O'Connor hits stunning winner
St. Martin's 1-16 Buffers Alley 1-15
St. Martin's survived the kind of test that can either make or break a team in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday, and it took a piece of sheer class from the brightest young talent in the county right now to seal the deal.
Unfancied Buffers Alley had given their all in a Pettitt's Senior hurling championship quarter-final with one extremely controversial incident, and it looked like they might hold out for a sensational victory after centre-back Seán Murphy directed two balls over the Clonard end bar in the 60th and 62nd minutes.
Murphy's fist pump immediately after that second strike left his stick confirmed that the shot was good, and it left the Alley ahead by 1-15 to 1-14.
St. Martin's were staring at the exit gates but kept their composure, with Mikey Coleman winning a free from a Daithí Waters delivery that proved easy pickings for Rory O'Connor.
It looked like extra-time was beckoning, but it didn't work out that way. Jake Firman hit a wide for St. Martin's before Paudie Kelly fouled the ball with a point at his mercy, while the Alley's third choice netminder, Paudie Kinsella, batted another Joe O'Connor attempt out from under his crossbar.
The winner came from a predictable source moments later, but it was an example of sheer class.
With the Alley unable to clear their lines, Rory O'Connor popped up literally hugging the left sideline and delivered a beauty between the posts to bring his personal tally to 1-8, including 1-4 from play.
Twenty seconds later the full-time whistle was sounded by referee Gearóid McGrath whose general display wasn't in keeping with the standard expected in a game of such importance.
He played five and a half added minutes to be exact and felt the wrath of the Alley supporters afterwards, although several decisions left neutral onlookers - this writer included - completely baffled.
The biggest talking point occurred in the 15th minute, at a stage when the Gorey District side led by 0-5 to 0-3.
As Joe O'Connor delivered a ball towards the Clonard end, the crowd noticed that Alley defender Paudie Reidy was down in a heap and one of the umpires had his hand to his left side indicating that he had some information to impart to the referee.
After a very long discussion between McGrath and his two assistants on the goalposts, a straight red card was dished out to Martin's captain Ciarán Lyng who accepted his medicine without complaint. Nobody in my vicinity had seen what happened, but that non-reaction from the forward suggested in itself that he had over-stepped the mark.
However, it's what happened next that left onlookers completely perplexed. Alley netminder Darren O'Brien had taken down Lyng in the seconds before the referee called a halt to the play, but the 'retribution' was so tame that it scarcely merited a yellow card and certainly didn't cause any injury.
To the astonishment of even some fair-minded Martin's club folk in the stand, a red card was shown, but it appeared that the punishment for O'Brien was harsh in the extreme.
It also threw the Alley into a quandary because he was only deputising in the first place for injured regular Oliver O'Leary, having come on against Rathnure when the Wexford number two was injured.
Wing-forward Shane Grannell briefly stood between the posts before Paudie Kinsella was introduced and went on to acquit himself as well as could be expected in a pressure situation.
The first-half was tight throughout, with never more than two points between them, and St. Martin's held a slender 1-7 to 0-9 interval lead thanks to the first moment of marvellous skill from Rory O'Connor in the 26th minute.
Jake Firman passed from the right corner and he flicked the ball over a defender before meeting it with a first-time strike after it bounced to beat Kinsella and push his side 1-4 to 0-6 clear. Coming hot on the heels of his wonder finish in the Under-21 final against Naomh Eanna, a highlights reel of O'Connor's golden goals must be surely in the offing already.
Prior to that the Alley had forged 0-4 to 0-2 clear after a trio of pointed Paul O'Leary frees between the eighth and eleventh minutes.
O'Connor replied with a neat score under heavy pressure before a vital Paudie Reidy interception led to Andrew Kenny making it 5-3 at the other end.
Five minutes was spent dealing with the Reidy-Lyng incident before Joe O'Connor pulled back a Martin's point, but Willie Doran hit back prior to that classy goal as the lead changed hands (1-4 to 0-6).
The last six points of the half were shared and, although the Alley were level three times and even edged clear once, another Rory O'Connor score from a handpass by his brother, Harry, left the men in maroon ahead at the break.
That came after an umpire signalled a point for a Joe Coleman free that was clearly wide, but thankfully linesman Shane Quinn intervened.
The Alley had proven already that they were up for the fight, and it got even better for them just over one minute into the second-half.
Jack O'Connor fumbled a short puck-out and it was seized upon by Willie Doran who darted forward before squaring to Pat Kenny for a well-worked lead goal (1-9 to 1-7).
A Joe Coleman free and a Joe O'Connor effort from play levelled matters once more, but the Alley had moved back into a 1-12 to 1-10 lead by the three-quarters mark after Paul O'Leary pointed two frees and also saw Andrew Kenny avail of the break when another placed ball sandwiched in between came back off the post.
Joe O'Connor had struck the sole Martin's point in that spell, but a Rory O'Connor free-taking hat-trick - having taken over the duties when Joe Coleman was substituted - pushed them clear by 1-13 to 1-12 with five minutes left.
Prior to that lead point, Andrew Kenny had controlled a Robert O'Leary delivery on the ground and turned, only to direct his pull agonisingly wide.
And there was also a bizarre moment when Jack O'Connor was yellow-carded for a retaliatory swing but still awarded his free. This was repeated later on for the Alley when Ross Donohoe was booked before driving a placed ball downfield.
It was tense stuff entering the closing stages, with Kevin Roche drawing the Monamolin-based side level from a short Bobby Kenny pass (1-13 each).
Rory O'Connor responded after latching on to an Alley clearance from Ciarán Kenny, only for Seán Murphy to burst through a tackle and restore parity for the tenth time in all.
And when Murphy fired over again after the ball emerged from a tussle into his path, the underdogs dared to dream.
There's no doubt that St. Martin's wouldn't have survived without the giant presence of Rory O'Connor, and he stepped up with those two late strikes to decide a contest that could have gone either way.
St. Martin's: Luke White; Willie Devereux, Patrick O'Connor, Conor Firman; Daithí Waters, Jack O'Connor, Aaron Maddock; Harry O'Connor, Mark Maloney (0-1); Jake Firman (0-1), Rory O'Connor (1-8, 0-4 frees), Joe O'Connor (0-3); Joe Coleman (0-2, 1 '65, 1 free), Ciarán Lyng (capt.), Darren Codd (0-1). Subs. - Paudie Kelly for Coleman (37), Mikey Coleman for Codd (42), Barry O'Connor for H. O'Connor (52), Michael Codd for Maloney (56).
Buffers Alley: Darren O'Brien; Ciarán Murphy, Paudie Reidy, Ciarán Kenny (capt.); Bobby Kenny, Seán Murphy (0-2), Ross Donohoe; Robert O'Leary, John Farrell; Kevin Roche (0-2), Willie Doran (0-1), Shane Grannell; Pat Kenny (1-1), Andrew Kenny (0-2), Paul O'Leary (0-7 frees). Subs. - Paudie Kinsella for R. O'Leary (20), Seán Og Whelan for Farrell (39), O'Leary for Reidy (41), Cormac Foley for Grannell (57).
Referee: Gearóid McGrath (St. James').