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Thursday 19 July 2018

Last-gasp heartbreak as Wexford pipped

GAA: Bord Gaid Energy Leinster U21 hurling championship final - Galway 4-21 Wexford 2-26 (AET)

Wexford full-back Darren Byrne trying to keep tabs on Galway’s Seán Bleahene
Wexford full-back Darren Byrne trying to keep tabs on Galway’s Seán Bleahene
Galway attacker Evan Niland has nowhere to go as Wexford duo Damien Reck and Rory O’Connor close him down

Alan Aherne in Portlaoise

It was gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and incredibly hard to take.

A collective sickness afflicted the Wexford supporters after Wednesday's epic Bord Gáis Energy Leinster Under-21 hurling championship final in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, so one can only imagine the scenes of devastation in the dressing-room after a fantastic effort to claim the last-ever provincial title in this age group fell agonisingly short.

This gripping game produced an abundance of thrills and spills, with the dominance switching one way and then the other before Galway eventually marked their first involvement in the Leinster championship with outright victory thanks to a last-gasp goal at the end of extra-time.

Wexford had forced that additional 20 minutes when all seemed lost after a brilliant finish by centre-back Ian Carty nearly raised the roof off the stand, and they were on the verge of glory after an outstanding long-range point by Rory O'Connor pushed them 2-26 to 3-21 clear with just over half of the one additional extra-time minute played.

Ian O'Shea lobbed the ball into the danger zone at the Portlaoise town end, and it broke for re-introduced Galway substitute Seán Bleahene who turned himself in a hero with an unstoppable shot to the net.

The final whistle was blown less than 30 seconds later, with devastated Wexford players collapsing on the ground while the animated Galway fans rushed from the stand to acclaim the champions.

That was how close it was, with the margin between victory and defeat about as tight as it comes.

Thankfully, the change in structures to the championship guarantees that Wexford's year isn't over, as they will now face Munster victors Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final in early August while Galway will take on runners-up Tipperary. If ever a team deserved a second chance, this is the one.

Our poor Minor record meant that precious little attention might have paid to the Slaneysiders by the counties more accustomed to success in the old Under-18 grade, but all that will change after this encounter.

Three alterations were made from the semi-final victory in Dublin, with goalkeeper James Henebery replaced by Jack Cushe, while Gary Molloy and Rory Higgins were selected outfield ahead of Seán Barden and Oisín Foley respectively.

Damien Reck reverted to left corner-back to keep tabs on dangerman Evan Niland, with Molloy partnering captain Conor Firman at midfield while Rowan White started once again at left half-back despite having number 9 on his shirt.

The game was brimful of passion and intensity from the off, a wonderful advertisement for a grade that will sadly be replaced by Under-20 in 2019. For a send-off in Leinster, it couldn't possibly have been any better.

Kevin Cooney and Gary Molloy swapped early points, the latter from a Rory O'Connor handpass, before Brian Concannon and Thomas Monaghan pushed Galway 3-1 clear.

Liam Stafford set up the excellent O'Connor for his first point, but the westerners' accuracy early on was first rate as Cianan Fahy, Concannon and Seán Loftus extended their advantage to 6-2 after only six action-packed minutes.

A lovely solo and sidestep by another leading Wexford performer, Seamus Casey, led to a point before he converted a free from inside his own half.

Evan Niland was successful from a placed ball before Galway made the first big breakthrough when they pounced for the opening goal in the twelfth minute.

Seán Bleahene played a pass out from the endline on the right to Thomas Monaghan who danced away from Rowan White and Gary Molloy before planting a low shot past Jack Cushe for a 1-7 to 0-4 lead.

It was important for Wexford to stay in touch, and this was accomplished when Casey pointed a free and Conor Firman set up Rory O'Connor to add another from play.

Cianan Fahy and Casey (free) exchanged points before a moment of high drama when erratic referee John O'Brien signalled for a Wexford penalty before changing his mind and throwing the ball in after consulting with his umpires.

It came after Casey popped a pass to Liam Stafford whose low shot flew high into the air off the stick of Galway netminder Eanna Murphy, with the dust rising and the net shaking as Rory Higgins just missed out on goaling from the rebound before it was kicked clear.

In fairness, it was hard to see what O'Brien merited as a penalty in the first place, but it wasn't the first time that the officials at that end were in the thick of it before half-time.

Umpire Brochan O'Reilly later called out goalkeeper Murphy twice on the grounds that he stepped outside his square for puck-outs, with the first leading to a pointed Seamus Casey free after Joe O'Connor was fouled from the throw-in.

It increased the already boiling hot temperature in the stand, raising the ire of the Galway support as that point was the last of seven on the trot from Wexford during an inspired spell.

Indeed, their finish to the first-half was superb, going from arrears of 1-8 to 0-6 in the 16th minute into a 0-13 to 1-8 interval lead.

Rory O'Connor provided inspiration with a superb point from 90 metres, while Casey contributed a beauty from play as well as three from frees (and one wide). Stephen O'Gorman and Rowan White also chipped in with scores as the underdogs retired for the interval in the driving seat.

Six minutes into the new half, the situation was even better (0-16 to 1-9) after an early Evan Niland free was followed by one of the best points of the game, finished by Joe O'Connor after great work by Damien Reck and Rory O'Connor.

Stephen O'Gorman latched on to a Rowan White pass for his second point, while Rory O'Connor scored from the right sideline but only after an unfortunate Wexford penalty miss.

Galway's Mark Hughes was easily out-paced by Rory Higgins in the right corner, and the Rathnure lad handpassed to O'Gorman who was taken down by the yellow-carded Shane Bannon before he could shoot.

Seamus Casey's penalty was well saved by Eanna Murphy, but the goalkeeper's handpass only found Rory O'Connor who returned it over the bar with interest.

Galway needed something special to get back into contention, and they helped their cause no end with three unanswered points from two Evan Niland frees and Thomas Monaghan (0-16 to 1-12).

Another twist was just around the corner though, as Joe O'Connor caught a Jack Cushe puck-out, found Seamus Casey in space, and the corner-forward bore down on goal before cracking a low drive off the hard ground and into the net.

When Rowan White followed immediately with a point from a Rory O'Connor handpass, Wexford led by five and appeared well placed to tackle the final 17 minutes.

In the space of less than 80 seconds, all that changed. Kevin Cooney latched on to Patrick Foley's pass into the right corner, beat Shane Reck on a solo run and blasted the ball to the far corner for Galway's second goal.

And before Wexford had time to recover, Thomas Monaghan found Evan Niland who ran at the heart of the defence with Damien Reck and Ian Carty on his tail before his looping shot appeared to deceive Cushe and ended up in the net.

A Cooney point from the sideline made it 3-13 to 1-17, but Wexford had no intention of lying down. The margin was down to one (3-14 to 1-19) as we moved into the four additional minutes, with Seamus Casey converting two frees either side of a Fintan Burke point, and also firing a shot on goal to the left and wide.

Galway were also reduced to 14 men when the score stood at 3-14 to 1-18, with Shane Bannon dismissed on a second booking.

Niland and Casey swapped points from frees, but Galway then went three clear after another converted Niland placed ball was followed by a score from Conor Caulfield (3-17 to 1-20).

By the time Ian Carty pounced for the equaliser, those four added minutes had hit the 5:24 mark on the stopwatch.

He had pushed up for a puck-out, and the ball initially broke to him before Rory Higgins got it out of a forest of players and back into his path. The Taghmon-Camross lad showed admirable composure, controlling it with his first touch on the hurl before striking it into the far corner of the net to cue bedlam among the Wexford following.

And the momentum of that rousing score was carried into the first period of extra-time, as Galway were outscored by four points to one even though they were restored to 15 men.

Casey (free), Rory Higgins and Rory O'Connor (two frees) did the damage, with the latter taking over those duties after Casey had to depart owing to injury.

A Jack Canning snapshot for goal was saved by Jack Cushe, and Galway were restricted to that sole point from Cianan Fahy.

Niland (free) drew first blood in the second period, with tiredness setting in as Wexford struck four wides before more great work by the tireless Conor Firman set up Joe O'Connor for a point (2-25 to 3-19).

Cianan Fahy made a huge contribution to the Galway cause by converting a '65 and a 90-metre free, but Wexford rejoiced just over 30 seconds into the one added minute when Rory O'Connor landed a monster point to leave two between them.

Mere seconds separated them from joy and despair, but Seán Bleahene's late, late goal served as the most crushing of blows at the end of one of the best games ever seen at this level.

Established Senior players Rory O'Connor (the official man of the match), Damien Reck and Conor Firman was immense, with the likes of Darren Byrne, Ian Carty, Joe O'Connor, Rory Higgins and Seamus Casey also enhancing growing reputations.

Hopefully the pain of this loss will be channelled into giving Cork one hell of a test in the All-Ireland semi-final next month.

Wexford: Jack Cushe (Naomh Eanna); Shane Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Darren Byrne (Blackwater), Damien Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien); Aaron Maddock (St. Martin's), Ian Carty (Taghmon-Camross, 1-0), Rowan White (Glynn-Barntown, 0-2); Gary Molloy (Naomh Eanna, 0-1), Conor Firman (St. Martin's, capt.); Joe O'Connor (St. Martin's, 0-2), Rory O'Connor (St. Martin's, 0-7, 2 frees), Liam Stafford (Adamstown); Stephen O'Gorman (Taghmon-Camross, 0-2), Rory Higgins (Rathnure, 0-1), Seamus Casey (Oylegate-Glenbrien, 1-11, 0-9 frees). Subs. - Oisín Foley (Crossabeg-Ballymurn) for Stafford (52), Mikie Dwyer (Fethard) for O'Gorman (52), Darren Codd (St. Martin's) for White (56), O'Gorman for Casey, inj. (66), Jack Cullen (Naomh Eanna) for Higgins (77), also James Henebery (Faythe Harriers), David Clarke (Glynn-Barntown), Eoin Molloy (Naomh Eanna), Jody Donohoe (Shelmaliers), Quinn Saunders (Our Lady's Island).

Galway: Eanna Murphy; Shane Bannon, Jack Fitzpatrick, Ian O'Shea; Jack Grealish, Fintan Burke (capt., 0-1), Mark Hughes; Thomas Monaghan (1-2), Seán Loftus (0-1); Brian Concannon (0-2), Cian Salmon, Cianan Fahy (0-5, 1 '65, 1 free); Evan Niland (1-7, 0-7 frees), Seán Bleahene, Kevin Cooney (1-2). Subs. - Patrick Foley for Salmon (HT), Conor Caulfield (0-1) for Hughes (41), Jack Canning for Bleahene (42), Ciarán O'Connor (15th man for extra-time), Ronan Murphy for Concannon (66), Michael Lynch for Monaghan (75), Bleahene (1-0) for Niland (77).

Referee: John O'Brien (Laois).

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