Wednesday 18 September 2019

Wexford so close to glory

A NEW chapter has been written in Wexford sport that will live long in the memories of the massive support that was lucky enough to witness it.

Like the proverb of old, 'a rising tide lifts all boats', Wexford & District Schoolboy League stepped out of the shadow of the nearly men into the spotlight of centre stage. And without fear or hesitation they represented their county bestowing honour and credibility that has been in short supply in recent years. They have now raised the level of expectation, raising a new standard and instead of just competing in these competitions Wexford now want to win them.

On Sunday, June 10, a squad of young boys draped in the purple and gold of Wexford travelled west to compete in the single biggest tournament in Europe for their age group. What happened next will belong in the annals of history forever and a day.

A young Wexford team prepared by William Doyle (manager), Robbie Moore (assistant manager), Tom Elmes (head coach), Eamonn Doyle (goalkeeping coach), David Blake (physio), Nick Cosgrave (parent liaison and coach), Dylan Mernagh (strength and conditioning coach), Ashley Haughton (kitman), Hugh Larkin (chief scout), Darragh Culleton (videographer), Ger Feeney (league representative and inspirational speaker) and John Michael Porter (coaching advisor) began a voyage of discovery that saw each and every one of them travel from boys to exceptional young men.

Having prepared studiously for the last three years, finally their chance came to follow in the shoes of Irish greats such as Roy Keane, John O'Shea, Damien Duff, Shane Long, Noel Hunt and Wexford's own Kevin Doyle, all of whom have competed in the Kennedy Cup over its 37-year history.

Unlike the above named players who failed to warm the hearts of this nation during the ongoing European championships, the Wexford team were never expected to amount to much but soon began to tweak the imagination of a growing following. It was not long before they were snowed under with genuine support and encouragement.

Suddenly this small corner of this great country was capturing hearts and imagination all over and family and friends were travelling, phoning and messaging at a phenomenal rate. Ironically enough these young men had done for Wexford what their highly-paid counterparts failed to do in an Irish shirt.

The 1-1 against lesser-fancied Clare who went on to the quarter-final of the Bowl left everybody wondering if it was going to be another one of those competitions, despite Wexford doing everything but scoring a winning goal to go with Eoin Porter's penalty for the opener of the tournament. As it turned out the other game in the group was also a draw which left it all to play for.

The second game was a 2-0 victory over Inishowen after a masterly performance, with goals from Connal Flood and a Mikey Quigley penalty. Clare created another shock and beat Roscommon by a goal which left Wexford on top by a goal, and the group so finely balanced that anyone could still win it.

Wexford had to win their match by the same amount or more than Clare to win the group, but then the weather intervened and the Tuesday evening games were postponed. Then they were on again and Wexford were getting messages that Roscommon were at the pitch waiting for them. It all got very messy until clarification came in that the final Tuesday game at 7 p.m. had been re-scheduled for Wednesday at 10.30 a.m.

Clare won 1-0 which meant the Roscommon result was the all-important one. Wexford were calmness personified and with goals from Neil Murphy and Thomas O'Connor they topped the group, progressing to the Cup quarter-final and equalling the best-ever result a Wexford team had in the Kennedy Cup.

It was not long before the permutations were calculated and the quarter-final was fixed between Wexford and Kilkenny who had pipped Wexford to the post for the regional winners of the Cashin Cup on goal difference two years earlier. This was always going to be a tough encounter with Kilkenny being a big and very physical side.

And so it began, their chance to make history and proceed further than any other Wexford team before them. It was a tense match with hard tackling and many individual battles being fought all over the pitch but Wexford never wavered - they had played Kilkenny at their own game and stood strong.

The second-half began with the introduction of Connal Flood which paid immediate dividends as he scored almost straight away. Seán Duffy then added a rare headed goal to make it 2-0 and Connal Flood was taken down in the box for a penalty which was calmly dispatched by Eoin Doyle to make it 3-0.

Goalkeeper Corey Chambers was adjudged to have carried the ball outside the box and a free was awarded to Kilkenny in the dying minutes which was skilfully converted to make it 3-1. Kilkenny had failed to intimidate Wexford and very quickly realised that they had no answer to the high tempo passing game Wexford unleashed on them in the second-half.

It began to get surreal. Was this really happening - were Wexford in the semi-final? Cork was to be Wexford's next opponents having scored 18 goals en route to the semis and only conceding one. Cork had already beaten Wicklow 9-1, and had been considered to be one of the favourites to win the competition.

Injuries were beginning to take their the toll on Wexford with Ronan Deverux (achilles), Conor Levingston (clavicle), Martin O'Connor (quadriceps) and Neil Murphy (foot blisters) suffering. Physio David Blake worked tirelessly to ensure the team was fit and ready to face Cork. Sadly it proved a bridge too far for Ronan and although Conor played, he was still carrying the injury.

Cork started the stronger and their pace and strength proved to be a big concern, but it was not long before Mark Rossitter and David Curley closed shop. With Seán Duffy and Luke Sinnott guarding the flanks and defending resolutely, Cork were fast running out of ideas.

Wexford grew stronger as the game went on and with Mikey Quigley and Martin O'Connor taking total control of the midfield area and Conor Levingston and Paul Carton on the wings showing why they were in the semis. Connal Flood and Stephen Hempenstall up front began leading Cork on a merry dance.

Cork were struggling to contain Wexford and conceded a free on the edge of the 18-yard area. Stephen Hempenstall demanded his chance, having lost out on penalty opportunities previously. Stephen stepped forward and drilled the ball around the wall and mercilessly past the k'eeper. The deadlock was broken and Wexford seemed comfortable in their containment of Cork.

The match was heading into the final whistle as the referee inexplicably awarded a penalty for what seemed to be an innocuous block by Mark Rossiter going to ground, but the referee declared it to be a handball. Circumstances went from bad to worse as the referee booked Luke Sinnott which made him ineligible for the final.

Was it going to come down to a penalty shootout? Was it going to be so close but yet so far away? Cork took the penalty, well struck and placed wide of the 'keeper's left. It looked to be sailing straight into the goal for sure but nobody told Adam Dunbar. Apparently he hadn't read the script and diving as far as his legs would push him, he got his right hand behind the ball, pushing it wide of the post. He had already decided Wexford were playing in the final. A whistle blew and the game was over. Wexford had done it, against all the odds they were in the final.

Blakey went into overdrive performing minor miracles in every direction. There were people having massages, ice wraps, strapping and treatment for all kinds of niggling injuries. Coaches wandering from room to room assessed the strength of the team, finding out which players had one last hurrah in them. As the extent of the injuries became apparent it was fast becoming a David and Goliath battle and, having lost Luke Sinnott through suspension, it did seem the gods had deserted them.

The final meant a meeting with the Dublin District Schoolboy League who had won the final 26 out of the 36 times it has been held. Dublin had an impressive squad. Big, strong and fast, they had scored 22 goals and only conceded one - nothing to worry about then!

Wexford carried the same injury worries into the final, and for the first time in the competition football might not be enough to win the day. The final was a difficult affair with a strong breeze and rain not really conducive to ideal football conditions for either team. It became a battle of wills with both teams trying desperately hard to keep scoring opportunities to a minimum.

Both presented formidable obstacles to each other with neither team looking likely to concede an opening goal. Again as in the semi there were personal battles being fought all over the pitch which broke the game into a collection of interesting cameos.

In truth the DDSL were probably stronger but found Wexford in resilient form and prepared to fight to the last. But then by a cruel twist of fate as the game passed from full time into injury time a free kick swung in from the left side and missed its intended targets but was followed into the box by Brandon Payne. He struck from eight yards to score the only goal Adam Dunbar conceded all competition.

There was little more than time to re-start the game and then it blew - that dreaded final whistle, the odyssey was over. Within touching distance of the cup only to be beaten in injury time. The disappointment was palpable but manfully they fought right to the end.

While they failed to lift the cup they did do a lot more in lifting the spirits of every spectator both at home and those lucky enough to witness it.