Derry highlight gulf in class as the Oak Leaf County steam-roll Offaly in Croke Park
Allianz Football League Division Three Final
By Tom McLoughlin
This was a game that the GAA had originally never intended to go ahead due to the proximity of a scheduled date for the league final with Offaly’s Leinster championship opener with Louth in just eight days’ time. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and when both managers, Raymond Gallagher and in particular John Maughan, outlined their wish to proceed with the game, the right decision was made to hold the game. In an added bonus, supporters were welcomed back to Croke Park for the first time since early 2020 with an attendance of 2,400 there to see the action.
Theoretically, today’s game saw the best two teams in Division Three pitting their wits against each other and in truth the important work was done last weekend when both Derry and Offaly secured promotion to Division Two with victories over Limerick and Fermanagh respectively. However, on the evidence of today, the men from Ulster, a far more physically imposing side than their Leinster counterparts, are much further down the line in terms of their development, something which Maughan alluded to after the game. Gallagher looks to have his Derry side well primed and as he said post-match, he has never looked on his side as a Division Three outfit. On today’s evidence, they will more than hold their own in the second tier next year.
Offaly started the game quite nervously, kicking 4 wides in the first 15 minutes before eventually opening their account for the day through a Cian Farrell free in the 16th minute. This cut Derry’s lead at the time to just two points as they had started the game brighter. Derry had scored the first three points of the game through two Niall Loughlin points, one from play and a sublime Shane McGuigan point from a sideline as he curled over a beauty from between the 13 and 20 metre lines on the Cusack stand side.
The first half was by no means a thriller and was littered with frees. McGuigan pointed two placed balls in the 17th and 19th minutes after some ill-disciplined defending from Offaly to give the Derry men a 0-5 to 0-1 lead at the first water break. A positive feature of the early exchanges was the relentless running of Gareth McKinless who rampaged forward at every opportunity and posed numerous problems all day and but for some poor decision making, the Ulster side could, and should, have converted a couple of goal chances.
In the second quarter Derry kept the score board ticking over through the free conversions of McGuigan and Loughlin, and after 30 minutes they led by 0-8 to 0-1 with only one solitary point coming from play. Derry were relentless in the tackle, forcing Offaly into multiple turnovers and Maughan’s charges could not cope with the sheer physicality of their opponents with Conor Glass and Emmett Bradley bossing the midfield battle. That combined with some tigerish defending and leadership from the evergreen Chrissy McKaigue augured well for a successful evening for Gallagher’s men.
Offaly thought they had their first point from play in the 27th minute only for Hawk-Eye to overturn the original decision of a point by the umpire. It already looked evident that it was not going to be a good day for the Faithful County. They did raise a legitimate white flag in the 32nd minute through a Farrell mark and when the same man tapped over a free in the 35th minute, Offaly had cut Derry’s lead to six points.
The Division Three South winners were coming more and more into the game after a shaky opening and the introduction of Niall McNamee as a first half rescue substitute seemed to inspire his troops. Offaly’s best moment of the game came in added time of the first half when a long direct ball was wonderfully caught low by Niall McNamee on his bootlaces. McNamee fed his cousin Ruairi McNamee and the Rhode man squared to Eoin Carroll who deftly palmed the ball over the onrushing Derry keeper, Odhran Lynch. A massive roar echoed around Croke Park from the Offaly faithful in attendance when the net rippled and despite being outplayed, they managed to get into the sanctuary of the dressing room trailing by just four points, on a score-line of 0-10 to 1-3.
Offaly started the second half as they finished the first and Niall McNamee caught a wonderful mark close to the goal from a perfectly floated Niall Darby pass in the 37th minute and the Rhode man had the simple task of tapping the ball over. This seemed to spur Derry into life and they started to move through the gears and scored four of the next five points, all from play. Glass, the former AFL Hawthorn player, had a fantastic game and sauntered down the field in the 42nd minute without an Offaly man laying a glove on him to curl over a beautiful right footed effort.
This was followed up by two in a row for Glen’s Ethan Doherty as he scored two similar points with piercing runs down the wings before firing over the cross bar. This gave the Division Three North winners a lead of 0-14 to 1-5 and Offaly were beginning to visibly tire. Derry had raised a green flag in the 51st minute when McGuigan bundled the ball home, a la Joe Sheridan against Louth in the 2010 Leinster final, except this time the goal was correctly ruled out after referee Seán Lonergan consulted with his umpires and adjudged the ball to not have been kicked, but thrown to the net by McGuigan.
Any hopes of an Offaly revival were quickly extinguished as Derry accumulated a number of scores in quick succession. In the 60th minute, McGuigan scored his first and only point from play, when he combined wonderfully with his Slaughtneil club mates Chrissy McKaigue and Pádraig Cassidy before slotting over a lovely point with his left. McGuigan followed this point up with two more from placed balls, the second from distance in the 63rd minute to put his team into an unassailable lead of 0-16 to 1-6.
Offaly’s race was well and truly run and only scored one point in the final 30 minutes as they finished on a disappointing tally of just 1-6 with Derry winning the final quarter by 0-7 to 0-1. The Derry players were filling their boots in the final quarter with Ciarán McFaul and substitutes Niall Toner and Jack Doherty all adding their names to the score sheet. Captain and leader McKaigue put the icing on the Derry cake himself when he meandered forward from full back to point the final score of the game in the 69th minute.
Derry were awarded a penalty in the third minute of added time when Offaly keeper pulled down Jack Doherty when through on goal. The referee showed Paddy Dunican a black card and when McGuigan confidently stepped up, he faced Offaly’s centre forward Peter Cunningham in goals as all allowed substitutes had already been used. McGuigan’s effort was tame and straight down the middle and makeshift keeper Cunningham to his credit, did not commit by diving one way or the other and coolly saved with his feet. This was the last action of a one sided affair as Derry ran out 12 point winners on a full time score of 0-21 to 1-6.
Prior to this game, Derry had the best defensive record across all four divisions conceding an average of just 11 points per game and they certainly showed this defensive strength and solidity this evening. Up front, and contrary to belief about Rory Gallagher’s preferred style, the Oak Leaf County have also impressed throughout the league campaign, accumulating a mammoth 6-88 in their five games prior to today, an average of 21 points. Derry are building nicely under Gallagher and on their 2021 showings so far, will be a real threat to Donegal or Down when they meet in the Ulster quarter-final on July 11th.
Next up for Offaly is a trip to Navan on Sunday afternoon where they will face Mickey Harte’s Louth in the preliminary round of the Leinster championship. John Maughan very much pushed for today’s final to proceed and he is to be credited for doing so, but you would hope the psychological scars of being outclassed today can be quickly healed. For Offaly to enter their championship campaign in a good state of mind, Maughan will need his players to focus on the positives to date rather than their disappointing display in GAA HQ.
Scorers – Derry: Shane McGuigan 0-7 (5 frees, 1 side-line), Niall Loughlin 0-4 (3 frees), Ethan Doherty 0-2, Oisín McWilliams 0-1, Benny Heron 0-1, Emmett Bradley 0-1, Conor Glass 0-1, Ciaran McFaul 0-1, Niall Toner 0-1, Chrissy McKaigue 0-1, Jack Doherty 0-1. Offaly: Cian Farrell 0-4 (3 frees, 1 mark), Eoin Carroll 1-0, Niall McNamee 0-1 (1 mark), Jordan Hayes 0-1
Offaly: Paddy Dunican; David Dempsey, Eoin Rigney, Niall Darby; Colm Doyle, Carl Stewart, Jordan Hayes; James Lalor, Eoin Carroll; Shane Horan, Peter Cunningham, Anton Sullivan; Bernard Allen, Cian Farrell, Rúairí McNamee. Subs: Niall McNamee for Allen (26), Cathal Mangan for Lalor (HT), Aaron Leavy for E Carroll (47), Bill Carroll for Horan (47), Cian Donohoe for Hayes (53), Joe Maher for R McNamee (53), Johnny Moloney for Sullivan (61).
Derry: Odhran Lynch; Conor McCluskey, Chrissy McKaigue, Padraig McGrogan; Padraig Cassidy, Gareth McKinless, Conor Doherty; Conor Glass, Emmett Bradley; Ethan Doherty, Niall Loughlin, Ciarán McFaul; Benny Heron, Shane McGuigan, Oisin McWilliams. Subs: Paul Cassidy for McWilliams (41), Niall Toner for Heron (57), Jack Doherty for C Doherty (68), Karl McKaigue for Bradley (70), Ben McCarron for E Doherty (70).
Venue: Croke Park, Dublin
Man of the Match: Chrissy McKaigue
Referee: Seán Lonergan (Tipperary)