Minors magnificent as they strike 1-5 in super finish to end 34-year wait
Electric Ireland Leinster Minor Hurling final: Wexford 3-14 Kilkenny 3-10
The magnificent Wexford Minors got one of the county's greatest days in Croke Park off to the perfect start when they produced a stunning finale to finally get their hands on the Hanrahan Cup once again after a 34-year wait.
That long barren period without success can finally be consigned to a mere footnote in the history books after a well-drilled team, inspired by the heroics of captain Richie Lawlor and the ace shooting of A.J. Redmond, hit 1-5 on the trot down an exciting home straight to secure a place in the All-Ireland semi-final at the end of the month.
It had been nip and tuck for more than three-quarters of the game, with scores hard to come by and the sides level on three occasions, but the contest really burst to life in the closing eight minutes plus added time.
With the sides deadlocked at 1-9 each, Wexford wing-back Justin Moran handpassed to Redmond who was to the right of the Canal End posts. And after having the presence of mind to cleverly flick the sliothar over a would-be challenger, he latched on to it again and drilled it to the net to spark premature celebrations.
Composure was needed, but incredibly Kilkenny replied a mere 37 seconds later. Pierce Blanchfield and Timmy Clifford combined initially and, when the latter received a return pass from Liam Moore, his pull beat Cian Byrne for the equaliser.
The concern grew just under two minutes later when substitute Diarmuid O'Leary was hunted down on the right flank by Kilkenny substitute Ian Byrne who robbed him of possession before firing over the lead point (2-10 to 2-9).
We had been in this position so many times before - matching our arch-rivals in every facet of the game before losing our way with the winning line in full view.
These mighty young men were made of sterner stuff, though, and great credit must be bestowed on manager James Sheil (St. Mary's, Rosslare) plus selectors Liam Roche (Geraldine O'Hanrahans), Eddie Cullen (Ferns St. Aidan's), David Redmond (Oulart-The Ballagh) and John Conran (Rathnure) for instilling that self-belief and composure in their charges.
What followed from the 55th minute onwards will be remembered with fondness for many years to come by the long-suffering Wexford supporters who were rewarded for their early start in order to get behind the Under-17 effort.
When the pressure was at its greatest, A.J. Redmond stepped up to the mark and struck five points in a row from frees in eight minutes to bring his haul to an outstanding 1-11, including 1-2 from play.
He levelled after a Kilkenny defender was pressurised into over-carrying, while a left-wing foul on Justin Moran led to the lead score.
The two all-action midfielders, Jack Kirwan and Luke Kavanagh, were then impeded in quick succession as the advantage was stretched to 2-13 to 2-10 with the three extra minutes about to start.
And then it was time for captain Richie Lawlor to step forward once more and leave his personal stamp on proceedings.
Having spent some time in the full-forward line, he was brought outfield and drew another foul, plus a booking for Kilkenny's Aran Murphy, after catching a Cian Byrne puck-out.
Redmond's insurance point followed, but there was even better to come. This time Lawlor grabbed the opposition re-start in mid-air and did what he does best, bearing down on goal before committing the last defender, William Halpin, to a dangerous late challenge.
He had popped the handpass inside just a split second before to substitute Cian Byrne, and the grandson of 1963 All-Ireland Minor medal winner Willie Carley put the cherry on top of the cake with his third goal of the campaign.
There was some late defending to do, and Pierce Blanchfield did finish a Billy Drennan free to the net for a consolation goal over 90 seconds beyond those three additional minutes.
However, Byrne's goal had removed any doubt regarding the outcome, and it was a marvellous sight to witness a Wexford team finally bringing a Leinster Minor title home once again for only the eighth time in the competition's 91-year history.
Lawlor had won the toss and Wexford played into Hill 16 first, with both sides making nervous starts.
Indeed, they shared four wides inside three minutes, with two from Kilkenny matched by A.J. Redmond, who got one wayward free out of his system, before Jack Kirwan was off target from long range.
Redmond got his side off the mark after a grounded Dylan O'Neill did well to deliver a handpass, and he had added a brace of frees by the ninth minute after fouls on the latter as well as the elusive Rathnure lad.
Wexford deployed their usual tactic of two inside forwards, with the third drifting out with the freedom to roam. Paddy Whitty and David Cantwell were the two closest to goal for a long period, although there was plenty of rotation as the game progressed.
Kilkenny's shooting wasn't as clinical as normal, but netminder Cian Byrne was still kept busy in ensuring there was no slip-ups with some routine saves.
Liam Moore didn't test him properly after breaking on to an Aidan Tallis puck-out, but the Noresiders finally got off the mark in the eleventh minute with a Pierce Blanchfield point (0-3 to 0-1).
Billy Drennan added the first of his five frees, before a couple of fluffed Kilkenny line balls under the Hogan Stand led to the opening Wexford goal in the 14th minute.
Richie Lawlor emerged from the ruck after a throw-in to bear down on goal with nobody able to catch him, and the ultimate team player delivered a handpass to his right for David Cantwell who was never going to miss the net from such close range (1-3 to 0-2).
Paddy Whitty added a sweet over-the-shoulder point, while his short pass under two minutes later found Cantwell whose bullet produced the next Wexford white flag.
Billy Drennan had converted a free in between, and the only sustained fruitful spell on the scoreboard for Kilkenny followed as they picked off 1-2 without reply in six minutes.
Drennan set up Jack Doyle for a point before another scuffed shot on goal from Liam Moore, and a very harsh call followed against the tenacious Dylan Whelan after he made a clean catch but was deemed to have been leaning on his opponent.
Drennan made that clear refereeing error count before Cian Byrne's puck-out wasn't controlled by a defender, setting in train a move that ended with the levelling goal in the 25th minute.
Colman O'Sullivan, Drennan and Timmy Clifford all played a part before Jack Doyle supplied the finish, but it was significant that Wexford reacted well with two late frees from A.J. Redmond to lead by 1-7 to 1-5 at the break.
Scores were extremely scarce in the third quarter, with a mere five points registered as Kilkenny narrowed the gap to the minimum (1-9 to 1-8).
Drennan earned and converted a free in the 32nd minute, and he equalised after Paddy Whitty dropped his hurl while executing a handpass.
It then looked for a split second like Richie Lawlor had ended another of those trademark solo runs with a goal, but his piledriver flashed to the left of the Canal End posts.
Aidan Tallis also had to react swiftly to deal with A.J. Redmond's deft touch on a long-range free from the ever-impressive Cian 'Patsy' Molloy.
That was followed by a spell when Kilkenny hit three wides at a time when their rivals looked vulnerable, but the ship was steadied once more as Molloy marshalled a defiant back line with the considerable aid of Joe Conroy, Kyle Scallan, Dylan Whelan, Justin Moran and David Codd.
A fine long-range point by midfielder Jack Kirwan opened Wexford's second-half account in the 40th minute, and Redmond added a beauty from play tight to the right sideline to make it 1-9 to 1-7.
Lawlor spotted Justin Moran darting down the centre, but the pass was mis-handled and Kilkenny moved downfield to pull a point back via Liam Moore.
Another weak goal attempt, this time from a Timmy Clifford pull, was comfortably saved by Cian Byrne before the Dicksboro attacker hit the equaliser in the 52nd minute.
The second-half had been a slow-burner up to that juncture, but it finished with drama and scores in abundance before the appreciative Wexford fans lined up to hail a new group of young heroes who will be back in All-Ireland semi-final action on July 27-28.
Wexford: Cian Byrne (St. Mary's, Rosslare); Joe Conroy (Craanford), Kyle Scallan (Faythe Harriers), Dylan Whelan (Fethard); Justin Moran (St. Anne's), Cian Molloy (Naomh Eanna), David Codd (St. Martin's); Jack Kirwan (Rapparees, 0-1), Luke Kavanagh (St. Martin's); Dylan O'Neill (Shelmaliers), Richie Lawlor (Faythe Harriers, capt.), Josh Shiel (Faythe Harriers); A.J. Redmond (Rathnure, 1-11, 0-9 frees), Paddy Whitty (Cloughbawn, 0-1), David Cantwell (St. Martin's, 1-1). Subs. - Diarmuid O'Leary (St. Martin's) for O'Neill (39), Conor Foley (Horeswood) for Whitty (39), Cian Byrne (Fethard, 1-0) for Cantwell (50), Oisín Pepper (Rapparees) for Shiel (60+2), Emmet Cullen (Gusserane) for Lawlor, inj. (60+4), also Derry Mahon (HWH-Bunclody), Liam Cassin (Faythe Harriers), Michael Laffan (Glynn-Barntown), Cian Browne (Naomh Eanna). Extended panel: Eddie Kelly (Davidstown-Courtnacuddy), Ciarán Regan (HWH-Bunclody), J.J. Twamley (Naomh Eanna), Joe Kelly (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), Owen Lennon (Rathnure), Tomás Kinsella (Askamore), Eoin Kavanagh (Faythe Harriers), Darragh Carley (Glynn-Barntown), James Rossiter (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown), Jim Finn (Oulart-The Ballagh), Jason Gordon (Faythe Harriers).
Kilkenny: Aidan Tallis; William Halpin, Peter McDonald, Tristan Roche; Billy Reid, Pádraic Moylan, James Aylward (capt.); Andy Hickey, Denis Walsh; Colman O'Sullivan, Liam Moore (0-1), Pierce Blanchfield (1-1); Billy Drennan (0-5 frees), Timmy Clifford (1-1), Jack Doyle (1-1). Subs. - Ian Byrne (0-1) for O'Sullivan (43), Aran Murphy for Hickey (58), Zach Bay Hammond for Aylward (60+3).
Referee: Chris Mooney (Dublin).