Fanning hits winner in historic shoot-out
Wexford 1-27 Kilkenny 1-26 (AET and free-taking shoot-out)
If the rest of the hurling campaign is as gripping as this pulsating Bord na Móna Walsh Cup final in Nowlan Park on Saturday, then we are in line for a year of tremendous entertainment.
The 3,544 spectators huddled together at the Noreside venue on a chilly day certainly got their money's worth and more besides as Wexford recorded a third successive competitive victory over keenest rivals Kilkenny, capturing this title for the first time since 2002 when the county completed a noteworthy eight-in-a-row.
And it was achieved in historic fashion, with the spoils decided by a first-ever free-taking shoot-out from the 65-metre line after the teams finished level on 1-21 each at the end of the 70 minutes, and then 1-24 apiece after extra-time.
Six days after a similar method was deployed for the first time in the Meath versus Longford O'Byrne Cup football semi-final, this time all eyes concentrated on the city end posts as this novel way of determining the winners unfolded.
With five attempts each, it didn't start well for Wexford as Paul Morris fired right and wide before Kilkenny netminder Eoin Murphy gave his side the early advantage.
Lee Chin's effort dropped short by a considerable distance, and when Conor Martin nailed the second placed ball for the Cats they were very much in the driving seat.
That wasn't to last, though, as Conor McDonald split the posts before Lester Ryan's attempt didn't reach the goalmouth.
The Wexford mentors had shown admirable presence of mind at the end of extra-time, just before Kilkenny's Alan Murphy converted the free that ensured this shoot-out.
By re-introducing Jack Guiney to the fray for Liam Ryan, it made him eligible to partake in the sudden death and his accurate stroke levelled matters at 2-2.
And the drama intensified when the aforementioned Alan Murphy, schooled in New Ross C.B.S. and scorer of an impressive 1-13 up to that point, fluffed his free and sent it left and wide.
Goalkeeper Mark Fanning stepped up to drive over what proved to be the Wexford winner, as Kilkenny's ex-Good Counsel prodigy John Walsh fouled the ball in his lifting attempt and the immediate whistle of sub-standard referee John O'Brien ensured that the visitors had claimed the first piece of silverware under Davy Fitzgerald's reign.
Only a complete fool with no understanding of the game would think that this win will mean anything in the height of summer, because the general hurling public will struggle to remember who won the Walsh Cup by the time the championship action is being recalled in the autumn.
Nonetheless, it was another encouraging sign that Wexford are no longer prepared to be whipping boys on their regular visits into the lion's den, and this certainly set things up nicely for the next trip to Nowlan Park for the Allianz League fifth round on March 4, not to mention the championship battle on June 9.
Wexford trailed by eight points on three occasions in a lethargic opening half, so the battling qualities that came to the fore in wiping out that deficit had to be admired.
And when the game threatened to turn nasty a couple of times in the second period, supporters were delighted to see the Slaneysiders sticking up for themselves and backing one another to the hilt in the off-the-ball exchanges.
Wexford had reduced the gap to 1-13 to 0-11 by half-time, and there was an explosive re-start after Paul Morris picked off another point.
A linesman drew referee O'Brien's attention to the fact that Matthew O'Hanlon's helmet had been removed by an opponent, and in this era of zero tolerance for such behaviour it led to an inevitable straight red card for Kilkenny centre-forward Richie Reid who had played in goal in the counties' last Walsh Cup meeting in 2017.
An irate Brian Cody made his feelings known to the linesman in question, not once but twice, with O'Brien eventually opening the gate in front of the stand and ordering the legendary manager to take a seat rather than patrolling the sideline.
It all added to the drama of what developed into a gripping contest, and there was so much more to come.
And it was in stark contrast to the start of the game, as Wexford were extremely slow to get going and trailed by 0-5 to nil after seven minutes following scores from Ollie Walsh, Alan Murphy (three, two frees) and Richie Reid.
There was a change of sweeper, with Kevin Foley filling that role and Shaun Murphy starting at left corner-back on his namesake, Alan. Aidan Nolan partnered Joe O'Connor at midfield, with Jack Guiney drifting out from full-forward to the right wing and leaving a two-man inside attacking line of Paul Morris and David Dunne.
However, a significant change was made at half-time when Shaun Murphy reverted to the sweeping role he filled so well last season, and the captain for the day was so influential that he went on to be named as the sponsor's official man of the match.
Foley also looked more comfortable after going to midfield, and he was in the right place to kick home the vital goal that gave Wexford huge momentum for the last four minutes of normal time.
The first quarter display had been very poor, with numerous passes telegraphed while possession was repeatedly lost by taking the ball into contact.
Eanna Martin had moved to centre-back in a straight swap with Aaron Maddock after those first five Kilkenny points, but he received a cut above his right eye midway through the second quarter that caused the blood to flow in torrents, with the forceful Matthew O'Hanlon entering the fray in his place.
A strong bench certainly helped Wexford's cause no end as the game progressed, with Lee Chin, Conor McDonald and, in particular, the outstanding Damien Reck all making key contributions.
Eoin Moore eventually got his side off the mark from a crossfield Aidan Nolan pass in the 13th minute, and the HWH-Bunclody man was also the provider as Jack Guiney made it 5-2.
That brief good spell quickly ended, though, as Alan Murphy pointed a '65 before leaving Mark Fanning rooted to the spot from a penalty, awarded after Eoin Moore was penalised and booked for impeding Pat Lyng as the wing-forward tried to get on the end of a Murphy cross.
Martin Keoghan widened the margin to eight for the first of three occasions, with Paul Morris (free), Harry Kehoe and Jack Guiney (free and play) managing Wexford scores although they still trailed by 1-11 to 0-6 after 25 minutes.
The gap would have been even higher only for two superb Mark Fanning saves to deny Alan Murphy, and the first really positive development saw Morris (free), Cathal Dunbar, David Dunne and Fanning (free) reel off four points on the trot between the 28th and 35th minutes.
It was 1-13 to 0-11 at half-time, with Alan Murphy (free) and Conor Fogarty responding before Guiney lashed over a late placed ball.
For some odd reason both electronic scoreboards decided to add an extra point to the Wexford tally at the break as the rain teemed down, but the error was rectified before play resumed.
And the tide gradually turned after that Richie Reid dismissal, with Wexford playing with fire in their bellies and no fear of the opposition as Harry Kehoe, Guiney and Morris all contributed to reducing arrears to the minimum (1-13 to 0-15) by the 48th minute.
Kilkenny's first free of the half, after six for Wexford, resulted in an ironic cheer from the home fans and more importantly another Alan Murphy point, and his goalkeeping brother Eoin added one more from long range before the top scorer hit the target again, this time from play.
Wexford still had a lot to do by the 62nd minute when the score stood at 1-20 to 0-17, but the introduction of Lee Chin at left half-forward rose the intensity levels even higher.
He reacted to the immediate close attention of Conor O'Shea by kicking the Kilkenny defender's hurl into an unoccupied section of the stand, earning a yellow card as a result.
And when Chin then caught a Fanning puck-out and was fouled, it was clear that his nearest opponent tried to goad him into a reaction that might have led to a second booking and dismissal.
This raised the ire of his team-mates who waded in to the row, but struggling referee O'Brien was spared the trouble of having to deal with that as he instead showed yellows to Simon Donohoe and Chris Bolger who had started their own private wrestling match before getting to the main flashpoint.
If anyone travelled to Nowlan Park thinking a Walsh Cup final didn't mean anything to these arch-rivals, their minds were certainly changed by this stage!
And after Paul Morris pointed a free, a Damien Reck delivery was almost intercepted by a falling Joey Holden before the goalmouth scramble that ensued ended with Kevin Foley kicking to the net in the 66th minute (1-20 to 1-18).
It was frantic stuff thereafter, as a midfield free from Alan Murphy came back off the post and Shaun Murphy's clearance led to an inspiring solo point from Lee Chin.
Alan Murphy rewarded a great run by Pádraig Walsh with a swift reply, only for Paul Morris to convert a free from the right sideline in the second of five added minutes.
And after Matthew O'Hanlon caught Eoin Murphy's puck-out, Morris popped up on the far side of the field to force extra-time with a sublime strike.
Substitute Jake Firman had a glorious chance to win it at the death, but he shot right and wide from a great position before Cillian Buckley dropped an effort short and the referee called a halt (1-21 each).
Kilkenny were restored to 15 players for extra-time, but the heavy going took a great deal out of both teams which won't have helped ahead of their more important league openers next weekend.
Walter Walsh edged the home side in front, but a brace of Morris frees left Wexford clear by 1-23 to 1-22 at the break.
Alan Murphy levelled from a free on the re-start, before another Walsh attempt was expertly controlled and cleared by Mark Fanning in a key moment.
It looked like Wexford had done enough to win when a spectacular leap by Conor McDonald saw him grab a Damien Reck delivery and drive over a point with ten seconds remaining.
However, stoppage time saw James Maher and McDonald hit shots short at either end before a rare handling error by Matthew O'Hanlon led to a free on the left that Alan Murphy nailed to ensure that dramatic shoot-out finale.
Wexford hit ten wides to Kilkenny's six, and were awarded 21 of the game's 35 frees.
It was exciting fare on the whole, whetting the appetites for what is already shaping up to be an engrossing year of inter-county hurling.
Wexford: Mark Fanning (0-2 frees); Simon Donohoe, Liam Ryan, Shaun Murphy (capt.); Kevin Foley (1-0); Eoin Moore (0-1), Aaron Maddock, Eanna Martin; Joe O'Connor, Aidan Nolan; Jack Guiney (0-6, 4 frees), Cathal Dunbar (0-1), Harry Kehoe (0-3); Paul Morris (0-9, 7 frees), David Dunne (0-1). Subs. - Matthew O'Hanlon for Martin, inj. (27), Damien Reck for Joe O'Connor (HT), Jack O'Connor (0-1) for Dunbar (HT), Lee Chin (0-1) for Guiney (60), Conor McDonald (0-2, 1 free) for Kehoe (62), Jake Firman for Dunne (66), Pádraig Foley for Nolan (66), Diarmuid O'Keeffe for Maddock (76), Nolan for Jack O'Connor (86), Dunne for Firman (89), Guiney for Ryan (90+2), also Conor O'Leary, Willie Devereux, Eoin Molloy, Gary Molloy, Connal Flood, Darren Byrne, Michael O'Regan, Liam Rochford, Conor Firman.
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy (0-3 frees); Joey Holden, Pádraig Walsh, Paddy Deegan; Enda Morrissey, Conor O'Shea, Cillian Buckley (capt.); Conor Fogarty (0-1), Ollie Walsh (0-2); Martin Keoghan (0-2), Richie Reid (0-1), Pat Lyng; Alan Murphy (1-13, 0-7 frees, 1-0 pen., 0-1 '65), Walter Walsh (0-2), Conor Martin (0-2, 1 free). Subs. - Lester Ryan for Lyng (48), Chris Bolger for Martin (48), Conor Browne for O. Walsh (70), James Maher for Morrissey (70+3), Pat Lyng back on as 15th man for extra-time, John Walsh for Bolger (80), Martin for Keoghan (80), Tommy Walsh for Browne (HT ET), Ger Malone for Fogarty, inj. (86).
Referee: John O'Brien (Laois).