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Monday 14 October 2019

County rejoices after 15 years of hurt

Leinster Senior Hurling Championship final: Wexford 1-23 Kilkenny 0-23

A fantastic moment 15 years in the making as joint captains Matthew O’Hanlon and Lee Chin lift the Bob O’Keeffe Cup
A fantastic moment 15 years in the making as joint captains Matthew O’Hanlon and Lee Chin lift the Bob O’Keeffe Cup

Alan Aherne in Croke Park

Fifteen frustrating years of taking an unwanted back seat while the big titles were dished out were wiped away in a fantastic atmosphere before 51,842 supporters in Croke Park on Sunday when wonderful Wexford stood up to everything Kilkenny could throw at them and emerged as Leinster Senior hurling champions for the first time since 2004.

The kings of the strong finish in this campaign didn't disappoint when the outcome was hanging on a knife-edge, with Mark Fanning's penalty goal in the 64th minute the key moment in breaking the deadlock after an absorbing battle.

The sides were level ten times in all, five per half, and the gap after the break hadn't risen above two at any stage as this first clash of the great rivals in a final since 2008 was confirmed as going right down to the wire.

A surge out of defence by Paddy Deegan had set up T.J. Reid for a solo lead point in the 63rd minute (0-22 to 0-21), but this gripping contest was about to have its defining moment.

Expertly-weighted passes into space were a feature of Wexford's considered approach all afternoon, and one such floated ball by Shaun Murphy towards the left flank found Rory O'Connor in a one-on-one situation with Enda Morrissey.

He could have tapped it over the bar, but instead he had the presence of mind to go for the jugular, knowing that the last thing the tiring defender wanted at this stage of the game was to have a fleet-footed attacker taking him on.

O'Connor's injection of pace brought fans to their feet, and when Morrissey hauled him down and received a yellow card as a result, Mark Fanning had goal on his mind as he started the long trek from the Hill 16 end to take the penalty.

His strike was hard and accurate, and once the net rattled it was advantage Wexford at a critical stage in proceedings.

Possession from Eoin Murphy's puck-out was going to be vital, and joint captain Matthew O'Hanlon produced the best possible time to make one of his trademark catches.

After plucking the sliothar from the clouds, he couldn't have picked out a better-placed colleague than the superb Liam Óg McGovern whose brilliant point drove another nail into the Kilkenny coffin (1-22 to 0-22).

It wasn't over yet, though, far from it in fact as Kevin Foley blocked a Ger Aylward shot and T.J. Reid arrowed over the '65 to leave two between them with four minutes remaining.

Conor Fogarty looked to square the ball to an attacking colleague, only for Liam Ryan to make a rousing interception, and this brought welcome relief at the other end.

Indeed, Cathal Dunbar's probing ball from the Cusack Stand sideline towards the far post was contested by Conor McDonald and led to a '65, with Lee Chin making it eight out of eight from placed balls to close the scoring on a momentous day.

His finishing was superb once again from a player who provided the best possible retort to the criticism he had endured for some missed opportunities earlier in the campaign.

And in general terms, the option-taking and score-getting of the winners was commendable, with a mere three wides struck compared to twelve from the Cats who struggled to cope with the constant pressure Wexford were able to apply as they took aim for the posts.

Apart from those misses from Paul Morris, Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Conor McDonald in the 19th, 24th and 47th minutes, the victors were clinical in front of the posts as Wexford worked so hard to secure that 1-23 to 0-23 lead.

To say it was tense in the closing stages would be the understatement of the decade. Eoin Murphy lofted in a free, and Ger Aylward's shot was blocked by Simon Donohoe.

Murphy lobbed the '65 that followed into the danger zone and, after a scramble where it was difficult to see what was going on, the ball squirted wide to the obvious frustration of Colin Fennelly.

Another Murphy free was ushered clear, while a Paul Murphy ball in was caught by Lee Chin before the last throw of the dice from Kilkenny saw Paddy Deegan strike their twelfth wide.

Seconds later Croke Park erupted in a sea of noise and beautiful purple and gold as an entire county celebrated our 21st Leinster title, having bridged that 15-year gap and beating our most respected rivals in the final for the first time since 1997.

The win was made all the more special by the loss beforehand of Aidan Nolan to a two-game suspension, coupled with the absence of Damien Reck owing to a hamstring strain. It must have been heart-breaking for the young Oylegate-Glenbrien defender to miss out, but it was a case of keeping it in the family as he was replaced by his big brother, Shane, making his first championship start in the cauldron of a provincial decider.

Lee Chin went forward for the toss which was won by Kilkenny's T.J. Reid, wearing the number 31 jersey rather than 12 as per the official programme.

As always, the match-ups were watched with keen interest, and this time Shaun Murphy was handed the task of keeping tabs on Adrian Mullen, with Shane Reck starting at left half-back on Richie Leahy who shot the game's first wide.

Paul Morris was caught in possession on the first Wexford attack, but a brilliant turn and point by Conor McDonald from under the Hogan Stand got his team off the mark as we moved into the third minute.

One of the big talking points beforehand was Reid's failure to score from play in the drawn round-robin game, and he ensured there would be no repeat with an immediate response from the puck-out.

Shane Reck enjoyed a huge confidence boost when he lost his stick but won a free in an advanced position, with Lee Chin given a handy first placed ball to get his eye in as a result.

A Liam Óg McGovern handpass then fed Rory O'Connor to fire over a sweet point off his left side, but Colin Fennelly hit back before McDonald caught Mark Fanning's puck-out and made it 0-4 to 0-2 after six minutes.

Adrian Mullen grabbed the re-start and fed Walter Walsh for a point, with two Kilkenny wides following before Paul Morris cut in from the right corner and created an angle to shoot his side 0-5 to 0-3 clear.

A Reid pointed free was followed by a copybook Wexford score: an accurate Fanning puck-out to Kevin Foley, with the ball moved through the lines via Matthew O'Hanlon before Rory O'Connor split the posts.

Kilkenny were staying in touch largely through Reid's frees however, and his brace brought the sides level (0-6 each) by the 15th minute.

Morris picked out Chin to restore the lead, but a crossfield Conor Fogarty pass gave midfield partner James Maher the time to equalise.

Alan Murphy then pushed Kilkenny ahead from an Adrian Mullen pass, but McDonald was fouled from the puck-out and Chin did the needful (0-8 each).

The joint captain was seen next surging out of his own defence from the right corner-back berth before setting up Simon Donohoe for a fine long-range point, a sure sign of the dynamism within a team where all of the 14 outfield players are liable to pop up in any area of the field.

Reid (free and play) had Kilkenny 10-9 clear by the 25th minute, and when Leahy picked out Colin Fennelly they had managed to hit three points on the bounce for the first time.

Rory O'Connor's third, created by Paul Morris, drew a response from Mullen, while Shane Reck took one for the team and collected a necessary yellow card to prevent Alan Murphy from bearing down on the Canal End goal.

A big two-point swing followed, as Reid eschewed the option of a handy point and tried to set up a goal for Fennelly, but his Ballyhale clubmate was only feet away and a free out was awarded.

Pádraig Walsh was forced into overcarrying from Fanning's long delivery, and Chin knocked it over to narrow the gap to 0-12 to 0-11.

It remained a one-point game at the break (15-14) after the last six scores were shared, with Chin (free), Rory O'Connor with his fourth, and Diarmuid O'Keeffe the Wexford marksmen, while Reid (free and '65) plus Mullen responded.

In a game of such tight margins, the eight Kilkenny wides after the break, with just one in reply, made the world of difference. How often have we bemoaned our inaccuracy in battles with the Cats? This time the shoe was undoubtedly on the other foot.

Nonetheless, the tit-for-tat nature of the point-taking continued. Walter Walsh struck first from a Fennelly feed, before referee John Keenan penalised Reid for throwing the sliothar ahead of him in a bid to break a tackle and Chin nailed the placed ball.

No matter what the distance was, the joint captain was determined to end the game with a one hundred per cent record, and he duly delivered.

Jack O'Connor won a Fanning puck-out and picked out O'Keeffe to equalise, with the netminder then showing his worth with a vital save to deny Fennelly who looked menacing as he cut in from the right corner.

Reid missing the '65 that followed was an added bonus and, after Paul Murphy posted another wide when he was hooked, Chin gathered the puck-out and provided the assist for another McDonald point (0-17 to 0-16 in Wexford's favour).

The inspiring Chin was fouled near the left sideline and nailed the difficult free in the 46th minute, but Kilkenny hit back with three points on the trot from Ger Aylward, Reid (after selling a classy dummy to Kevin Foley), and netminder Eoin Murphy (free).

McGovern was fouled after collecting a short puck-out and Chin duly levelled (0-19 each), while Rory O'Connor spotted big brother Jack in a pocket of space to shoot the lead point as we headed for the final quarter.

Kilkenny were having to work harder for scores, a point borne out by two more wides before Mullen restored parity in the 56th minute.

McGovern took a big hit in his stride and picked out McDonald for his fourth point from play (0-21 to 0-20), but Reid levelled from a '65 when Fennelly held off Liam Ryan and looked for a split second to have engineered a goal chance.

Kevin Foley's positioning was first-rate at this critical stage, repeatedly cutting out Kilkenny attacks, but Reid restored the lead from a Paddy Deegan assist before that penalty goal gave Wexford the biggest boost of all at such an important time.

Savour these days as a supporter, dear reader, because they don't come around nearly as often as we would like.

The players and mentors deserve all the plaudits that will come their way this week, but there is the serious business of an All-Ireland title up for grabs now as we look forward to our first semi-final appearance since 2007.

The game is pencilled in for the weekend of July 27/28, with the opposition to be provided by Tipperary, Dublin or Laois, while Limerick will face Kilkenny, Cork or Westmeath.

Wexford: Mark Fanning (1-0 pen.); Shaun Murphy, Liam Ryan, Simon Donohoe (0-1); Kevin Foley; Pádraig Foley, Matthew O'Hanlon (joint capt.), Shane Reck; Diarmuid O'Keeffe (0-2), Liam Óg McGovern (0-1); Jack O'Connor (0-1), Rory O'Connor (0-4), Lee Chin (joint capt., 0-9, 7 frees, 1 '65); Conor McDonald (0-4), Paul Morris (0-1). Subs. - Conor Firman for Murphy, temp. (14-16), Firman for Reck (49), Cathal Dunbar for Morris (59), David Dunne for McGovern (66), Harry Kehoe for McDonald (70+2), also Eanna Martin, James Breen, Seamus Casey, Joe O'Connor, Ian Byrne, Gavin Bailey, Damien Reck (injured), Aidan Nolan (suspended), Eoin Molloy, Ross Donohoe, Darren Byrne, Connal Flood, Rory Higgins.

Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-1 free); Paul Murphy, Huw Lawlor; Pádraig Walsh; Paddy Deegan, Enda Morrissey, Joey Holden; James Maher (0-1), Conor Fogarty; Richie Leahy, T.J. Reid (capt., 0-12, 5 frees, 3 '65s), Walter Walsh (0-2); Alan Murphy (0-1), Colin Fennelly (0-2), Adrian Mullen (0-3). Subs. - Ger Aylward for Mullen, temp. (39-41), Aylward (0-1) for A. Murphy (42), Billy Ryan for W. Walsh (56), Richie Hogan for Fennelly (72).

Referee: John Keenan (Wicklow).

Wexford People

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