Heroic hurlers bridge 60-year gap
Wonderful Wexford recover from late goal concession to crush Cork challenge
One of the most maligned groups of players and mentors to represent Wexford delivered a quite magnificent riposte to the detractors in Semple Stadium, Thurles, on Saturday when they displayed the pride, passion and spirit of old to defeat a shell-shocked Cork side in championship hurling for the first time since 1956.
Wexford 0-23 Cork 1-17
Liam Dunne and his depleted charges went into this contest as rank outsiders against the same opponents who had ended their season in 2015 by a comfortable eight-point margin. It was generally believed that this would be a bridge too far for Wexford, but the many doubters got the best possible answer as the underdogs produced their best display in two years to secure a coveted quarter-final spot.
It was entirely fitting that team captain Matthew O'Hanlon should provide a direct link to that great team of 60 years ago which was adorned by his late grandfather, Mick, in a teak-tough defence. And while much of the post-game narrative will no doubt be dominated by Cork's clear decline as a hurling force, let's give this Wexford team and mentors the credit they so richly deserve.
They were reeled in twice after holding relatively substantial leads, firstly near half-time when Cork hit the last three points to turn a 12-6 deficit into a more manageable three-point gap.
Once again, after Wexford surged 16-11 clear by the 45th minute, they endured a dip in performance levels which was understandable in a tight game which they were never going to dominate from start to finish.
This looked to be more severe though, especially when Cork substitute Daniel Kearney availed of an unfortunate fumble of the wet ball to direct a low shot past Mark Fanning and give his side a 1-15 to 0-17 lead with less than ten minutes left.
Many feared Cork would push on from there, and their body language suggested that several Leeside players expected it would simply happen for them from that point on. They didn't bargain on the fired-up response from Wexford though, with the victorious players putting their bodies on the line and fighting courageously for every ball as they went on to score six of the last eight points to secure a fantastic victory.
An instant response to that goal was absolutely crucial, and it came from Lee Chin who gave a second-half exhibition on a day when his late club colleague, Mikey Sheil, was fittingly remembered with a respectful minute's silence before throw-in.
The centre-forward collected Mark Fanning's puck-out and struck the equaliser from tight to the left sideline, a key score to bring Wexford level and send the confidence coursing through their veins again after that goal blow.
Chin wasn't the only man to perform heroics in the closing stages, with the outstanding Liam Og McGovern coming into his own with two assists before his own brace of points. Cork substitute Cormac Murphy was only seconds on the field when the St. Anne's man caught a long Fanning free over him and popped a handpass to the excellent Conor McDonald who restored Wexford's lead in the 64th minute (0-19 to 1-15).
Dual player Simon Donohoe came into a cauldron for his inter-county Senior hurling debut, keeping tabs on Daniel Kearney as Patrick Horgan levelled from a '65. Extra-time couldn't be discounted at this juncture, but Wexford were determined to get the job done in the next five regulation minutes plus three extra.
And they accomplished their goal in rousing fashion before a disappointing crowd for a triple bill of 15,540. McGovern's short handpass under pressure picked out Chin to make it 0-20 to 1-16, with Conor Lehane firing the 14th of Cork's 15 wides (Wexford had six) before the lead was doubled.
Damien Cahalane was booked for a foul on Conor McDonald who duly obliged, but there was no time to relax as Lehane replied immediately after a run by Luke O'Farrell (0-21 to 1-17).
It was at this point that Liam Og McGovern showed the class that had marked his arrival as an attacking force to be reckoned with in 2014. He picked off a glorious point from the left after Mark Fanning's puck-out broke off Conor McDonald and, after Cahalane fired an aimless wide, McGovern repeated the dose with a carbon copy score following a flick on by Chin.
That point arrived 39 seconds into the three added minutes and it proved to be the last score, but the finish was incredibly tense as Wexford packed the defence in a bid to prevent the goal Cork required to force extra-time. Patrick Horgan went low from a free after Matthew O'Hanlon fouled Shane Kingston, but it was blocked and cleared.
Substitute Aidan Nolan, with a heavily-bandaged knee, was introduced to kill the clock and made a timely clearance straight away, while O'Hanlon drove another ball over the sideline.
And when Cahalane lobbed in one last hit and hope effort, Nolan happily drove it into the stand as he had heard the shrill blast of referee Barry Kelly's whistle which was sweet music to the ears of every Wexford man, woman and child in the home of hurling.
An unchanged team from the Offaly win had gone toe-to-toe with Cork for the first 17 minutes after captain O'Hanlon was successful with the toss.
Indeed, the sides were level no fewer than six times and the gap was never greater than one, with Wexford edging ahead twice while Cork were in the ascendancy on four occasions.
Netminder Mark Fanning was first off the mark from a midfield free after just 38 seconds following a push on Eoin Moore who started at right half-back, with Diarmuid O'Keeffe behind him in the corner on Conor Lehane.
Patrick Horgan replied with his one and only point from play after a James Breen clearance was partially blocked by Lehane, and Alan Cadogan then availed of a fine crossfield pass from Christopher Joyce to make it 2-1.
The Wexford mentors trusted Breen to keep tabs on Cork's man of the moment who flourished against Dublin, and he repaid them with another super showing. That was Cadogan's sole score, and although Breen was unfortunate to concede a couple of second-half frees, overall his star continues to rise and he has been a tremendous addition to the team.
Lee Chin caught Fanning's puck-out after that Cadogan point and duly levelled, before Aidan Walsh struck the first of eleven Cork wides before the break. Wexford only had two in contrast, and another key factor was the discipline of the winners' defence as Horgan converted just one pointed free up to half-time whereas seven were chalked up at the other end.
Bill Cooper restored Cork's lead from a Conor Lehane pass before Jack O'Connor and David Dunne combined to earn a free and Conor McDonald did the needful in the seventh minute.
Hawk-Eye was deployed for the first of three times prior to the break to confirm an Alan Cadogan wide before Lee Chin got a touch on a poor Anthony Nash clearance and Paul Morris promptly edged Wexford 4-3 clear.
Again there was an instant reply though as Seamus Harnedy availed of a quick puck-out to William Egan, and Luke O'Farrell then ran from left to right to receive a short line ball from Conor Lehane and push Cork 5-4 ahead.
A sloppy spell followed featuring three wides for the Leesiders and one for their rivals before Conor McDonald punished poor control by a rival defender from an Eanna Martin clearance with the leveller.
William Egan responded from the puck-out, with Pádraig Foley and Cork's Conor O'Sullivan performing sweeping roles at this stage at either end. It had been nip and tuck up to this point, but all that changed as Wexford surged clear with seven points on the trot between the 17th and 36th minutes.
Hawk-Eye gave a positive verdict on Conor McDonald's effort from the right after a Paul Morris pass, and the Gorey lad then scored from a free earned by Jack O'Connor. He repeated the dose after Podge Doran was hauled down, with another Cadogan shot deemed wide by Hawk-Eye before O'Connor made it 9-6 after Eoin Moore's line ball from right to left broke off Conor O'Sullivan.
David Dunne's first threatening solo led to a booking for Mark Ellis and another McDonald conversion, and the speedster won another free just over two minutes later with similar results.
Podge Doran was forced off with a knee injury and replaced by Harry Kehoe, and McDonald earned and scored from a free to make it 12-6 as four extra minutes were announced.
In this spell Cork did garner a response, with Conor Lehane ending their 21-minute barren spell with a brace of points before Horgan's sole pointed free deep in added time after Eoin Conroy fouled Luke O'Farrell.
The general view at half-time was that the first ten minutes on the re-start would be crucial, and Wexford came up trumps.
Horgan - now in the corner on O'Keeffe with Lehane on the '40 and Harnedy at full-forward - knocked over a quick free conceded by Eoin Moore, but the Oulart-The Ballagh replied with a monster 90-metre placed ball from the right after Lehane overcarried under pressure from Pádraig Foley.
David Dunne really came into his own on the re-start after moving out from the confines of the corner following Harry Kehoe's introduction. His run from a Moore pass forced Stephen McDonnell into a trip and a yellow card before McDonald made it 14-10 from the free.
Horgan and McDonald exchanged points from placed balls before Andrew Kenny came on for Eanna Martin who seemed to be dazed after a heavy challenge from Horgan. And when Paul Morris flicked the ball out of a ruck on the right in the 45th minute, Lee Chin split the posts to leave Wexford 16-11 ahead.
A slump followed though as they didn't score again for quarter of an hour while Cork pulled back three points courtesy of two Horgan frees and Luke O'Farrell. One golden chance was squandered though before O'Farrell's effort, as Lee Chin caught an Eoin Moore delivery and popped a handpass inside to David Dunne who was forced left by the advancing Anthony Nash and drove the ball wide.
The rain, which had started midway through the third quarter, wasn't helping matters at this stage, but Dunne nearly grabbed a decisive goal again in the 58th minute. This time Conor McDonald caught a clearance by Andrew Kenny and cleverly found the corner-forward with a handpass under his legs, with Dunne kicking to the right and missing the target.
At least there was the consolation of seeing the play called back for a foul on McDonald, and he tapped over to make it 17-14. The lead-up to that score was a perfect summation of the match, as the far hungrier and more determined Kenny won a 50-50 ball with Seamus Harnedy who was quickly replaced.
It was absorbing stuff at this stage as Luke O'Farrell pulled back a point before Cork's goal arrived in the 62nd minute. A Mark Ellis clearance slipped out of Pádraig Foley's grasp, and in an instant Conor Lehane handpassed to Daniel Kearney who netted from the left with a low shot across Mark Fanning (1-15 to 0-17).
Now was the time for Wexford to show what was really in them, and they delivered in spades to crown a wonderful day for this dedicated group.
Wexford: Mark Fanning (0-1 free); Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), James Breen; Eoin Moore (0-1 free), Pádraig Foley, Eanna Martin; Jack O'Connor (0-1), Eoin Conroy; Liam Og McGovern (0-2), Lee Chin (0-4), Podge Doran; Paul Morris (0-1), Conor McDonald (0-13, 10 frees), David Dunne. Subs. - Harry Kehoe for Doran, inj. (34), Andrew Kenny for Martin, inj. (44), Simon Donohoe for O'Connor (64), Cathal Dunbar for Moore (67), Aidan Nolan for Morris (70+2).
Cork: Anthony Nash; Stephen McDonnell (capt.), Damien Cahalane, Conor O'Sullivan; Aidan Walsh, Christopher Joyce, Mark Ellis; Bill Cooper (0-1), William Egan (0-1); Luke O'Farrell (0-3), Seamus Harnedy (0-1), John Cronin; Alan Cadogan (0-1), Patrick Horgan (0-7, 5 frees, 1 '65), Conor Lehane (0-3). Subs. - Daniel Kearney (1-0) for Cronin (31), Brian Lawton for Cooper (55), Shane Kingston for Harnedy (60), Cormac Murphy for Joyce (64), Mark Coleman for McDonnell (69).
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath).