substitute John O’Dwyer added a fourth. The unexpected rout was completed by Geoffrey McGonigle who struck three points in a row to finish with a personal total of 0-8.
In the decider on July 10, Derry will meet Antrim who were much too strong for London running out winners by 3-23 to 1-6. Gregory O’Kane hit 1-9 and Alastair Elliott accounted for 2-2 as Antrim were never under any serious pressure.
Kerry 3-17, Clare 0-12
Clare might have been understrength, but this Munster football semifinal at Killarney sent a couple of generations of Kerry supporters merrily down memory lane. Because this was a vintage display by the men from the Kingdom, reminiscent of the best of the 1970s as they set to work on the opposition.
Not even their All Ireland title of two years ago, or last season’s laceration of Cork, could match up to what was a hugely impressive performance. Three clinical first-half goals, the form of Maurice Fitzgerald and the contributions of Noel Kennelly, Aodan MacGearailt and John Crowley, left manager Paidi O Se in an upbeat mood.
"There’s always a bit of an improvement needed, but I felt that our forwards really moved the ball well and gave fantastic support to each other," said O Se. The three goals were perfectly executed. Crowley hammered home the first from a narrow angle, Dara O Cinneide scored a spectacular second from all of 25 yards and some slick passing created the third for Crowley once again.
With an interval lead of 3-6 to 0-7, the Kerry faithful were already
previewing a Munster final against archrivals Cork. Following this mesmerizing exhibition, and the revitalization of Fitzgerald, the Kingdom’s season could well last until September.
Cork 4-13, Limerick 1-6
Forget about the scoreline in this Munster football semifinal at Pairc Ui Rinn, it flattered Cork to a major degree. No doubting that in the end, they were the better side and fully deserved a shot at Kerry in the decider, but early into the second half, the winners were only hanging on by three points.
Until then, a promising Limerick outfit had been in contention, but when Joe Kavanagh soloed away from the defense to blast home a superb goal, Cork suddenly came to life and by full-time the margin had ballooned out to 16 points.
"Limerick put us under a lot of pressure," was Cork manager, Larry Tompkins’s verdict. "There were a lot of cobwebs out there and we’ll have to improve if we want to go any further. The players knew at halftime that they hadn’t played well at all."
The National League champions at least finished strongly, punishing every Limerick error as Padraig O’Mahony accumulated an impressive 1-9. However, the result was not all gloom and doom for the losers’ promising young panel.
Derry 2-14, Cavan 0-5
Even if Derry were playing down this demolition of Cavan, their Ulster football championship first-round-replay performance at Breffni Park last Sunday sent a few tremors through the province. Unrecognizable from the drawn game, the winners were in fine fettle.
"You wouldn’t want to go overboard about it," came the typical warning from manager Eamonn Coleman, but this time were in a different class. Anthony Tohill ruled midfield, while Henry Downey, Niall McCusker and Paul McFlynn also caught the eye of the Derry supporters in a crowd of 18,000.
Soon, though, Coleman was warming to his team’s display.
"To hold Cavan to five points and just two from play, that’s the part I really like," he said. As for Cavan, their manager, Val Andrews, couldn’t get a handle on what was a dramatic turnaround from the first match. "You have those days in football, we just didn’t play. Look, I don’t know what happened, I’ll have to look at the video."
The winners’ goals came from Enda Muldoon and Dermot Dougan as Coleman made five changes before the throw-in, which forced Cavan to alter their defensive shape. The imperious Tohill kicked four frees while Joe Brolly, Johnny McBride and McFlynn each contributed two. Armagh are Derry’s next opponents — they have been warned.
Down 1-15, Antrim 0-14
Antrim’s miserable record of never having won an Ulster football championship game in 18 years was prolonged in Newry as Down came through this first-round clash comfortably enough. Only four of Antrim’s points came from play as the winners only had to rely on two frees as they took control of proceedings after Mickey Linden’s seventh-minute goal.
There was, however, one blot on the Down copybook when Michael Magill was sent off for a foot trip in the closing stages.
"We fell apart after the sending off," said manager Pete McGrath, "but, fortunately, the hard work had been done by then."