Simpson steers Anne's back to top flight
St. Anne's 2-10 Crossabeg-Ballymurn 1-12
It was a prime case of 'the auld dog for the hard road' in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday when veteran Francis Simpson was sprung from the bench in added time to grab the winning point for St. Anne's and send them back into the top flight of hurling in the county after a one-year absence.
The Courtyard Ferns Intermediate championship final looked like producing only one outcome when Crossabeg-Ballymurn never got out of the blocks in the early stages and trailed by 2-6 to 0-4 at the end of a forgettable first-half.
However, a fortuitous goal from a Pádraig Foley free when play resumed kick-started their stirring comeback, and it looked like extra-time might be needed in the gathering gloom when Eoin McDonald helped the ball into the path of Conor Devereux who hit the equaliser in the 60th minute.
Simpson had scored 2-1 and earned the man of the match award on the sole previous occasion when his club won this title, beating Adamstown by 3-9 to 0-8 in 1999 just one year before their remarkable Senior championship double.
And he still knows all the tricks of the score-poaching trade despite turning 40, making him the ideal candidate to pounce for that all-important point to fully atone for the club's heartbreaking relegation loss to Faythe Harriers last year.
Another substitute, Brian Kavanagh, had a chance beforehand when Andy Kennedy played the ball into his path, but he missed his pick-up in the tough underfoot conditions and the move ended in the 13th and last St. Anne's wide.
The absence of a fourth official meant that nobody was sure of the additional time to be played by referee Shane Quinn, but we were near the end of the third added minute when Simpson pounced to bridge that 18-year gap.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe was aiming for a point judging from his frustrated body language when it was clear his attempt would drop short. He didn't need to worry, though, because Simpson beat his marker to the ball in front of the posts and turned on to his left before firing high between the posts for one of the most crucial scores of his lengthy career.
There was still time for plentiful drama though, with a total of seven and a half added minutes played before Crossabeg-Ballymurn's dreams were shattered.
They didn't help themselves it must be said, because a free awarded to them at midfield was altered to a throw-in after Conor Shovlin was booked for his reaction which left Diarmuid O'Keeffe with an injury.
The county player's treatment accounted for a lot of that added time, and there was still one last chance for the Over The Water side.
A frantic scramble of bodies sought possession when the action resumed, and it was like a rolling maul for a spell before referee Quinn signalled that a St. Anne's man had touched the ball on the ground.
Pádraig Foley stepped up to a tricky free some 60 metres out to the right of the posts, but his attempt drifted left for the eighth Crossabeg-Ballymurn wide and the final whistle followed.
It was a very cruel blow for the Wexford District side as they also lost the 2015 final to Naomh Eanna by the same narrow margin, and they will be left to rue that first-half no-show that cost them dearly.
And even when they got their act together in the second period, they will look back on a couple of golden goal chances that weren't taken, with experienced netminder Redmond Barry performing heroics for the winners.
I'm sure I wasn't the only observer to wonder if the one-time dual county Senior would be moved outfield by St. Anne's for the business end of the campaign, but he showed why he was the ideal candidate to man the posts with one particularly memorable stop from Tony Murphy in the 43rd minute. He was one of three survivors from 1999 to play a key role once again, along with match-winner Simpson and David O'Connor.
There was an interesting development immediately after the throw-in when Diarmuid O'Keeffe moved in from midfield to full-forward. Crossabeg-Ballymurn gave Pádraig Foley the task of policing the All Star nominee, but it didn't help their cause that he was stationed so close to the posts.
O'Keeffe's two goals were instrumental in forging victory, although Foley started to clear some balls as the first-half wore on, due in large part to the poor quality of the outfield delivery from St. Anne's.
However, those drives were only landing in and around midfield in the area where Foley would normally be thriving, and posing an attacking threat in the process.
Crossabeg-Ballymurn changed plans for the second-half, leaving Bill Eviston inside on O'Keeffe before he eventually roved out, with Foley going to centre-back as the side chasing the game started to avail of the elements.
The loss of Ronan Devereux, joining Sam Kelly on the roll call of unavailable players, was another serious blow for the Over The Water men as they went into battle without two of their best young performers.
The only people that will have enjoyed the first-half exchanges were the St. Anne's followers, because it was fairly poor fare on the whole and they were the dominant force.
Free-taker Mark Furlong pointed them in front before a Jonathan Fogarty delivery in the fifth minute broke into the path of Diarmuid O'Keeffe who pulled sweetly to the net.
The scorer partnered Liam Rochford in a two-man inside line, with talented jockey Mikey Fogarty drifting outfield to leave the optimum space.
Jess Codd had all the time in the world to push his side clear by five points from a well-directed short pass by Aidan Rochford, but Crossabeg-Ballymurn finally responded when Tony Murphy picked out his namesake, Niall, to open their account in the seventh minute (1-2 to 0-1).
A brace of Furlong frees followed for St. Anne's before they goaled again at the start of the second quarter. Jonathan Fogarty found Liam Rochford who shook off a defender before sending in a low shot, and the rebound from Mark Dempsey's save was forced home from close range by Diarmuid O'Keeffe (2-4 to 0-1).
Niall Murphy tried to stop the rot with another point, only for Furlong to cancel that out from another Aidan Rochford lay-off.
The first sequence of two Crossabeg-Ballymurn scores in succession followed, with Shane O'Rourke pointing neatly from the left sideline before midfielder Seamus Carroll reduced the gap to seven.
However, Mark Furlong had the last word before the break with a pointed '65 in added time, leaving St. Anne's with a commanding 2-6 to 0-4 advantage.
Crossabeg-Ballymurn had edged the wides count 7-6, and they needed to get their act together quickly in order to make a game of it. The lift they required came in the 36th minute when Pádraig Foley stood over a free outside the 45-metre line, and his head-high shot seemed to go all the way to the net past a sea of clashing sticks.
Niall Murphy and Foley followed with points from placed balls, and all of a sudden only a goal divided the sides and St. Anne's had a battle on their hands.
Liam Rochford gave them brief respite with a good point from a Mark Furlong delivery, but Crossabeg-Ballymurn should have goaled on their next attack.
Paddy Devereux's ball in was won by Oisín Foley who handpassed inside to Tony Murphy, but his drive was kept out by the upper body of Redmond Barry when the green flag seemed certain to be raised.
Three successive St. Anne's wides followed before Oisín Foley, who had a storming second-half after moving to right corner-forward, grabbed his first point.
Mark Furlong converted another free, but Foley caught superbly after a move initiated by Bill Eviston and split the posts again despite the close presence of Kenny Cloney (2-8 to 1-8).
The gap was narrowed to two from Pádraig Foley's long-range free, and then it looked like Niall Murphy would hit the net from close range after good work by Oisín Foley and Conor Devereux.
He was bottled up, though, and couldn't get his shot away, while Foley met a similar fate in the follow-up.
A Pádraig Foley '65 made it a one-point game with five minutes left, and now the momentum was very much with Crossabeg-Ballymurn.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe had moved outfield as he wasn't going to get any more possession inside, and his lob from the right wing to the far post in the 58th minute paid dividends as it was snapped up by Mikey Fogarty who fired over (2-9 to 1-10).
Forty seconds later Eoin McDonald had the ball in the net at the other end from a pull, but the whistle had been blown already for a foul on Oisín Foley as he drove goalwards from the right corner.
Niall Murphy knocked that over, and Conor Devereux's leveller followed before the drama in those additional minutes that was described earlier.
All neutrals were longing for extra-time, but it wasn't to be as St. Anne's matched the 2012 and 2013 achievements of Starlights (football) and Buffers Alley (hurling) who won Intermediate crowns at the first attempt after relegation from Senior ranks.
History has shown that those who fail to bounce back immediately find it increasingly harder as the years move on, so this win will be warmly welcomed by the Rathangan crew as they can look forward to being a dual Senior club once again in 2018. It took a determined rearguard action to get over the line, and this was reflected in the selection of stout-hearted full-back Tomás Cullen as official man of the match.
Next up is a crack at the AIB Leinster Club title, and their semi-final opponents in Joule Park, Aughrim, next Saturday will be well versed in their finer points as Glenealy, the Wicklow Senior champions, are managed by 1996 All-Ireland medal winner Garry Laffan.
St. Anne's: Redmond Barry; Finn O'Driscoll, Tomás Cullen, Páraic O'Keeffe; Kevin Hannigan, Aidan Rochford, Kenny Cloney; Diarmuid O'Keeffe (2-0), Seamus Mythen (joint capt.); Jess Codd (0-1), Mark Furlong (joint capt., 0-6, 4 frees, 1 '65), Jonathan Fogarty; Liam Rochford (0-1), Mikey Fogarty (0-1), David O'Connor. Subs. - Andy Kennedy for O'Connor (38), Brian Kavanagh for Fogarty (54), Francis Simpson (0-1) for Codd (60+1), also Paul Brennan, Philip Rawson, David Kavanagh, Kevin White, Tony McDonnell, Michael O'Brien, Joe O'Connor, Shane Mythen, Gavin O'Brien, Paul McDonnell, Ben Moore, Vincent Carroll, Roy Nunn.
Crossabeg-Ballymurn: Mark Dempsey; Paul Roche, Bill Eviston, Matty Sludds (joint capt.); Conor Shovlin, Pádraig Foley (1-3, 1-2 frees, 0-1 '65), Alan Byrne; Seamus Carroll (0-1), Paddy Devereux; Niall Murphy (0-4, 2 frees), Oisín Foley (0-2), Conor Devereux (0-1); David Jackman, Tony Murphy, Shane O'Rourke (0-1). Subs. - Declan Byrne for Roche (HT), Eoin McDonald for Jackman (36), David Kehoe for Sludds (54), Cormac O'Rourke for Shovlin (60+6), also Noel Scallan, Billy Roche (joint capt.), Conor Barlow, Mark Campbell, Martin Redmond, Luke Redmond, James Grannell, Michael A. Doyle, Daithí Redmond, Ronan Devereux, Sam Kelly.
Referee: Shane Quinn (Ballygarrett).