Monday 20 January 2020

Women bridge 12-year gap

TG4 Leinster Intermediate final: Wexford 1-11 Meath 1-8

The victorious Wexford ladies’ football team, Leinster Intermediate championship winners for the first time since 2007
The victorious Wexford ladies’ football team, Leinster Intermediate championship winners for the first time since 2007

Dean Goodison in Netwatch Cullen Park

It all felt very similar, and similar is not always a good kind of similar.

Back in 2017, when Anthony Masterson was in his first season as Wexford boss, his side were here too in Netwatch Cullen Park.

In many ways they were riding the crest of a wave, confidence was high and their energy levels were higher.

They were coming into the championship after being mugged in the National League final against Tipperary but still looked like one of the best two or three Intermediate teams in the country. Then Meath took something from them.

Wexford bossed that game two seasons ago but lost, missing a multitude of goal chances only to get hit by the suckiest of sucker-punches at the other end. It was more than a loss, as it knocked Masterson's side for the rest of 2017.

They rebounded to win the Division 3 league title ten months later but the demons still lurked. The provincial title slipped away at home to Laois, and then the All-Ireland against Tyrone. There was something broken about Wexford, something no number of words could fix.

And here they were again, battering Meath in a TG4 Leinster Intermediate final but the advantage was minimal.

Wexford were in complete control - it was a lesson in how to control a game of football - but, again, they had missed several goal chances.

Meath then began to press, to push, to exploit gaps created by tiring legs. But the Royal women had worked hard for 57 minutes too, mostly chasing Wexford, getting deep to frustrate their opponents, and that work was in the legs.

Their chances to get level came and went. They had shots at the posts but they weren't always high percentage chances - some were, others not. Yet Wexford still had to exorcise their own demons, as it was vital to their future in the championship.

So with just under three minutes left, Bernie Breen fought for a throw-ball and it landed with Wexford. They went left, backways, right, backwards again before they burst forward, with Kellie Kearney injecting pace through the middle.

For 90 seconds Wexford kept the ball, ran down the clock and eventually worked the space for Ellen O'Brien to kick the score.

That build-up and point is worth more than a single score; that was the announcement that this team is ready for anything, as they have taken the next step in their development.

While Wexford were dominant, this was a wildly different game of football from the semi-final win over Kildare. Gone was the long game, as this was all about patience.

Masterson kept his cards close to his chest, evidently not giving the organisers the two changes to his starting line-up for the announcement of the teams.

When his side did line-up for the minute's silence, unfortunately necessary because the mother of Meath forward Aoibheann Leahy passed away during the week, it showed two alterations from the announced 15, and neither was a surprise.

Out went corner-forwards Tara Doyle and Katie White, and in came the experienced duo of Fiona Rochford and Aisling Murphy. White wouldn't spend long on the bench, as Chloe Foxe lasted just over ten minutes before she succumbed to injury, and the Adamstown woman was in.

By that stage Clongeen's Foxe had two frees on the board to Emma Duggan's one. Both of those dead-balls came after referee Kevin Phelan played an advantage for goal chances that Wexford spurned.

The first saw Murphy power through the heart of the Meath defence and drill her shot narrowly wide, while the second saw Maria Byrne get away, only for Monica McGuirk to make an important save.

Clara Donnelly was next to flash across goal and wide in the 14th minute, and Meath ended the opening quarter on level terms after Vikki Wall flighted over from the right wing. Kellie Kearney played provider for Donnelly to make it 0-3 to 0-2 moments later.

Kearney is one of those players who has come on in leaps and bounds under Masterson, and she was one of six or seven players who could have easily got the 'player of the game' gong that eventually went to the tireless Clara Donnelly.

After Duggan equalised, Kearney played a vital role in Wexford's goal. She had the vision to switch play to the right where Niamh Butler was unmarked, and the wing-forward cut in but seemed to under-hit a shot.

If you are going to drop a ball short, the general area around Maria Byrne is probably the best place for it. There's not a defender in the competition who can mark the Kilmore clubwoman, and she proved it by jinking inside and out before dispatching past McGuirk.

Twenty minutes in, against a strong breeze, three points up - perfect for Wexford. Despite two Duggan points, Fiona Rochford countered twice so they could maintain that advantage at the interval (1-5 to 0-5).

Kate Byrne's yellow card in the 24th minute for a foul on Kearney helped Wexford's cause. They added another Rochford free for an infringement on Katie White in the 32nd minute, and Niamh Butler scored two minutes later from Kearney's pass to increase the lead to a game-high five points.

Almost from nowhere, five minutes into the second-half, Kelsey Nesbitt was fouled by Marica Cullen just inside the large rectangle for a penalty. Duggan stepped up and confidently slotted it low past Mary Rose Kelly to make it 1-7 to 1-5.

Wexford burst back up the field and immediately missed another great goal chance. This time Aisling Murphy set up Bernie Breen but the Kerry native flashed her shot wide when she looked odds-on to score.

Sarah Harding-Kenny was immense, as usual, and another of her bursting runs was ended when she was fouled but Rochford didn't connect well with the free and pushed it wide to the right of goal.

Clara Donnelly scored her second point in the 42nd minute as Wexford completely bossed the game. They goal still wouldn't come, and Niamh Mernagh was next denied by a McGuirk save in the 45th minute.

The tide only started to turn with eleven minutes left. Duggan kicked her fifth point and it was quickly followed by a Bridgetta Lynch score to leave one between the sides.

Rochford responded after O'Brien was fouled but missed her second free three minutes later.

Nesbitt put one between the sides (1-9 to 1-8) with five normal time minutes remaining, but Meath missed a couple of chances in the next few minutes, including when Vikki Wall went for goal from well out when a point was the more prudent option.

Duggan kicked a free wide in the 59th minute and it proved to be Meath's final chance. Wexford held the ball superbly in the time remaining, including that long passage of play that ended with an O'Brien point.

When Rochford stood over a late free the hooter went, but she was still obliged to kick the ball and floated it over for her fifth success from seven, clinching a three-point victory and a memorable Leinster title for Wexford.

If there is a downside to winning a first Leinster Intermediate crown in twelve years, it's that Wexford now go into the tougher side of the draw.

They will travel to Clare the weekend after next to start the round-robin stages before hosting Laois two weeks later.

But Wexford have changed, they have developed, and regardless of what happens in the coming weeks they have shown that they have the nous to win big games. At some stage all those chances are going to hit the net and someone is going to take a hiding.

Wexford: Mary Rose Kelly (capt.); Niamh Mernagh, Marica Cullen, Aoife Tormey; Clara Donnelly (0-2), Shauna Murphy, Sarah Harding-Kenny; Kellie Kearney, Bernie Breen; Niamh Butler (0-1), Aisling Murphy, Niamh Moore; Chloe Foxe (0-2 frees), Maria Byrne (1-0), Fiona Rochford (0-5 frees). Subs. - Katie White for Foxe, inj. (11), Ellen O'Brien (0-1) for Moore (48), Ailis Neville for Butler (58), Tara Doyle for Kearney (60+2), also Sarah Donnellan, Sadbh McCarthy, Amy Wilson, Cailín Fitzpatrick, Ciara Bridges, Jane Rossiter, Ciara Banville.

Meath: Monica McGuirk; Katie Newe, Sarah Powderly, Orlaith Duff; Aoibhín Cleary, Shauna Ennis, Megan Thynne; Márie O'Shaughnessy (capt.), Kate Byrne; Orlagh Lally, Emma Duggan (1-5, 1-0 pen., 0-2 frees), Orla Byrne; Emma White, Kelsey Nesbitt (0-1), Vikki Wall (0-1). Subs. - Bridgetta Lynch (0-1) for White (18), Megan O'Brien for K. Byrne (39), Fiona O'Neill for O. Byrne (48).

Referee: Kevin Phelan (Laois).

Wexford People

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