Giveaway goal changed game
Wexford had Westtmeath on the rack before costly error altered the outcome
The predictably small Wexford following in sunny Cusack Park, Mullingar on Sunday dared to dream with 13 minutes left of the Leinster Senior football championship quarter-final against Westmeath.
Westmeath 1-21 Wexford 0-15
Corner-forward Kevin O'Grady had just fired over a brace of quick-fire points and the unfancied visitors were leading by 0-14 to 0-12 as the natives started to grow restless. Alas, games can change in the blink of an eye, and the closing stages proved the stuff of nightmares as Westmeath outscored their rivals by a whopping 1-9 to 0-1 to advance to a semi-final clash with Meath on June 28.
It's easy enough to highlight the turning point, as Tom Cribbin's side were gifted a goal in the 60th minute which undid so much of Wexford's good work and also bestowed that most precious of commodities in the last quarter of any game - momentum - on the midlanders.
Substitute John Tubritt gave the ball away in the right half-back sector and Westmeath quickly availed of an overlap, with possession transferred to team captain Ger Egan who handpassed it across the square for Kieran Martin to finish with aplomb.
Another cheap loss of the ball, this time from a Paddy Byrne free, was punished once more as Egan fisted a point, but Westmeath did enjoy one mighty let-off before driving on for home. It occurred in the 64th minute when some space opened up for Simon Donohoe as he moved forward before picking out Tubritt - seeking to atone for that earlier error - to his right.
He found Kevin O'Grady lurking near the left post with an instinctive handpass but, just as the corner-forward pulled the trigger for what looked like a certain goal, the man who had netted at the other end, Kieran Martin, dived on his boot to make a magnificent block and the chance was lost.
After that much of Westmeath's play was of the exhibition variety as they piled on the points, and the agony, kicking into the Dunnes Stores end. All three original half-backs got on the scoresheet in quick succession, with James Dolan left all alone for an easy score from a crossfield John Heslin free before the home side won Shane Roche's kick-out and centre-back John Gilligan nailed a sweet effort with his left peg.
Paul Sharry's score in the 67th minute was even better, struck with the outside of his boot on the left flank, with substitute Denis Glennon adding another for good measure. Ciarán Lyng's second point from play, from a Kevin O'Grady cross, provided a brief respite before Westmeath surged forward again and John Connellan, Ger Egan, John Heslin and Glennon added further points to leave them with a very flattering winning margin of nine.
That final scoreline didn't reflect the Trojan efforts of a very youthful Wexford side who were a match for their more seasoned rivals until that late collapse. The benefit of a first round win against Louth was evident as Westmeath finished strongly, but there was enough evidence beforehand to suggest that Wexford won't lie down easily at home to Down on Saturday week, and also that the development project initiated out of necessity by David Power is worthy of support.
The starting team was one of the least experienced ever to represent the county in the championship, with four full debutants at this level - full-back Naomhan Rossiter, centre-back Simon Donohoe, midfielder Syl Byrne and wing-forward Kieran Butler - as well as two more starting for the first time after substitute's appearances last year in midfielder Colm Kehoe and corner-forward Eoghan Nolan.
Rossiter, younger brother of attacker Tiarnan, looked to be on a hiding to nothing as he was pitted against Westmeath big gun John Heslin on the edge of the square but he had an outstanding game. The tone was set early on when the Rosslare youngster won the first three 50-50 contests for possession between the pair, and Heslin's sole point from play didn't arrive until stoppage time.
The greenest player of all on the field was Syl Byrne who had played just once before for the county in the Senior grade during the O'Byrne Cup in January against Wicklow when he got the last three three minutes off the bench. In that regard he was plucked from obscurity but it was clear to see why as he worked very hard in a defensive midfield role.
Wexford's set-up was clear from an early stage when Westmeath were on the ball. They deployed a two-man inside forward line of Kevin O'Grady and Ciarán Lyng, with Ben Brosnan the nearest attacker to them on the '40 while Eoghan Nolan and Tiarnan Rossiter manned deeper roles on the wings. Kieran Butler dropped back to pick up Ronan Foley, with Adrian Flynn operating around the middle and Syl Byrne moving back to provide additional defensive cover.
The ploy of hitting early balls into space, especially on the right flank, was put to good use on many occasions in the first-half, but not before Wexford had to contend with the trickery of the two opposing corner-forwards. While John Heslin was well contained, the men on either side of him, Kieran Martin and Shane Dempsey, shared the first five Westmeath points between them.
Initially Joey Wadding followed Dempsey with Michael Furlong on Martin, but the Adamstown man only lasted 16 minutes before departing with an injury shortly after they swapped corners and Rob Tierney took over on Dempsey.
Both sides had six wides, with Ben Brosnan driving into the side-netting with Wexford's first after just over 90 seconds before they opened the scoring. Naomhan Rossiter won the first ball that came his way and the subsequent move featured Adrian Flynn, Kevin O'Grady and Brian Malone before Colm Kehoe steadied himself and split the posts.
A solo and handpass from midfielder Daragh Daly led to Kieran Martin's leveller before Shane Dempsey burned Joey Wadding and Eoghan Nolan for pace and fisted Westmeath into the lead. Adrian Flynn kicked a wide before Syl Byrne lost possession and Dempsey made it 0-3 to 0-1, with Martin widening the gap to three in the tenth minute.
Corner-back Joey Wadding pulled back a point when the ground opened up in front of him and he soloed through, but Westmeath continued to look menacing in the final third as Dempsey hit the target again from a Paul Sharry handpass after Ben Brosnan lost the ball in a tackle (0-5 to 0-2).
Wexford were very lucky not to conceded a goal in the 13th minute when Paddy Holloway caught a Shane Roche kick-out and played a one-two with Daragh Daly before feeding Kieran Martin who fired wide from a great position.
Westmeath were winning a lot of clean possession from the rival kick-out, but Wexford gradually got their measure over the next ten minutes. Ciarán Lyng pointed a free from the right corner after a foul on Adrian Flynn before Ben Brosnan was wide from another placed ball, and the third ball won by Naomhan Rossiter against John Heslin set in train a move which ended with Flynn finding Lyng whose kick was tipped over by netminder Darren Quinn (0-5 to 0-4).
The visitors' best goal chance of the first-half arrived in the 19th minute when Flynn played a free to Lyng who in turn found the inrushing Brosnan, but his low shot was kept out by Quinn's foot.
Eoghan Nolan followed up with a wide before Heslin and Lyng exchanged points from frees, the latter after Kevin O'Grady's run was halted.
The leveller was fisted by Flynn from a Tiarnan Rossiter handpass in the 27th minute, with Heslin restoring Westmeath's lead from a free before they lost centre-forward Ray Connellan to a black card for a late challenge on Simon Donohoe.
It was the first of three dished out for similar offences by consistent Longford referee Fergal Kelly who went back to punish the offender after first allowing the play to develop on all three occasions.
Another foul on Kevin O'Grady drew an equaliser with Ben Brosnan's sole score of the afternoon, but Westmeath edged ahead once more from a Heslin free just before Syl Byrne kicked a late wide.
The last two scores for the home side both came after no advantage accrued after fouls on forwards, and they led by 0-8 to 0-7 at the break as a result.
Westmeath resumed with Kieran Martin moved from corner-forward to right half-back and Paul Sharry joining the attack, and they needed just 26 seconds before black card replacement John Connellan doubled their lead.
A pattern quickly emerged to the second-half though and it involved the excellent Brian Malone repeatedly taking the ball forward and being fouled on practically every occasion.
The first such instance was punished by Ciarán Lyng but Daragh Daly restored the two-point gap from a crossfield John Connellan pass.
Colm Kehoe was then black carded and replaced by Paddy Byrne, with Ben Brosnan kicking the sole Wexford second-half wide from a free before he lost possession and it ended with a fourth point for Shane Dempsey (0-11 to 0-8).
Another Lyng point following a foul on Malone was sandwiched in between shots kicked short by Tiarnan Rossiter and Paddy Byrne before a Brosnan '45 was gathered in his own square by Westmeath midfielder Daragh Daly after Kevin O'Grady's kick was blocked.
Yet another foul on Malone saw Adrian Flynn play a quick free to O'Grady, accept the return pass and fire over to make it 0-11 to 0-10 after 48 minutes.
John Heslin hit back from a free on either side of the introduction of John Tubritt and Michael O'Regan up front, but Wexford followed with a purple patch as four points on the trot left them two clear entering the final stages.
Lyng hit the first two after fouls on Tubritt, made scoreable by dissent, and inevitably Malone, with Adrian Flynn kicking an attempt short and the opposition losing full-back Kevin Maguire to a black card before Westmeath netminder Darren Quinn gave a free to O'Grady who duly punished his generosity.
Wexford won a couple of crucial turnovers at midfield around that stage, with Kieran Butler and Ben Brosnan prominent, and the second led to O'Grady playing a one-two with Lyng and making it 14-12.
That was the high point of the afternoon though and, as documented earlier, Westmeath looked like world-beaters in the closing stages after that goal eased their mounting worries.
Wexford: Shane Roche; Joey Wadding (0-1), Naomhan Rossiter, Michael Furlong; Brian Malone, Simon Donohoe, Adrian Flynn (0-2); Syl Byrne, Colm Kehoe (0-1); Kieran Butler, Ben Brosnan (0-1 free), Tiarnan Rossiter; Eoghan Nolan, Ciarán Lyng (capt., 0-8, 6 frees), Kevin O'Grady (0-2). Subs. - Rob Tierney for Furlong, inj. (16), Paddy Byrne for Kehoe, black card (41), John Tubritt for Nolan (48), Michael O'Regan for T. Rossiter (52), Graeme Molloy for Flynn (61).
Westmeath: Darren Quinn; Killian Daly, Kevin Maguire, Paddy Holloway; Paul Sharry (0-1), John Gilligan (0-1), James Dolan (0-1); Ger Egan (capt., 0-2), Daragh Daly (0-1); Ronan Foley, Ray Connellan, Denis Corroon; Kieran Martin (1-2), John Heslin (0-5, 4 frees), Shane Dempsey (0-4). Subs. - John Connellan (0-2) for R. Connellan, black card (33), Lorcan Smith for Foley (46), Denis Glennon (0-2) for D. Daly (50), Jack Donohoe for Maguire, black card (56), David Lynch for Martin (69), Francis Boyle for Gilligan (70+1).
Referee: Fergal Kelly (Longford).