Wexford finally break free of Kilkenny to land Leinster crown
Leinster Senior Hurling Championship final: Kilkenny 0-23 Wexford 1-23
THERE was a child-like innocence about Davy Fitzgerald when he entered the press-room underneath the Hogan stand yesterday evening.
Roughly 45 minutes earlier, the Wexford hurlers finally broke free of Kilkenny’s shackles to land their first Leinster title since 2004, their 21st overall.
In a gripping encounter, Mark Fanning’s 64th minute penalty saw the Yellow Bellies break for home at a sun-kissed Croke Park.
When man-of-the-match Rory O’Connor made the run of his life, only to be crudely hauled to the ground by Kilkenny’s Enda Morrissey, the Wexford goalkeeper strode forward to hammer the sloithar into the bottom corner of the net.
Fanning’s major only put Davy Fitz’s men two points up (1-21 to 0-22) – but it was a score that Kilkenny couldn’t recover from.
In the closing stages, Wexford held firm against Kilkenny's aerial assault that they hoped would yield an equalising goal but it never came.
Afterwards, Fitzgerald couldn’t stop smiling.
The real Leinster final of 2019. pic.twitter.com/EVUR5lnaJe— Brendan Crossan (@CrossanBrendan) June 30, 2019
“I remember,” he said, “when I was going to Wexford a lot of people told me: ‘Don’t bother going because they’re not going to do anything.’
“[But] There is nothing that can’t be achieved in life, or nothing that can’t be done – and I’m one of them people.
“If you come down to our training you’d know what it’s like.
“The players arrive an hour beforehand, they’ll be belting out tunes, we sit down and we’d chat for a while. I want it to be an environment they want to come to. I want them to enjoy what they do and they have worked tirelessly to get here.
“People might say: ‘It’s a Leinster Championship’ – but a Leinster Championship means so much to this bunch and so much to the Wexford people. I’m delighted, absolutely delighted for them.
Wexford end 15 year wait for Leinster. pic.twitter.com/XsFAkVpH9v— Brendan Crossan (@CrossanBrendan) June 30, 2019
“It feels exactly the same for me as it felt every time we achieved something whether it was winning as a player or a manager with Clare or winning with Waterford. I’m so happy to see them boys so happy.”
After chiselling out a draw with Kilkenny in the Leinster round robin series a fortnight – which was enough to see the pair reach yesterday’s provincial decider – it was generally felt Wexford had reached their ceiling.
Kilkenny had the more fluid style.
The wide, open spaces of Croke Park would suit them better.
Wexford’s sweeper system would come up short.
TJ Reid was placed under house arrest by Matthew O’Hanlon in Wexford Park 15 days ago.
Surely, the Ballyhale Shamrocks man wouldn’t be as quiet again.
By the end of play, Brian Cody would be celebrating his 16th Leinster crown as Kilkenny manager, and Wexford would be cast as the nearly men again.
Yesterday, TJ Reid wasn't as subdued. The 31-year-old edged his engrossing duel with Wexford’s joint captain – but fellow attackers Adrian Mullen and Colin Fennelly weren’t as effective as they were in Wexford Park.
At the other end of the field, Rory O’Connor, Conor McDonald and Lee Chin excelled and shared 17 points between them.
The likes of Chin, McDonald, Liam Ryan, Cathal Dunbar, Jack O’Connor, Paudie Foley and Kevin Foley enjoyed Leinster U21 success over Kilkenny in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – but senior level was deemed Kilkenny’s domain.
However, Rory O’Connor’s devastating run that split open the Kilkenny defence and Fanning’s resultant penalty conversion changed the course of history between these two old rivals.
With Wexford reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals as provincial champions, Fitzgerald’s much-maligned sweeper system appeared vindicated.
“I can tell you 100 per cent,” insisted the Clare native, “the sweeper system is not a negative system. It just needs to shown the way it operates. It is good for hurling. Look at the short, look at the long, look at the crossfield, look at the catches. You tell me that every element isn’t in our game. It’s there, I promise you, it is there.
“I don’t really care any more what people think and I’m sure the lads don’t care either but it isn’t bad to watch.”
Up until Fanning’s late penalty, this was your classic nip-and-tuck clash. When Kilkenny got a score, Wexford went straight down the field and got one themselves, and vice versa.
For 63 pulsating minutes, there was never more than two points between the sides.
Chin fires over 65 for Wexford. They lead by 2. The noise... pic.twitter.com/6towA574Hg— Brendan Crossan (@CrossanBrendan) June 30, 2019
In the early stages Conor McDonald hit two beauties and had a fantastic battle with Kilkenny’s Huw Lawlor throughout. Lee Chin was dead-eyed from placed balls and always productive from open play, while Rory O’Connor escaped the attentions of Enda Morrissey to split Kilkenny’s posts four times in the first half.
TJ Reid and Lee Chin grabbed two points each from placed balls at the start of the second half while Fennelly went closest to raising a green flag for Kilkenny, but his angled drive was bravely saved by Fanning in the 42nd minute.
Reid missed the resultant ’65 but was flawless thereafter.
And just when this final had a draw written all over it, Wexford were awarded the decisive penalty, much to the delight of their supporters among the enthralled 51,842 crowd.
“That was a very tactical game today, you would not believe what was going on out there,” said Fitzgerald.
“It was absolutely off the charts some of the things… I think we changed formation five times during the game.
“We went a point down at times but we didn’t buckle. You look at that game – we were getting stronger the longer that game went on.”
Afterwards, Brian Cody didn’t want to make a big deal of how Wexford full-back Liam Ryan went about marking Colin Fennelly on the edge of the square and was already looking ahead to an All-Ireland quarter-final against the winners of Cork and Westmeath.
“Certainly Colin would feel when he was in there it was very obvious that he was finding it difficult to get away, but look, I don’t want to start focusing on the referee. We’ll just carry on and get ready for the quarter-finals. We’d obviously love to have won a Leinster title but we leave today in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and that’s the most important thing, really.”
But the day belonged to Davy Fitz and the hurlers of Wexford – a match made in heaven, it seems.
“We were kind of a good fit,” he said with a smile. “They’re half mad and I’m half mad!”
Kilkenny: E Murphy (0-1 free); P Murphy, H Lawlor, J Holden; P Deegan, P Walsh, E Morrissey; J Maher (0-1), C Fogarty; R Leahy, W Walsh (0-2), TJ Reid (0-12, 0-5 frees, 0-3 ’65s); A Murphy (0-1), C Fennelly (0-2), A Mullen (0-3) Subs: G Aylward (0-1) for A Murphy (43), B Ryan for W Walsh (56), R Hogan for C Fennelly (73)
Blood substitution: G Aylward for A Mullen (40-41)
Yellow cards: E Morrissey (64)
Wexford: M Fanning (1-0); S Reck, L Ryan, S Donohoe (0-1); P Foley, M O’Hanlon, S Murphy; K Foley, D O’Keefe (0-2); L Og McGovern (0-1), L Chin (0-9, 0-7 frees, 0-65s), C McDonald (0-4); J O’Connor (0-1), R O’Connor (0-4), P Morris (0-1) Subs: C Firman for S Reck (49), C Dunbar for P Morris (50), D Dunne for L Og McGovern (66), H Kehoe for C McDonald (72)
Blood substitution: C Firman for S Murphy (15-16)
Yellow cards: S Reck (27)
Referee: C Mooney (Dublin)