Hurlers hit back for magnificent win
Promotion in Wexford's own hands after first-ever success in Pearse Stadium
Whatever else happens this year, the Wexford supporters who made the long journey west will always cherish the closing 15 minutes of Sunday's epic Allianz Hurling League Division 1B clash which attracted a crowd of 7,006 to Pearse Stadium, Salthill.
Wexford 1-21 Galway 3-13
This was as close to championship fervour as one could expect on a muggy day in February, and when the chips were down the visitors delivered in sensational style to leave promotion to the top flight very much in their own hands.
It was a wonderfully uplifting performance and, coming hot on the heels of the equally gritty home win over Limerick, it confirmed that Davy Fitzgerald's project to restore the county's standing as one of the leading contenders is very much on course even at this early stage.
Wexford had already shown commendable heart and desire to recover from a 2-7 to 0-6 deficit after half an hour. And, while that superb finish got them over the line and drove their followers wild with delight in the packed stand, the earlier phase of the game was every bit as important as six points on the trot on either side of half-time - five before the break - brought them right back into contention after conceding goals to Joseph Cooney and Johnny Coen.
Yet, the return from long-term injury of Galway's favourite son, Joe Canning, looked to have scuppered their chances. He arrived in the 50th minute and was scarcely on the field when he showed his class by plant ing a rocket of a penalty to the top right corner of the net, leaving Mark Fanning rooted to the spot after Jason Flynn was fouled.
That goal stretched the Galway lead to 3-12 to 0-15, but what followed had to be seen to be believed as Wexford outscored their rivals by 1-6 to 0-1 in the race to the line despite facing the elements on a dull and overcast day when this ground close to Galway Bay was shrouded in mist and fog.
Indeed, the home side were held scoreless from play from the 47th minute onwards as a Jason Flynn pointed '65 preceded that Canning goal, and their sole addition afterwards came from a long-range placed ball by netminder Colm Callanan shortly after the absolutely crucial Wexford goal.
Conor McDonald had punished a foul on the excellent Paul Morris with a point before the Slaneysiders responded to Canning's strike in the best possible fashion.
Lee Chin strode forward and used his considerable guile to ensure that he was inside the penalty area when contact from John Hanbury brought him down. Mark Fanning made that long, and by now familiar, walk upfield with a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but it didn't show in the least as he planted the ball in the net low to Callanan's right (3-12 to 1-16).
The Galway folk were growing restless and it was clear to see why, because the script wasn't meant to play out like this. Wexford had been persistent and impressive opponents, but the expectation was that the third goal would effectively kill them off.
Nothing could have been further from the truth though as one of the best away league performances in my memory drew to a magical close.
Podge Doran had come off the bench and made another huge contribution, taking on an opponent and dodging him with a clever sidestep after availing of a Diarmuid O'Keeffe pass to reduce the gap to 3-13 to 1-17 with just over nine minutes of normal time left.
David Dunne was next to arrive for the injured Aidan Nolan who was very effective at midfield, and his pace earned a yellow card for Adrian Tuohy and a pointed free for Conor McDonald in the 67th minute.
Joseph Cooney and Lee Chin struck wides as the tension mounted, with the large crowd totally engrossed in every puck of the ball in this fabulous advertisement for the league.
A mere 35 seconds of the regulation 70 minutes remained when substitute Richie Kehoe delivered a clearance to Conor McDonald who hung a sweet strike in the air, and when it landed over Callanan's bar the sides were level (1-19 to 3-13) and the momentum was with Wexford.
It still wasn't going to be easy to make the most of it, but there was no need for any doubts among the travelling support as this extremely fit and focused group finished at a blistering pace and with a passion and desire that left Galway floundering.
Lee Chin delivered a lovely ball from left to right into the path of Dunne who flicked the ball past Aidan Harte and was taken down. The free was moved in for dissent and McDonald did the rest.
Three extra minutes had been announced, and one incident early in that spell encapsulated this engrossing encounter in a nutshell for me. The ball broke into the path of Jason Flynn in the right half-forward position but he was hassled into submission by a trio of Wexfordmen in Lee Chin, Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Richie Kehoe.
The attacker simply had nowhere to go, and the hunger and immense workrate of his opponents even at that late stage typified Wexford's approach. Indeed, the identity of the three players was merely incidental, because I have no doubt that if that scenario had arisen elsewhere on the field, three different colleagues would have done exactly the same thing.
The icing on the cake came with the second-last puck when Conor McDonald converted a tricky free into the breeze from the left after Podge Doran was fouled following a Lee Chin clearance. It was the crowning glory on a special day for Wexford, and now the next task will be to lower the expectations as there's still so much work to do.
Yes, promotion is very much a live possibility, but victories must still be garnered over Kerry (home), Offaly (away) and Laois (home) to leave no doubts surrounding that long-awaited return to Division 1A. It's well within the players' grasp, but only if they keep their feet on the ground and supporters don't get carried away with successive wins over decent opponents in February.
Some eyebrows may have been raised when Wexford played with a two-man full-forward line after Galway won the toss and opted to face the wind first, but the end always justifies the means when a win is secured.
Davy Fitzgerald and company had a plan and they were intent on sticking to it regardless, and the players carried it through to near-perfection.
There was a familiar look to the side as Shaun Murphy took up his sweeping role, with Aidan Nolan and Barry Carton forming the midfield partnership and Paul Morris and Conor McDonald left inside in a two-man full-forward line.
Lee Chin started on the left flank but also spent some time on the edge of the square and was everywhere after the interval, while Jack O'Connor was mainly active around the right half-forward berth.
Aidan Harte was the Galway sweeper, and both men in that role were on the ball a lot in the course of a first-half where incredibly nine Wexford players scored a point apiece from play, including the entire half-back line. Simon Donohoe and Diarmuid O'Keeffe had switched wings at an early stage as they were instructed to follow their individual opponents, Conor Whelan and Jason Flynn respectively.
Galway opened with points from Conor Cooney and Whelan and looked lively, especially down the right flank of attack. Barry Carton got Wexford off the mark from distance before the leveller arrived from Matthew O'Hanlon who found himself beyond midfield a good deal at the time as he was following Davy Glennon.
The visitors hit the front for the first time in the ninth minute courtesy of Lee Chin, with Jason Flynn equalising from a free before a good spell saw Conor McDonald and David Redmond put Wexford 0-5 to 0-3 in front.
Chin had a goal chance when he caught a Jack O'Connor line ball in space, but he drove his shot to the left of the posts for one of his side's ten wides (nine for Galway).
Jason Flynn narrowed the gap to the minimum before the first Galway goal arrived in the 16th minute, with Conor Whelan delivering a lovely ball over the top into space and Joseph Cooney winning the race as Mark Fanning advanced swiftly to flick it to the net (1-4 to 0-5).
David Burke and Paul Morris swapped points but Galway moved up a gear with the addition of 1-2 in three and a half minutes. Brian Molloy and Conor Cooney picked off the points, with Conor McDonald missing a scoreable free before Joseph Cooney floated a beautiful ball into space on the left for midfielder Johnny Coen who made ground before firing low across goal into the far corner of the net (2-7 to 0-6).
It was at this juncture that we caught a clear glimpse of the new Wexford. It would have been easy to fold with such a large deficit while favoured by the wind, but instead they reeled in their rivals with five points on the trot before half-time. It was a huge statement of intent as Chin (free), Simon Donohoe, Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Aidan Nolan and McDonald (free) left the gap at a more manageable 2-7 to 0-11.
It got even better when Chin pointed a difficult free on the right just over four minutes into the second-half, although Galway steadied when Jason Flynn knocked over a placed ball (2-8 to 0-12).
By the 50-minute mark it was 2-12 to 0-15, with Conor Cooney, Joseph Cooney, Jason Flynn (play and '65) registering for the leaders while Paul Morris (two) and Aidan Nolan replied, the latter after a pass from Morris who had a huge influence on proceedings, along with Diarmuid O'Keeffe who repeatedly ghosted into dangerous positions.
That Flynn point from play was another key moment as it had goal written all over it but Mark Fanning made a superb save after Aidan Nolan threw his hurl at the attacker in desperation.
Competitive and all as Wexford were up to that point and beyond, it was another huge test of character after Canning netted but they responded in spades.
Just to put the achievement in perspective, it was the first away win over Galway in a group game in the league since the victory in Ballinasloe in October of 1983, and the first-ever success in Pearse Stadium which witnessed a 1-24 to 0-6 loss on the last visit in 2011.
That will do nicely for the moment as the focus now turns to the visit of Kerry on March 5, with the challenge game against Waterford coming first in Kilmore next Sunday.
Wexford: Mark Fanning (1-0 pen.); James Breen, Liam Ryan, Eoin Moore; Shaun Murphy; Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-1), Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt., 0-1), Simon Donohoe (0-1); Barry Carton (0-1), Aidan Nolan (0-2); Jack O'Connor, David Redmond (0-1), Lee Chin (0-3, 2 frees); Paul Morris (0-3), Conor McDonald (0-7, 5 frees). Subs. - Harry Kehoe for O'Connor (42), Podge Doran (0-1) for Redmond (50), Aaron Maddock for Carton (54), Richie Kehoe for Moore (60), David Dunne for Nolan, inj. (62).
Galway: Colm Callanan (0-1 free); John Hanbury, Matt Donoghue; Aidan Harte; Gearóid McInerney, Adrian Tuohy, Daithí Burke; Johnny Coen (1-0), David Burke (capt., 0-1); Jason Flynn (0-5, 2 frees, 1 '65), Davy Glennon, Conor Whelan (0-1); Brian Molloy (0-1), Joseph Cooney (1-1), Conor Cooney (0-3). Subs. - Joe Canning (1-0 pen.) for Molloy (50), Ronan Burke for McInerney (54), Niall Burke for Glennon (70+1).
Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork).