Wexford end on bright note
Wexford 0-12 Armagh 1-8
Wexford's long wait of twelve months and six days for an Allianz League win was brought to a welcome end in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday when the gutsy home side held on in a frantic finale to pip already-promoted Armagh by one point in this bizarre Division 3 encounter.
Incredibly, the locals led by 0-9 to nil at the interval and then added the first two scores on the re-start, prompting loud cheers laced with a heavy dose of irony from the visiting fans when the Ulster side eventually opened their account in the 42nd minute.
It took a determined defensive effort, and a bit of good fortune also, to hold on thereafter, with Wexford not scoring again after substitute Darragh Pepper played a one-two with Paul Curtis to make it 0-12 to 0-2 on the 45-minute mark.
However, they thoroughly deserved to get the breaks for a change and, while this result won't alter the reality of Division 4 football in 2019, it will certainly give them hope and belief ahead of their Leinster championship opener against Laois at the same venue on May 12.
This time last year Wexford were in the same boat as Armagh were on Sunday, with promotion secured in advance of the final round of group games.
In our case it had been earned with two outings to spare and, as we learned to our cost, that had its negative aspect as the team never recovered from fielding depleted sides in those dead-rubber outings.
Armagh were in a somewhat similar position on Sunday, although it would be a disservice to Wexford to suggest that their merited victory was due solely to the opposition's focus being on the upcoming league final against Fermanagh.
Certainly, manager Kieran McGeeney wasn't happy with his side's shocking first-half show, with three of his heavy-hitters - Charlie Vernon, Aidan Forker and international rules player Niall Grimley - all introduced before half-time.
For a side that struggled with discipline in the early rounds, it was a great tribute to the Wexford backs in particular that they didn't give away even one free in a scoreable area.
The entire Armagh tally of 1-8 arrived from play, but the tenacity of the winners' defence had to be admired on a day when the tigerish Michael Furlong was making his 50th appearance for the county.
Wexford suffered a big body blow during the week when young Barry O'Connor, the star of the previous round's loss in Derry, fractured a thumb to leave him more than likely sidelined for three months.
He was one of five players from that last game who didn't start on this occasion, along with Alan Nolan, Barry O'Gorman, Robert Frayne and John Tubritt, although the side was strengthened by the return of experienced trio Daithí Waters, Brian Malone and Ben Brosnan.
Donal Shanley and Paul Curtis also featured from the get-go after coming off the bench in Derry, and it was refreshing to see Wexford taking the game to their rivals who had five wins, one draw and no loss to their credit before Sunday.
The home side attacked in waves towards the town end, and their use of possession, ball retention and running off the shoulder was generally of a much higher quality than in previous outings.
The game was less than one minute old when a high left-footed strike by Paul Curtis opened their account, and Donal Shanley doubled the lead from a 15-metre free off the ground in the left corner after Ronan Lappin was booked for a foul on Brian Malone.
The first two of Armagh's 15 wides (Wexford had ten) followed before a fifth-minute kick by James Stafford led to the white flag being raised even though it looked to have gone right and wide. Given the final result, this stroke of good fortune wasn't lost on locals afterwards.
Armagh did have a chance for a score on a rare breakaway in the seventh minute, but Glen Malone stayed on Andrew Murnin's heels every step of the way and then made a superb tackle when the full-forward tried to off-load with a handpass.
Ben Brosnan and Daithí Waters posted wides before a snapshot from the latter was comfortably parried by netminder Blaine Hughes. Waters did force him over the endline for a fruitless '45 as Donal Shanley slipped when kicking, but the netminder picked up an injury in the process and was forced to retire at half-time.
A foul on Brian Malone led to Shanley making it 4-0 from a 40-metre free, and the Wexford dominance continued as Armagh struggled to get the ball beyond midfield.
A Shanley wide was followed by a Daithí Waters point from a Naomhan Rossiter pass in the 18th minute, and the leaders were gifted a golden goal chance from the kick-out.
Blaine Hughes put the ball into the arms of full-forward Nick Doyle who handpassed to his left to Ben Brosnan, but the goalkeeper redeemed himself with a vital save.
Donal Shanley pointed the '45 all the same to keep the momentum going, and Naomhan Rossiter's mark from the kick-out led to a James Stafford point, with absolutely no doubt regarding the authenticity of this one.
The travelling supporters, who sadly made up an estimated 90% of the crowd, were growing increasingly restless with every passing minute.
And they had good reason to be annoyed, with a Daithí Waters mark after the seventh Wexford point leading to another score for Shanley in the 22nd minute.
Although Eoghan Nolan, Paul Curtis and Shanley (long-range free) brought the first-half wides count to six, Curtis exchanged passes with wing-back Glen Malone who split the posts to leave that hard to credit interval scoreline of 0-9 to nil.
Armagh did manage to at least make it to the opposition 20-metre line as the half neared an end, but more than once the player in possession frustrated their fans even more by opting to pass the ball back out the field instead of trying to beat a defender or taking a shot.
Wexford hammered home their dominance on the re-start, with Donal Shanley converting a free after Aaron McKay was booked for halting a run by Brian Malone before the St. Fintan's player made it 11-0 from a pass by clubmate Jim Rossiter.
Armagh had travelled in force, and evidently with lots of good humour too as the lengthy cheer that greeted Aidan Forker's 42nd-minute point indicated.
Oisín Mac Iomhair quickly added a second, only for Darragh Pepper to respond and restore the ten-point gap shortly after his introduction.
However, Wexford didn't score again, and the pressure was near-constant in the last 25 minutes plus added time as Armagh finally started to win plenty of breaking ball in the middle third.
Andrew Murnin pulled back a point, with Pepper dropping an effort short and Shanley kicking a wide before Mac Iomhair had to be content with tapping the ball over the bar after a brilliant Conor Carty block on Gavin McPartland's goal attempt.
Shanley (free) and Paul Curtis posted wides before Armagh's goal arrived in the 57th minute and made for an anxious finish. A high ball by Aidan Forker was palmed down by Andrew Murnin into the path of Niall Grimley who stumbled but managed to keep it in play, with Murnin following up to apply the finishing touch (0-12 to 1-4).
The momentum had shifted, and the prospects of a cruel defeat for Wexford loomed large after Gavin McPartland, Grimley and McPartland again added three points in less than two minutes.
The first of just four second-half Armagh frees didn't arrive until the 62nd minute, and they looked better placed to snatch victory when Forker found McPartland for his third point (0-12 to 1-8).
Thirteen minutes, including added time, followed before the final whistle, but Armagh simply couldn't register again no matter how hard they tried.
Substitute Mark O'Neill made a tremendous diving block on an Aaron McKay goal shot after a piledriver had rattled the woodwork, while a late high lob from the left by Forker was fisted off the post by Andrew Murnin.
Wexford had a chance in between after a partial block on a shot by the re-introduced Nick Doyle fell kindly for Tiarnan Rossiter, but he shot wide under pressure after a swift turn.
It was frantic stuff, with Niall Grimley black-carded for a tackle that would have been perfect if he was still in Australia with the Ireland team.
Likewise, Nick Doyle could have been back in the red, black and white jersey of Enniscorthy R.F.C. when he wrapped his arms around Aaron McKay's waist to stifle an attack.
For some odd reason, Wexford didn't replace him even though they'd only used five permanent substitutes plus one temporary, whereas Armagh had no option but to finish with 14 players.
It was in keeping with a helter-skelter conclusion, with Eoghan Nolan making a vital late tackle on Charlie Vernon as he cut in from the right before Murnin's fisted effort off the post ended Armagh's hopes of at least salvaging a draw.
Wexford were awarded 25 of the 37 frees and, apart from the black cards for Niall Grimley and Nick Doyle, yellows were shown to Armagh quintet Ronan Lappin, Jamie Cosgrove, Gregory McCabe, Aaron McKay and Brendan Donaghy.
Wexford: Conor Swaine; Michael Furlong, Jim Rossiter, Conor Carty; Glen Malone (0-1), Naomhan Rossiter, Shane Doyle; Daithí Waters (capt., 0-1), Brian Malone; James Stafford (0-2), Donal Shanley (0-6, 3 frees, 1 '45), Eoghan Nolan; Paul Curtis (0-1), Nick Doyle, Ben Brosnan. Subs. - Darragh Pepper (0-1) for N. Doyle (42), Robert Frayne for Stafford (48), Tiarnan Rossiter for Brosnan (50), Mark O'Neill for Carty, temp. (58-59), O'Neill for S. Doyle (66), Nick Doyle for Curtis (67).
Armagh: Blaine Hughes; Oisín Lappin, Aaron McKay, Jamie Cosgrove; Ryan Kennedy, Brendan Donaghy, Gregory McCabe; Stephen Sheridan, Aaron Findon; Ronan Lappin, Anthony Duffy, Ben Crealey; Gavin McPartland (0-3), Andrew Murnin (1-1), Oisín Mac Iomhair (0-2). Subs. - Charlie Vernon for Duffy (23), Aidan Forker (0-1) for Findon (24), Niall Grimley (0-1) for R. Lappin (32), Patrick Morrison for Hughes, inj. (HT), Rory Grugan (capt.) for Crealey (51), Patrick Burns for Donaghy, temp. (55-68), Donaghy for Kennedy (68).
Referee: John Hickey (Carlow).