Division 1A here we come!

Hurlers secure promotion with hard-earned away win

Alan Aherne

Wexford corner-back Simon Donohoe tries to break free from the shackles of Seán Cleary (Offaly)
Wexford corner-back Simon Donohoe tries to break free from the shackles of Seán Cleary (Offaly)
Joint captain Lee Chin and manager Davy Fitzgerald celebrate

Wexford's return to the top flight in the Allianz Hurling League was signed, sealed and delivered in O'Connor Park, Tullamore, on Sunday with a hard-earned and laboured five-point win over Offaly in their fourth round encounter.

Wexford 1-17 Offaly0-15

Sometimes the final result is simply all that matters, regardless of performance, and that was undoubtedly the case in this instance as the visitors got over the line without ever going close to matching the fine displays given against Limerick and Galway.

Perhaps the big prize at stake weighed heavily on the minds of some players, as there was a degree of fumbling and general sloppiness that would have been punished to the full by a more capable team than Offaly.

Thankfully though, Wexford stuck to their task and finally made doubly sure of the win they craved so badly near the end when Conor McDonald, David Dunne and Aidan Nolan slotted over the last three points.

Two key incidents dictated the outcome, with the first arriving in the 34th minute when Aaron Maddock hung a delivery in the air from the right which was caught at the back post by McDonald who made space for himself before planting an unstoppable shot in the net past James Dempsey.

That goal gave Wexford a 1-7 to 0-8 lead at the break after playing against the wind, although they had been operating well below their capabilities for the most part.

And of equal importance was a stunning penalty save by Mark Fanning in the 47th minute at a stage when the Slaneysiders held a 1-10 to 0-10 advantage but were struggling to shake off a typically dogged and persistent Offaly side with high hopes of repeating their victory last year on our own home soil.

There appeared to be no immediate danger when Shane Dooley cut a line ball into the air from the right, but referee Cathal McAllister didn't like the swing deployed by corner-back James Breen while it was in flight.

He immediately stretched his arms to signal a penalty before booking the Adamstown man, and it was down to Fanning to preserve his clean sheet. And he was more than equal to the task, diving to his right to make a superb stop at the expense of a '65 which Dooley did drive between the posts.

A couple of factors ensured that the margin between the sides swayed between an uncomfortable two and three points near the conclusion before injury time scores from Dunne and Nolan.

Firstly the shooting left a lot to be desired even with the advantage of the elements, with a second-half wide count of 10-0 leading to overall figures of 16-5 which was an undoubted blot on Wexford's copybook.

Secondly, while Offaly didn't carry much of a forward threat in general play after the break, all of the five frees the visitors conceded in that second period were within the range of Shane Dooley who kept the locals' side of the scoreboard ticking over.

There was an anxious spell midway through the second-half directly after that Fanning penalty save when both teams struggled to add to their tallies in a five-minute barren spell.

A Liam Ryan point attempt was pulled down from above his crossbar by netminder James Dempsey before promising teenage defender Damien Reck shot a wide.

An Offaly effort from Stephen Quirke rebounded off post and then crossbar before Fanning cleared, with Lee Chin missing a free and Jack O'Connor also off target before Harry Kehoe finally made it 1-11 to 0-11 after Paul Morris blocked defender Dermot Shortt who struggled to deal with a needless short puck-out.

David Dunne and Jack Guiney were introduced to the half-forward line at that juncture, with Chin and Aidan Nolan forming a new midfield partnership.

And Diarmuid O'Keeffe left four between the sides after Chin caught a Fanning clearance and fed him in the 58th minute. Conor McDonald then followed up a wide with a point to leave Wexford 1-13 to 0-11 clear, but two frees from Shane Dooley left Offaly too close for comfort entering the closing stages.

Jack Guiney won Fanning's puck-out after that second score and set up Aidan Nolan to make it 1-14 to 0-13, but he then landed his own scoring attempt short before Dooley once more left a goal between them.

When McDonald missed a free and Oisín Kelly followed up with Offaly's sole second-half point from play, the home supporters sensed that perhaps this was the day when their side might pick up a first win of a very poor overall campaign.

Thankfully, Wexford's coolness under pressure and new-found maturity shone through in the end, even though it took a while as Diarmuid O'Keeffe initially dropped a shot short and Lee Chin delivered a wide.

David Dunne won a vital free in the right corner which Conor McDonald knocked over before Chin missed a '65 after an unfortunate fumble by Dunne when Wexford had created a three-on-one overlap. However, another poor puck-out by James Dempsey was then gathered and pointed by the lively substitute from Davidstown-Courtnacuddy.

Once again the re-start was won by Wexford, and Aidan Nolan put the seal on a victory that was badly needed with the final score nearly two and a half minutes into added time.

Both sides paraded sweepers and Shaun Murphy was undoubtedly more effective in the role than Dermot Shortt, getting on a huge amount of ball in the second-half in particular and using it wisely.

The start had been bright as David Redmond and Paul Morris picked off points inside three minutes, but the next four scores went to Offaly.

They got a lot of joy from direct balls into their full-forward line, with Seán Cleary in particular looking sharp and taking Simon Donohoe for three points from play in the opening half.

His first was the second in a sequence also featuring scores from Shane Dooley (free), Stephen Quirke and another Dooley placed ball as they moved 4-2 clear by the eighth minute after winning the toss and making first use of the wind.

Wexford had slipped back into the lead by the end of the opening quarter, with a neat pass from David Redmond setting up Conor McDonald for his first point before the Gorey man registered from a free and Morris added his second following a neat sidestep from a Chin pass.

Four wides had been chalked up by that stage, from Donohoe, McDonald (free), Chin and Redmond, with two more following in the seond quarter from Chin and Morris.

It was tit-for-tat as Offaly responded with the next three points courtesy of Cleary, Dooley and Cleary once more to leave them 7-5 clear by the 21st minute.

There was no immediate cause for concern, although there wasn't a great deal of cohesion to the play and Wexford were struggling to fully impose themselves on proceedings.

Nonetheless, McDonald pulled one back from a free after a foul on Aaron Maddock, while Jack O'Connor split the posts from midfield despite a couple of uncharacteristic fumbles in the build-up from Matthew O'Hanlon.

David Redmond was short with two point attempts leading up to the break, but the key moment was McDonald's catch and venomous strike from Maddock's cross which left Wexford 1-7 to 0-8 clear at half-time despite a late pointed free from Dooley.

Offaly's sharpshooter resumed for the second-half at centre-forward while David King and Aidan Treacy formed a new midfield partnership, and the sides shared the first four points on the re-start.

Dooley narrowed the gap to the minimum twice from frees, with Wexford responding to the first through a McDonald free, and the second courtesy of Chin after he caught a Mark Fanning puck-out.

Nonetheless, McDonald (free) and Chin also shot the first two of those ten second-half wides, with the latter in particular having a complete off-day when it came to finishing.

An Aaron Maddock miss was followed by Diarmuid O'Keeffe's first point after Simon Donohoe joined the attack, and the pivotal moment of the half followed as Mark Fanning denied Shane Dooley from that penalty.

Wexford never made it look easy but ultimately got over the line, and now they can look forward to Sunday week's final group game at home to Laois knowing that they will be table-toppers and awaiting the fourth-placed Division 1A team in the quarter-final at the end of the day regardless of the outcome.

Wexford: Mark Fanning; Simon Donohoe, Liam Ryan, James Breen; Shaun Murphy; Damien Reck, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-2); Jack O'Connor (0-1), Aaron Maddock; Paul Morris (0-2), Lee Chin (joint capt., 0-1), David Redmond (0-1); Conor McDonald (1-6, 0-4 frees), Harry Kehoe (0-1). Subs. - Aidan Nolan for Morris, temp. (10-13), Nolan (0-2) for Maddock (47), David Dunne (0-1) for O'Connor (56), Jack Guiney for Morris (56), Barry Carton for Redmond (60).

Offaly: James Dempsey; Michael Cleary, Paddy Rigney; Dermot Shortt; Derek Morkan, Aidan Treacy, Seán Gardiner; Seán Ryan (capt.), Paddy Delaney; James Mulrooney, Cillian Kiely, Oisín Kelly (0-1); Shane Dooley (0-10, 8 frees, 1 '65), Stephen Quirke (0-1), Seán Cleary (0-3). Subs. - Emmett Nolan for Ryan, temp. (25-30), David King for Delaney, inj. (31), Nolan for Mulrooney (HT), Ben Conneely for Ryan, inj. (40), Peter Geraghty for S. Cleary (62), Tom Carroll for Quirke (62).

Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork).

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