Focus, perseverance and economy get Wexford to the Promised Land
Mark Fanning’s late penalty crucial in a first Leinster title win in 15 years for Wexford
Wexford’s Mark Fanning celebrates scoring a penalty. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Wexford 1-23 Kilkenny 0-23
After an exhausting afternoon, sticking with the irrepressible TJ Reid, Wexford joint-captain Matthew O’Hanlon sought momentary refuge in under-statement. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a while,” he said from the Hogan Stand to a delirious response from the county’s long-suffering but at last ecstatic following in the big crowd at Croke Park.
For the first time in 15 years the Bob O’Keeffe Cup was bedecked in purple-and-gold ribbons at the presentation after Wexford, having hurled with the usual passion but also focus and nerve, had stayed with Kilkenny when looking at times slightly out-gunned in the flashes of menace from Reid, Colin Fennelly and Adrian Mullen, but ultimately taking their scores and showing more composure in the finale than their old rivals.
In terms of clinical conversion, the familiar stereotypes were also tuned on their head. Wexford shot just three wides whereas the favourites hit 12. Lee Chin, the other joint-captain, was ice-cool on the frees and even took over the inter-continental range stuff, normally the preserve of Paudie Foley.
In the 52nd minute with Kilkenny ahead by a point, 0-19 to 0-18, Wexford won a free around 100 metres out. Chin looked to the line and manager Davy Fitzgerald appeared to give the go-ahead.
The centre forward, who had an indefatigable match popping up in defence as well as attack – in the 20th minute, allaying doubts about a groin injury with a driving run from his own end-line to set up Simon Donohoe for a point – put the free over with a fair bit to spare.
Even TJ Reid, more menacing than in the dress rehearsal in Wexford two weeks previously, put one of his dead-ball efforts wide. Chin’s only lapse was to drop marginally short another long-distance free.
Tactically, Fitzgerald had the better of the contest. His team’s usual set-up, with Kevin Foley taking the sweeper role, did a good job of frustrating Kilkenny even though the defence creaked at times. For example Colin Fennelly, who had had an early penalty claim waived on, did an extraordinary job in the 42nd minute of shouldering Liam Ryan out of the way and then dispossessing Foley only for Mark Fanning to save.
Adrian Mullen helped himself to another tidy total of three points and got a nasty belt from the upswing of Kevin Foley’s hurl in the 40th minute but was alright to continue after a brief blood substitution but overall Kilkenny couldn’t get sufficient traction to exert decisive pressure.
It was a breath-taking contest, swinging one way and then another on narrow margins. In the first-half, 29 scores were almost evenly divided for Kilkenny to lead 0-15 to 0-14 at the break. Between the 38th and 64th minutes the teams were level on five occasions and the lead changed six times.
Then came the watershed moment. Reid had just pushed Kilkenny ahead by 0-22 to 0-21. With the final minutes ticking away, even one-point leads were becoming valuable possessions but a goal would be priceless. Wexford had tried to unleash runners in behind the defence but Kilkenny’s backs had remained firm, forcing them out.
On the restart after Reid’s point, Rory O’Connor caught the ball and went. This time space appeared and even though fouled, he staggered on, regained his balance and went again. This time the foul was more final, bring him down in the square. Enda Morrissey was shown a yellow card and more crucially Wexford were given a penalty.
Fitzgerald will have recognised the long run there and back for his goalkeeper Mark Fanning – the same trek he had made in Thurles in Clare’s historic Munster final win 24 years ago – to take the penalty. Fanning emulated his manager and stuck the ball in the net, low and hard and to the right of Eoin Murphy: Wexford by two with six minutes of normal time left.
What followed was nearly as influential. O’Hanlon soared to take the puck-out from over Reid and in a flash, Liam Óg McGovern had steered over another score, 1-22 to 0-22 – the first time in the entire match that anyone had led by three.
Kilkenny went looking for goal. Replacement Ger Aylward had an attempt bustled out for a 65, which Reid converted but Wexford replied when one of their replacements Cathal Dunbar fired a bit optimistically only for the ball, which was dropping wide to go out off a defender under pressure from the excellent Conor McDonald. Chin nailed the 65.
It was surprising to see the frantic nature of the Kilkenny reaction in the last few minutes. Under Brian Cody’s management they have always displayed an almost unnerving sang-froid no matter how hopeless the situation. Most would have felt that a three-point deficit with seven minutes to go, including injury-time, was far from hopeless but they began to get green-flag fever.
Cody loyally absolved them but instead of taking points they went after goals, dropping frees and 65s short and in play, Conor Fogarty – who had been fouled along the way – instead of shooting for a score, attempted an overly-ambitious ball across the square which was gobbled up by the Wexford defence.
The last chance fell to Paddy Deegan, who hit the ball wide having presumably intended to drop it short. He held his head in his hands but it wasn’t his fault, simply symptomatic of a great day for Wexford when their collective will and execution were for the first time in 22 years too good for Kilkenny in a Leinster final.
It promises to be a wild old month in the south-east before the All-Ireland semi-finals. Kilkenny advance to an All-Ireland quarter-final against either Cork or Westmeath.
WEXFORD: 1. M Fanning (1-0, penalty); 7. S Murphy, 3. L Ryan, 4. S Donohoe (0-1); 6. M O’Hanlon (joint-capt.), 5. P Foley, 17. S Reck; 8. K Foley, 9. D O’Keeffe (0-2); 10. L McGovern (0-1), 11. L Chin (joint-capt; 0-9, seven frees, one 65), 12. C McDonald (0-4); 22. J O’Connor (0-1), 14. R O’Connor (0-4), 15. P Morris (0-1).
Subs: 18. Conor Firman for Reck (49 mins), 13. C Dunbar for Morris (59 mins), 20. D Dunne for McGovern (66 mins), 24. H Kehoe for McDonald (72 mins).
KILKENNY: 1. E Murphy (0-1, free); 2. P Murphy, 3. H Lawlor, J Holden; 6. P Walsh, 5. P Deegan, 7. E Morrissey; 25. J Maher (0-1), 9. C Fogarty; 10, R Leahy, 11. W Walsh (0-2), 31. TJ Reid (0-12, five frees, three 65s); 20. A Murphy (0-1), 14. C Fennelly (0-2), 15. A Mullen (0-3). Subs: 23. G Aylward (0-1) for A Murphy (43 mins), 13. B Ryan for Walsh (57 mins), 21. R Hogan for Fennelly (72 mins),
Referee: J Keenan (Wicklow).