Wonderful Wexford spring surprise
Footballers stun Down as goals from Rossiter brothers seal superb victory
Innovate Wexford Park buzzed with excitement on Saturday as the Wexford Senior footballers claimed their first major scalp under the reign of new manager David Power with a thrilling five-point victory over a Down side destined for Division 1 of the Allianz League in 2016.
Wexford 2-16 Down 2-11
The northerners made the long journey south with high hopes of success after losing by a point to Derry in the Ulster championship quarter-final, but this All-Ireland qualifier first round clash saw the home side scale the heights as a ferocious appetite for hard work propelled them to a fully-deserved victory.
Six points without reply, three on either side of half-time, gave Wexford the initiative, but there was still the worry that Down might launch a decisive late burst - just like Westmeath had done in Mullingar - when the Slaneysiders' lead stood at 0-15 to 1-10 with 14 minutes left.
However, those fears were allayed in a devastating burst lasting no more than 80 seconds when the Rossiter brothers from Rosslare pounced for a brace of dramatic goals at the Clonard end to leave the Wexford supporters in dreamland.
The first arrived in the 57th minute when a flowing move ripped the Down defence apart, with the excellent Michael O'Regan popping a handpass to his right to Naomhan Rossiter whose shot across goal came back off the post. His sibling, Tiarnan, was alert to the break though, and he got the decisive touch which stretched the Wexford lead to five points.
Down had no time to recover from this crushing blow before they conceded a second goal, and this time the adventurous Naomhan Rossiter did it all himself. The teenager had been given a second-half marking assignment on the battle-hardened Kevin McKernan, but his eagerness to aid the attack at every opportunity was amply rewarded when he crashed a shot across Stephen Kane and into the far corner of the net to spark delirium among Wexford supporters in the covered stand (2-15 to 1-10).
Down were left with no other option than throwing caution to the wind as Arthur McConville, Niall Madine and Ross McGarry were introduced in quick succession for Donal O'Hare, McKernan and Mark Poland. And they did strike back in the 61st minute when a venomous shot by McConville as he cut in from the left was parried by replacement netminder Anthony Masterson but ended up over the line for a goal.
While Paul Devlin reduced arrears further to four points from a free, an element of panic was evident in Down's approach as Niall Madine and Devlin snatched at shots which went wide. Defender Conor Garvey picked up a straight red card after an off-the-ball tangle with Michael O'Regan with just under four minutes left, while one dangerous run by captain Conor Laverty was thwarted by a super Graeme Molloy shoulder.
A high, hopeful punt by Ben Brosnan caused momentary panic when it was spilled by Stephen Kane with substitute John Tubritt lurking, but Down cleared their lines although the move ended with a Luke Howard wide.
That proved their last throw of the dice as Wexford were the stronger side in additional time. Ciarán Lyng closed the scoring from a free after a foul on the outstanding Brian Malone, whose driving runs from midfield caused untold problems for Down.
A late John Tubritt point attempt was narrowly off target to leave the teams with ten wides apiece at the finish, while Stephen Kane denied Wexford a perfect finish when he saved expertly from Paddy Byrne who was put through by Graeme Molloy in the last move before full-time.
Moments later referee Cormac Reilly sounded the final whistle, leaving this young, developing Wexford team to accept the accolades of a delighted home crowd as the county's 2-13 to 0-12 win over the same opposition in 2008 was repeated with just as much dash and drive.
This was a triumph for teamwork and graft as the Slaneysiders produced the type of football they had managed for three-quarters of the Leinster championship loss to Westmeath. This time around they extended that performance to the entirety of the game and were richly rewarded.
One of the teams in action may be heading for Division 1 and the other for Division 4, but any observer on Saturday without full knowledge of the situation would have placed Wexford in the former role. Down found it extremely difficult to create space up front from start to finish, with most of their scores hard-earned and arriving after long, patient build-ups.
On the other hand, Wexford's direct running, particularly from Malone, forced the Down defenders into the concession of free after free as the final tally of 23-13 in the winners' favour indicates. And the Shelmaliers stalwart had a willing and able midfield partner in Syl Byrne who was an absolute revelation for the second game running after being plucked from nowhere to start against Westmeath.
The return of Graeme Molloy at centre-back for his first full game of the year after knee surgery also solidified the team, and he made some marvellous tackles and catches in the second-half in particular to thwart Down.
The loss of Colm Kehoe from midfield through injury was an undoubted blow, but every cloud has a silver lining and the decision to start Molloy and push Malone into the centre paid rich dividends.
Rob Tierney started in place of another injury victim, Michael Furlong, while Michael O'Regan was preferred to Eoghan Nolan in a slightly re-jigged forward line and proceeded to have his best game yet in a Wexford Senior jersey, picking off three priceless points and working like never before.
The start was positive, with Ciarán Lyng getting the underdogs off the mark from a free after Kevin O'Grady was fouled before Ben Brosnan fisted the ball direct to the net after cutting in from the right and Down were duly awarded a free.
Donal O'Hare levelled from a free earned by Kevin McKernan who had to limp gingerly into the full-forward line after treatment to shake off an injury, with Caolan Mooney moving outfield for a while.
Adrian Flynn kicked the first of Wexford's ten wides before a fisted point from a tight angle by Mark Poland in the ninth minute gave Down the lead for the first time (0-2 to 0-1). The equaliser followed from a Ben Brosnan free after Kevin O'Grady was impeded at the end of a flowing move, and it was entertaining fare as the ball moved rapidly from end to end.
Down's first goal chance fell to Conor Maginn who was denied by a Graeme Molloy block in the twelfth minute, and Wexford edged ahead again when Ben Brosnan finished off a Ciarán Lyng handpass.
The lead lasted less than a minute though before Poland's second score made it 3-3, and then it was Down's turn to enjoy a let-off when Adrian Flynn exchanged passes with Kevin O'Grady before firing a low shot off the post and across the square where Conor Garvey managed a timely clearance.
Caolan Mooney kicked the first of just two Down wides in the half before they struck gold in the 16th minute, with Conor Laverty handpassing to his left to Jerome Johnston who slid a low shot to the net for a 1-3 to 0-3 lead.
However, that body-blow only strengthened Wexford's resolve rather than crushing it, and they went on to outscore their rivals by six points to one before half-time.
They did so despite losing Adrian Flynn to a black card midway through the half, with Eoghan Nolan coming on and Kieran Butler adopting a more defensive role.
Ciarán Lyng penalised a touch of the ball on the ground by Kevin McKernan with a pointed free, with the game delayed when Wexford netminder Shane Roche required treatment for an injury which ultimately forced him to withdraw near half-time.
Prior to that Wexford drew level courtesy of Michael O'Regan and Ciarán Lyng, with Brian Malone centrally involved in both points, but Conor Laverty edged Down ahead once more from a tight angle in the 25th minute.
Another less clearcut opening for a goal was thwarted when Jerome Johnston was crowded out, and Wexford drew inspiration from a high kick from just outside the 45-metre line by Graeme Molloy which restored parity once more in the 30th minute (0-7 to 1-4).
The loss of netminder Roche in the 31st minute was a blow, especially as replacement Anthony Masterson will now miss the All-Ireland Junior semi-final after captaining the side to success at the same venue just two nights earlier.
Nonetheless, Wexford got on with the task in hand and a fine Kieran Butler point from a crossfield Ciarán Lyng pass was followed by three wides on the trot, before Tiarnan Rossiter fired over to make it 0-9 to 1-4 at the end of the five added minutes, picking up the pieces after a Kevin O'Grady shot for goal was smothered.
The leaders continued where they left off on the re-start, with Ciarán Lyng converting two frees awarded to Graeme Molloy and Brian Malone before Syl Byrne caught the second Down kick-out and fed Kevin O'Grady whose blinding pace electrified the crowd as he fired over with his left peg (0-12 to 1-4).
Down introduced Ryan Johnston for Conor Maginn and had pared the deficit back to three points ten minutes in after Paul Devlin (free) and Caolan Mooney scored at the town end.
Every time the visitors hit the target though, it provoked a positive response from a Wexford side growing in confidence with every passing minute.
Michael O'Regan made it 0-13 to 1-6 before Kieran Butler fisted wide when he had time to use his boot and take a handy point, while Ciarán Lyng created an opening soccer-style but then fired high and off target to the right shortly after Jerome Johnston had picked off a Down point.
When Wexford ran directly at the Down defenders they looked vulnerable every time, with Brian Malone blocked and Lyng forcing Stephen Kane into a good save.
Still, when Caolan Mooney and Conor Laverty pointed to make it 0-14 to 1-9, thoughts of that finish in Mullingar loomed large.
Wexford fans had no cause for concern though as, after Michael O'Regan and Donal O'Hare (free) swapped points - the latter after Graeme Molloy fouled at the right time when an overlap looked on - that two-goal burst from the Rossiter brothers sealed the deal and capped a tremendous three days for football in the county
Another daunting task awaits in the form of a trip to take on Derry, but these young guns will have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Wexford: Shane Roche; Joey Wadding, Simon Donohoe, Naomhan Rossiter (1-0); Rob Tierney, Graeme Molloy (0-1), Adrian Flynn; Syl Byrne, Brian Malone; Kieran Butler (0-1), Ciarán Lyng (capt., 0-6, 5 frees), Tiarnan Rossiter (1-1); Ben Brosnan (0-3, 1 free), Michael O'Regan (0-3), Kevin O'Grady (0-1). Subs. - Eoghan Nolan for Flynn, black card (18), Anthony Masterson for Roche, inj. (31), John Tubritt for Butler (59), James Breen for N. Rossiter (65), Paddy Byrne for O'Regan (70+3).
Down: Stephen Kane; Damian Turley, Luke Howard, Darren O'Hagan; Ryan Boyle, Conor Garvey, Paul Devlin (0-2 frees); Peter Fitzpatrick, Kevin McKernan; Conor Maginn, Mark Poland (0-2), Jerome Johnston (1-1); Caolan Mooney (0-2), Conor Laverty (capt., 0-2), Donal O'Hare (0-2 frees). Subs. - Ryan Johnston for Maginn (43), Packie Downey for Fitzpatrick (48), Arthur McConville (1-0) for O'Hare (58), Niall Madine for McKernan (59), Ross McGarry for Poland (59).
Referee: Cormac Reilly (Meath).