Galway strike late to break Wexford hearts
Wet eyes, broken hearts, agony to lose - the lights went out on Wexford's bid to make the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland Senior camogie championship final when Niamh McGrath nailed a straight-forward '45 almost six and a half minutes into added time in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny on Saturday.
Galway 1-14 Wexford 2-10
The faces at full0time said it all: pure despondency. Teardrops on cheeks were wiped clear with sweat-soaked jerseys, leaving flushed expressions of sheer exasperation. When Kate Kelly converted her sixth free of the afternoon, with 3:44 of the allocated minimum of four minutes gone in added time, the expectation must have been extra-time.
Then referee Cathal Egan let it go on, and on, and on. There was a natural-feeling end in there. As Laura Brennan was readying to puck the ball out over a minute after Kelly's leveller, after a harmless pass up the line had flown wide, the Cork official was making an unidentifiable arm motion, a signal perhaps, and it seemed likely to be the end. It really should have been the end.
But the game kept going and Galway won a rare second-half free. It looked soft but Wexford could have few complaints over a referee who gave them more than their fair share, particularly after the interval. Even then, as it dropped short that could have been it, but still no whistle. The sliothar flicked off a Wexford hand and behind for a fairly simple '45 that McGrath nailed.
Queue pandemonium from the westerners as Colm McGee's charges collapsed on the spot. The heartiest of efforts had come up just short. Undoubtedly it was more painful a way to lose than if the result had gone the same way as the sides' other two encounters this season.
As with any game that's decided by such a small margin, the inevitable post-mortem will follow. The big question marks will fall behind the omission of two vastly-experienced campaigners; one who played no part at all, while the other was only summoned from the bench after 26 minutes.
Billy Donnelly was brave last year but he was proved to be right. When Mary Rose Kelly became available for the All-Ireland semi-final the former Wexford ladies' football manager had a decision to make, and he chose experience over the youth of Aoife McAuliffe who had played the vast majority of league games. That decision resulted in the St. Fintan's woman picking up 'player of the game' in Croke Park and her side winning the title.
Make no mistake, Laura Brennan will likely be Wexford goalkeeper for the next decade but whether, right now, the Rathnure stopper is better than a fit-again Mags D'Arcy is a question that many will ponder. If McGee believes she is, then the decision not to start the Na Fianna clubwoman is justified.
However, there can be few excuses or justifiable reasons from the manager and his fellow mentors for not starting Karen Atkinson. The Oulart-The Ballagh defender came on in the 26th minute and shut down Ailish O'Reilly right then and there. The Galway corner-forward had three points on the board by the time Atkinson was introduced and was causing absolute havoc - she was almost a non-factor thereafter.
These are the decisions that a manager lives and dies by but still, all in all it's been a good year for the rookie boss. To get within a tardy referee's whistle of forcing extra-time is more than most would have expected of this side, and McGee and his management team deserve plenty of credit for this season.
Whether he can keep them all together for another shot at glory is yet to be seen but that will be McGee's task should he wish to come back for another stint as manager. It could prove difficult to keep them all with several regulars close to, or the wrong side of, 30.
They looked like an ageing group towards the end of the first-half as Galway had the better of the game. It was 0-4 apiece after 19 minutes following scores from McGrath, Emma Kilkelly, Aoife Donohue and Ailish O'Reilly for the Connacht side, with Shelley Kehoe, Ursula Jacob and Kate Kelly (two) replying for Wexford.
Two more O'Reilly points put Galway ahead and that lead increased further when 'player of the game' Niamh Kilkenny played a ball between 'keeper and full-back that Molly Dunne beat Laura Brennan to and pulled past her to the empty net.
If that goal was too simple, Galway obliged with a mess-up of their own five minutes before the interval as Katrina Parrock's ball into the goalmouth was missed by everybody, including Stacey Kehoe's outstretched hurl, and nestled in the corner of the net.
Two more McGrath frees left Galway 1-8 to 1-4 ahead at the interval while the next couple after the break also went to the westerners with Kilkenny grabbing a brace. It was a peculiar spell in the game as Wexford started to get on top but couldn't turn their chances into scores.
Their best opportunity in the third quarter came when Parrock bull-dozed her way through but lost control at the vital time.
The ball fell for Stacey Kehoe but the Oulart-The Ballagh forward pulled into the side-netting.
The Slaneysiders did point through Shelley Kehoe to make it 1-10 to 1-5 and added another through Ursula Jacob in the 49th minute to narrow the gap to four - although it could have been even better had Una Sinnott's effort slipped under rather than onto the crossbar in the build-up.
Galway responded with two of the next three points with Donohue and McGrath bettering a Kelly free.
The moment of inspiration Wexford desperately needed came, trailing by 1-12 to 1-7, with seven minutes left. Louise O'Leary fed the ball down deep into the left corner to Jacob who looked up and played a perfect ball right across the face of goal. Stacey Kehoe grabbed the sliothar and thumped it past Earner to put two between them.
With two minutes to go a Kelly free dropped short, and it fell to Jacob who hit the side-netting.
Then Shelley Kehoe flashed a point attempt left and wide. Galway's Dunne put three between the sides heading into added time with a well-taken point.
Kate Kelly was imperious in the final quarter and won the free that cut the gap to two. It was narrowed to one when she converted after Sinnott was felled.
With the noise pumped up, Linda Bolger tumbled and Kelly converted her third added-time dead ball to tie the game. Alas, it wasn't enough as Galway sneaked their late point to book their date in Croke Park.
Galway: Susan Earner; Therese Manton, Sarah Dervan, Heather Cooney; Siobhán Coen, Shauna Healy, Lorraine Ryan; Niamh Kilkenny (capt., 0-2), Clodagh McGrath; Aoife Donohue (0-2), Niamh McGrath (0-5, 3 frees, 1 '45), Emma Kilkelly (0-1); Catherine Finnerty, Molly Dunne (1-1), Ailish O'Reilly (0-3). Subs. - Finnoula Keeley for Kilkelly, inj. (30 + 2), Sinéad Cahalan for C. McGrath (52).
Wexford: Laura Brennan; Ciara Donohoe, Síona Nolan, Louise O'Leary; Shauna Sinnott, Mary Leacy, Ciara Storey; Deirdre Codd, Bríd Gordon; Katrina Parrock (1-0), Kate Kelly (0-6 frees), Shelley Kehoe (capt., 0-2); Stacey Kehoe (1-0), Ursula Jacob (0-2), Una Sinnott. Subs. - Karen Atkinson for Donohoe (26), Linda Bolger for Storey (45), Lisa Bolger for Gordon (60).
Referee: Cathal Egan (Cork).