THE end result was exactly what the Kilkenny under-21s desired, but the Cats had to dig deep to keep their hands on their Leinster title.
“We were made to work very hard for that,” said manager Richie Mulrooney in the aftermath of Kilkenny’s six-point victory over the Faithful County in Tullamore. “Our first half display wasn’t good enough at all.
“For whatever reason we just didn’t work the way we had been working in challenge matches and on the training field,” he said. “That can happen to any group of players at any level, but the lads showed their character in the second half.”
Kilkenny’s character came to the fore at the right time, allowing them to keep in close contention with Offaly before making their move with a clinical final quarter performance.
With a Stephen Quirke free pushing Offaly two clear (1-13 to 0-14) Kilkenny needed a big response. They got just that, albeit with a stroke of good luck when sub Conor Martin aimed for a point from close to midfield with nine minutes left on the clock.
Martin’s strike didn’t come off his hurley as clean as he had hoped, but Shane Donnelly caught the scuffed effort and picked out the incoming Michael Brennan. He cut to the right, pausing only to slam a close range shot across ’keeper Conor Clancy and inside the far post.
It was a strike that revived Kilkenny, who stretched their newfound lead when Ger Aylward caught a long Cillian Buckley clearance and turned into a point (1-15 to 1-13).
Offaly needed a score, and fast. They had a chance to do just that when Quirke was hauled down inside the square by Willie Phelan, giving the hosts a 53rd minute penalty. Having already rattled off 1-10 it seemed certain Quirke would raise another green flag but his shot was beaten away by netminder Aaron Duggan, before Sean Dolan’s follow-up effort was blocked by a sea of black and amber shirts and cleared to safety.
The game turned on those two late goal chances. The Cats took theirs; Offaly didn’t.
A game that ended with a bang began with something of a whimper for the champions. Little seemed to go their way early on, something which caused frustration as they were pushed all the way by an Offaly side who made life difficult, especially in the middle third.
After 13 minutes it was anyone’s game, the sides having split the opening six points down the middle. Offaly had their goalkeeper Conor Clancy to thank for that parity however, the netminder doing well to turn Kevin Kelly’s close range shot on six minutes round the post for a 65.
Clancy was called into action again on 15 minutes, this time denying John Power a three-pointer after a good burst to his left. Within seconds his opposite number Aaron Duggan was doing the same, the Dicksboro man making a fine diving save to his right side to keep out a teasing shot from corner-forward Adrian Hynes.
Offaly’s movement came to the fore in the half, combining crossfield passes with speedy play. Stephen Quirke profited most from that, grabbing five points before the break (two frees) as they took control. Kilkenny looked to be in trouble, but not all was lost. With Cillian Buckley and John Power driving the team on they clawed back some late points, enough to go in just a point behind at the break (0-9 to 0-8).
Fired up for the new half the Cats were quick to take control. Placed scores from Power (free, 65) edged them in front, but they were stunned when Stephen Quirke drilled a 25 metre free past six men on the line.
More Quirke frees kept Offaly in front, but Kilkenny weren’t about to yield. Another Power brace inched them closer (1-13 to 0-14), before they went on that late charge.
Offaly’s spirits were broken by that penalty miss. Kilkenny took full advantage. Two points from John Power, bookending minor scores from Kevin Kelly and Michael Brennan, sealed victory.