Wicklow march on
WICKLOW OFFALY 1-20 1-15
THE roar that greeted Wicklow’s first Leinster championship victory since 2014 in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, last Sunday evening was one of the sweetest sounds heard by a Wicklow GAA supporter for a long time.
Over the course of the 70 minutes of normal time and the 20 of extra-time that followed that roar had grown with each passing score from a whisper to the raucous bellow of delight and relief that filled the air on a beautiful May evening and condemned the previous three years of despair to the past once and for all.
That sense of a weight being lifted off a county’s shoulders was undeniable as the very healthy contingent of Wicklow supporters took to the field to congratulate a rightfully delighted group of footballers who have toiled long and hard in the hunt for inter-county success and, more importantly, progress.
John Evans has put a disappointing league campaign behind him as he persevered with his introduction of youth into the side and the rewards for his strategy were there for all to see for the majority of this game with Mark Jackson proving himself to be a goalkeeping and point-scoring star, John Crowe and Saoirse Kearnon running themselves into the ground, Cathal Magee making a massive contribution when called upon including fisting over the final score of the game, Eoin Murtagh dominating and Darragh Fitzgerald showing wonderful exuberance and confidence to tear the Offaly defence apart and slot home a stunning goal that ultimately killed off the Faithful challenge.
As well as the injection of youth, this Wicklow side are superbly fit. They quite simply ran a disillusioned Offaly side into the ground on Sunday, growing more and more comfortable looking and capable as the game went on.
It’s none of Wicklow’s concern that Offaly football seems to be in a chronically bad place, but it might be useful to temper runaway speculation or misplaced confidence by acknowledging that all is most certainly not well in Stephen Wallace’s camp and that the situation undoubtedly played a part in the outcome of this game.
Nevertheless, Wicklow, aside from the opening half, were by far the better team and grew into this encounter with each passing minute and should go on to face Dublin with a sense of adventure and abandon and use the clash to gain vital experience and insight. It could be said that this is the perfect time to be facing the reigning All-Ireland and league champions and although a battle of Aughrim is not on the cards, given the opposition and the manner of the victory last Sunday, it is very likely that Wicklow will be very well supported in Portlaoise later this month.
The key moment in Sunday’s victory had to be the penalty save from Mark Jackson from Offaly full-forward Nigel Dunne late in the second half of this game. Wicklow’s Paul Merrigan probably feels hard done by after being convicted of pushing Offaly number three James Lalor in the square. There was little evidence of a push but the Rathnew man’s hand was on the Offaly man’s back and Lalor didn’t seem too keen to stay on his feet as the Faithful County came looking for a score to put Wicklow back on their behinds with just over 10 minutes of normal time remaining.
Given what is reported to have transpired following the strange substitution of Nigel Dunne after just 28 minutes of the opening half – it has been said that the Offaly full-forward attempted to leave O’Moore Park and had a blazing row with team mentors – the decision to allow Dunne to take the penalty must now seem misguided.
In fairness to the Shamrocks man, it wasn’t a bad penalty kick, he placed it well to Mark Jackson’s left but the key to the save lies in the Baltinglass man’s positioning in the moments prior to Dunne taking the kick. As the Offaly full-forward places the ball and retreats, Jackson stands far to his right and makes himself look as big as he can. From Dunne’s point of view, when he looks up to get his bearings all he can see is a huge space to Jackson’s left, almost three quarters of the goal, and Jackson is always going down to his left and superbly saves the low strike out for a 45.
This was a huge moment in this game. It served to lift the Wicklow players and supporters and Jackson went on to score the next three points for the Garden men to secure the draw and send this game to extra-time where fitness, character, belief and no shortage of ability drove Wicklow on to a sweet, sweet victory.
After the opening 35 minutes there was absolutely no way of knowing what was about to unfold. Around O’Moore Park heads shook in frustration and disappointment after a flat and error-ridden half of poor football from both teams with Anton Sullivan’s goal suggesting that John Evans’ side were in a spot of bother at the back.
The loss of Jamie Snell to injury after 27 minutes and Mark Jackson’s delayed kick out resulting in a throw ball were worrying signs, but Wicklow had created a few goal chances, were only a score down at 1-5 to 0-5 and had a determined looking Ross O’Brien coming in for Snell while Seanie Furlong, Mark Kenny, Dean Healy and Theo Smyth all looked mad for work.
Two Bernard Allen points were answered by a Jackson free and a sweet Mark Kenny effort to leave it level after 14.
Nigel Dunne returned Offaly to the lead from a free before Dean Healy brought a fine save from Alan Mulhall when the Pat’s man gathered possession in the Offaly square after James Stafford had kept in a hopeful shot from Seanie
Wicklow’s Darragh Fitzgerald celebrates after scoring his superb goal during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship clash with Offaly.