Wexford undone by late Clare surge
Wexford followers got exactly what they wished for throughout the first 50 minutes in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday when the much-maligned Senior hurlers went toe-to-toe with Clare and gave as good as they got in their second Allianz League Division 1B encounter.
Clare 0-18 Wexford 1-11
While a 1-6 to 0-7 half-time lead seemed insufficient after playing with the strong wind, the opening to the second period was refreshingly bright and defiant as the home side pushed on impressively to be ahead by 1-10 to 0-9 near the end of the third quarter.
Alas, the much-improved showing wasn't sustained in the race for home as Clare gained a strong foothold and shot nine of the ten points scored in the last 20 minutes to secure a hard-earned victory.
There was still hope for Wexford though with just under five minutes left when the hard-trying David Dunne was held by David McInerney as they contested an Andrew Shore mis-hit, and Harry Kehoe converted his sixth free to edge the Slaneysiders in front again by the minimum (1-11 to 0-13).
Lee Chin followed up with a wide after a fine Matthew O'Hanlon catch, but Clare wing-back Jack Browne landed his second long-range point to equalise as he set about fully exorcising the demons brought on by a nightmare championship outing at the same venue in 2014.
Visiting manager Davy Fitzgerald had his by-now customary exchange of views with the referee, this time Westmeath's James McGrath, after Liam Ryan was tripped by Conor McGrath in a race for the ball in the right corner.
The temperature was rising on and off the field, with the home supporters willing their side to grab another score. At that stage a draw would have been regarded as a very good result in my view given that Clare were finally building up a head of steam as the finish drew near, and the pressure was mounting on Wexford.
The score that restored the 2013 All-Ireland champions' lead for the first time since the 32nd minute was a complete giveaway. It came after that Fitzgerald incident when Mark Fanning chose to take a short free to Pádraig Foley instead of giving it distance into the wind.
The centre-back may have been taken by surprise just as much as some of the spectators, and possession was spilled, Shane O'Donnell was tripped, and the deadly-accurate Colin Ryan fired over to edge Clare in front by 0-15 to 1-11.
In fairness, the next score from the Munster men was the best of the match, as Ryan combined with corner-back Paul Flanagan in a super run and exchange of handpasses under the stand before hammering a big nail into Wexford's coffin.
John Conlon followed up with the tenth Clare wide (Wexford had twelve) before a David Reidy point attempt lacked power after a lung-bursting run. However, Mark Fanning's clearance to his right went straight to impressive substitute Bobby Duggan who drove the ball back over the bar with interest.
The four-point margin was secured in the last minute of normal time when Matthew O'Hanlon threw up the ball and caught it when Conor McGrath ghosted in behind him, and Colin Ryan's ninth placed ball conversion consigned Wexford to a second successive defeat.
The outcome effectively rules out any real hope of Wexford being in the hunt for the sole promotion spot to Division 1A as that battle should now be the sole preserve of Limerick and Clare barring a couple of unexpected results for both sides.
Next up for Liam Dunne and his men is a visit to Austin Stack Park in Tralee on March 6 to meet a group of Kerry players who have shown they are not out of their depth at this level. Indeed, they are two points above Wexford on the table and will be no pushover at home, while Offaly will visit Innovate Wexford Park on March 13 and the group stage will conclude away to Laois seven days later.
A top four finish is now the target as it would at least guarantee Wexford an extra game at the quarter-final stage against one of the Division 1A teams. The recent sorry situation wasn't helped by a spate of injuries, and the luck didn't change in that regard before Sunday when centre-forward Shane Tomkins was ruled out with a hamstring problem.
Three of the named substitutes - Cathal Dunbar and the O'Connor cousins, Jack and Joe - weren't fit either, and this left the bench threadbare and meant that Conor McDonald's return from his broken thumb had to be fast-tracked. He was introduced in the second-half, but it's clear that this Wexford side simply cannot afford to be without so many established faces.
Paul Morris, Diarmuid O'Keeffe and David Redmond were other notable absentees as the team showed a number of positional and personnel changes from the loss to Limerick, although some were forced upon the mentors.
Tomkins, Ian Byrne and Cathal Dunbar didn't start, with three of the substitutes introduced in the Gaelic Grounds chosen on the first 15, namely wing-backs Eoin Moore and Shaun Murphy plus full-forward Podge Doran. Pádraig Foley was restored to a central defensive position after his problems on the left wing against Limerick, while the versatile Andrew Kenny was pushed up to partner Lee Chin at midfield and Liam Ryan returned to his regular position from last year of corner-back.
Andrew Shore started on the '40 this time after being moved up there during the two previous defeats, and Wexford knew they had to lay down an early marker after Matthew O'Hanlon won the toss and pointed his finger towards the town end.
With the wind in their favour it was essential to start on the front foot in contrast to the debacle eight days earlier, and there was a positive sign with just over 90 seconds gone when Podge Doran pointed via the post following an earlier Clare wide from David Reidy.
An early yellow card for Lee Chin after a slap of Reidy's hand may have restricted his effectiveness in general play, with Clare immediately bringing Conor McGrath out to roam and dropping players back in the middle third so that centre-back David McInerney wasn't detailed with man-marking duties.
Colin Ryan punished that foul by Chin with the first of his ten-point haul before Pádraig Foley fired a long-range wide, one of seven Wexford recorded with the elements in their favour. With Liam Ryan picking up newcomer Aaron Shanagher and James Breen on Shane O'Donnell, it left Matthew O'Hanlon free to mop up at the back in the early stages.
Wexford hit the front again in the seventh minute when Liam Og McGovern caught an Eoin Moore free and fed David Dunne for a well-worked point. Harry Kehoe shot wide from play but redeemed himself from a free after a foul on McGovern, and he doubled his tally from placed balls in the eleventh minute after Dunne was impeded after latching on to an Aidan Nolan pass.
It was so far, so good for Wexford, but they went scoreless for almost 19 minutes as Clare's trademark short passing and support game was seen at something close to its best when they chalked up six points on the trot.
Matthew O'Hanlon (twice) and Eoin Moore were the guilty parties as Colin Ryan drove over a hat-trick of frees to equalise (0-4 each). Then Ryan fed Conor McGrath for the visitors' first point from play, and the latter repeated the dose after a Ryan free broke into his path in the 24th minute.
Podge Doran and Gearóid O'Connell swapped wides and Lee Chin also missed the target prior to a fine catch and point for Clare from right half-forward John Conlon. His direct opponent, Shaun Murphy, was injured as Conlon burst through his tackle and had to be replaced, with Eoin Conroy coming on at right half-back and Eoin Moore moving to the left.
Moore prospered immediately in his new posting as he ended that barren spell with a long-range point, and David Dunne then reduced arrears to the minimum after a Pádraig Foley clearance broke off Andrew Shore.
Poor defending then handed Wexford a lifeline in the 32nd minute when Shore went to ground as a Harry Kehoe free drifted to the left and wide. Podge Doran ended up needing treatment and Clare full-back Cian Dillon collected a yellow card after referee James McGrath signalled for a penalty, with Mark Fanning trotting upfield to beat counterpart Patrick Kelly with a low drive for his third Wexford goal on his 39th appearance (1-6 to 0-7).
Late wides from David Dunne and Lee Chin ensured that the lead remained at a paltry two points at the break, and in truth it didn't look like being enough given the strength of the wind.
However, the general lift brought about by that positive finish to the half carried over into the first 15 minutes of the second period despite an early missed free from Harry Kehoe. He had resumed at midfield alongside Andrew Kenny, with Lee Chin on the '40 flanked by Andrew Shore and Aidan Nolan.
Colin Ryan had a handy tap-over at the other end before Aidan Nolan and Liam Og McGovern combined for Andrew Shore to split the posts at the Clonard end (1-7 to 0-8).
Three converted Kehoe frees followed in just over eight minutes, with Ryan managing just one in response, and Wexford had good reason to be happy with a 1-10 to 0-9 lead.
Ian Byrne had arrived on the field for James Breen, with Eoin Conroy and Andrew Kenny reverting to roles in the full- and half-back lines respectively. Clare weren't finding it as easy as they would have liked to create space up front as Wexford's tackling was generally tight and tenacious, although they did pull back points from Jack Browne and David Reidy before Conor McDonald came on for Liam Og McGovern (1-10 to 0-11).
Ian Byrne shot narrowly wide in a period when Clare had three wasted chances, and they had to be content with a pointed Colin Ryan '65 in the 59th minute after Liam Ryan dived heroically to deny Aaron Cunningham before Mark Fanning kept out Shane O'Donnell's follow-up.
Conor McGrath and Lee Chin exchanged wides before Clare substitute Bobby Duggan turned neatly and struck the leveller after a crossfield pass from the impressive Conor Cleary.
While Harry Kehoe ended 15 scoreless minutes and restored the lead, the fact that just one second-half point came from play eventually took its toll as Clare produced a big finish that we simply couldn't answer, although a couple of avoidable errors certainly didn't help the team's cause.
Wexford: Mark Fanning (1-0 pen.); James Breen, Matthew O'Hanlon (capt.), Liam Ryan; Eoin Moore (0-1), Pádraig Foley, Shaun Murphy; Lee Chin, Andrew Kenny; Harry Kehoe (0-6 frees), Andrew Shore (0-1), Aidan Nolan; David Dunne (0-2), Podge Doran (0-1), Liam Og McGovern. Subs. - Eoin Conroy for Murphy, inj. (29), Ian Byrne for Breen (42), Conor McDonald for McGovern (58).
Clare: Patrick Kelly; Paul Flanagan, Cian Dillon (capt.), Patrick O'Connor; Jack Browne (0-2), David McInerney, Conor Cleary; Gearóid O'Connell, Conor Ryan; John Conlon (0-1), David Reidy (0-1), Colin Ryan (0-10, 8 frees, 1 '65); Conor McGrath (0-2), Aaron Shanagher, Shane O'Donnell. Subs. - Bobby Duggan (0-2) for O'Connell (46), Aaron Cunningham for Shanagher (56).
Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath).