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The Tipp native who helped Derry rattle hurling heavyweights in an All-Ireland quarter-final

John O’Dwyer was part of the Derry team that gave Offaly a scare in the 2000 All-Ireland SHC quarter-final.

TIPPERARY NATIVE JOHN O’Dwyer has never really pondered the ‘what ifs’ about how his hurling career turned out.

john-odwyer John O'Dwyer in action for Derry in the 2000 All-Ireland SHC quarter-final against Offaly. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

Had he stayed in the Premier County, he reckons he would have been consigned to a life of the small fish trying to make it in the big pond.

But at 23, he left his home in Killenaule and followed his heart up to Derry where his wife is from, and put down his roots there.

At the time, he was playing football for the senior county team and won an All-Ireland B medal with that side. He had also hurled at U21 level for Tipp. 

A trial with the senior team, he reckons, wouldn’t have been beyond his reach. But he relocated to the North before he could find out.

He didn’t play any hurling for the first year of living in Derry, and actually lined out for the county team before commencing his club career with his local Banagher outfit.

“I played county before I played club up here which is mad,” he tells The42.

Up here, if they hear you’re from a hurling county, they’re on your case straight away.”

What followed was an impressive career which yielded an All-Ireland B hurling medal to go with the one he earned back in Tipperary. There are also back-to-back Ulster SHC titles in his cabinet, the first of which came during the 2000 season after finally edging out their rivals Antrim.

That first Ulster success led the Oak Leaf County to venture out of the province for the first time in 92 years. They were paired with Offaly in the All-Ireland quarter-final, a  heavyweight hurling side of the 90s who had captured the Liam MacCarthy Cup just two years before that.

O’Dwyer scored two points that day as Derry just came up short in causing a stunning upset at Croke Park, losing out by six points to a more experienced side.

“We weren’t confident or any of that kind of stuff,” O’Dwyer recalls about the day they took on Offaly as massive underdogs.

“We were actually hoping we’d put up a good show and as it turned out, we actually had a great day. We played fierce well as a team.

We stayed the night before and got a Garda escort in and we wouldn’t have been used to that. It was a great weekend, really enjoyable. We didn’t get carried away with it either.

“We had mass and the escort in, and it’s only then when you see the supporters going in that you’re like, ‘This is bigger than what we’ve been doing.’

There were several household names buttressing the Offaly side that took to the field that day. Michael Duignan, Johnny Pilkington and Johnny Dooley were all among the starters while Brian Whelahan and Joe Dooley were both sprung from the bench.

The Faithful needed reinforcements as Derry soon proved to be a stickier prospect than they anticipated. The teams were level at the hour mark of the game and a shock Derry win was a real prospect.

Johnny Dooley told the Irish Independent this week that the tightness of the game was “nightmare stuff”. He added that the crowds that were arriving for the second quarter-final between Tipperary and Galway were showing their preference for Derry while Offaly supporters travelled in low numbers that day.

O’Dwyer is confident that Derry capitalised on every chance that was presented to them, and points to some key individual performances that illuminated their display.

Geoffrey McGonigle bagged two goals while Michael Collins and Kieran McKeever also stand out in O’Dwyer’s memory. Ollie Collins was their “talisman,” but he was forced off with injury.

But even with all the momentum that was behind them, O’Dwyer was never fully confident of a Derry win.

michael-duignan-and-michael-collins-2372000 Michael Duignan pursuing Derry's Michael Collins. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“We were level with 10 or 15 minutes to go, you’re thinking we could kind of pull this off. But at the end of the day, at that level, you always felt Offaly would have enough to pull away, and they did in the end. They beat us by six points.

“But we gave them a good game, we had a good squad that year. That team had been building up.

“Ollie Collins was our main player. Having your best man coming off was a blow.

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“I probably didn’t have time to think if we could win it or not. We were under that much pressure and you were hoping that you might get a lucky chance or whatever. Dooley kept scoring and he was causing mayhem.

In the moment, you’re just trying to do the best you can. We were flat to the mat for the whole game. Everything was going 100 miles per hour.”

After a tense fight for much of the contest, Offaly’s experience prevailed as they stretched their advantage throughout the concluding stages of the game.

They went on to contest the All-Ireland final later that year where they were emphatically dispatched by an emerging Kilkenny outfit.

As for Derry, O’Dwyer insists that there were no feelings of regret after the final whistle. They came down to Dublin determined to bring a fight to the pitch and they delivered on that promise before having “a right good night”.

Even if they did manage to win, Cork would have been waiting for the Ulster champions in the semi-final and O’Dwyer suspects they would have lost that tie by a much bigger margin.

And there were other strong teams lurking about at that time that Derry managed to dodge.

“Offaly was probably the best team to suit us,” says O’Dwyer. “Tipperary and Galway played the other quarter-final, and if we got either of them, they’d probably have roasted us.

“Offaly wouldn’t have been as mobile an outfit. They’re good skilful hurlers, but they wouldn’t be as mobile. We were quite a big team and we were all very mobile. That helped us with Offaly, we were able to get stuck into them and get on top of them.

“It would have been nice but I think Derry got a boost anyway for that period of time. The problem was they beat Cork in the semi-final and I don’t think we would have come anywhere close to beating Cork. We could have ended up getting a right hammering off Cork and that would have put us back into a flash in the pan.”

simon-whelehan-891998 Offaly defender Simon Whelahan [file photo]. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

O’Dwyer says he started that Offaly game at full-forward but was moved out to the corner where he was picked up by All-Ireland winner, and star Birr defender, Simon Whelahan.

All-Ireland senior quarter-finals don’t normally include Derry, and O’Dwyer wanted to make sure he had a memento from the occasion.

“I started on [Kevin] Kinahan and then I moved into the corner on Whelahan and we had a right old time. He had marked me a couple of times in the league and I swapped with him. For us, you’re not going to get that many chances to swap in an All-Ireland quarter-final so I actually said it to him.

I kept it and it’s something I will always keep. It’s one of the only jerseys I have kept.”

20 years on from that famous clash, Offaly and Derry are reunited for the first time in a hurling championship fixture this weekend. It’s not at Liam MacCarthy level anymore however, as both sides are competing in the Christy Ring Cup these days.

The wheel turns of course, and there are some connections between those squads from 2000 with today’s panels. Michael Duignan’s son Brian is hurling for the Offaly seniors, while Kieran McKeever’s son Odhrán is on the Derry squad.

O’Dwyer’s son Johnny is also involved with the Derry team. 

Looking at how the result will fall this time around, O’Dwyer is leaning towards another Offaly win, but just like in 2000, Derry won’t relinquish anything easily.

“Offaly are nowhere near the team they used to be,” says O’Dwyer. “They’re way back. Derry aren’t too bad. They still don’t have all the players they should but they’ve more than they had five or six years ago. Derry’s panels change depending on how the football is going.

“They’re solid, a big strong team. I wouldn’t imagine they’ll have enough for Offaly but we’ll see.”

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