Kilkenny manager Brian Cody has lot to think about after Sunday's defeat
.............and suddenly the Leinster hurling championship appears much more intriguing!
Love him or hate him, believe in him or not, but whatever, you cannot ignore Wexford manager, Davy Fitzgerald.
He has the uncanny ability to sprinkle magic dust wherever he goes.
He did it in Waterford. He did it when he returned to his native Clare. And now he is on the road to transforming the fortunes of Wexford hurling, it would appear.
Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, didn’t pretend afterwards on Sunday: “The better team won, no doubt about that.”
It may have taken a somewhat freakish goal from an almighty free by goalie Mark Fanning on his own ‘50’ - the distance would prompt the use of the word - in the 70th minute to finally decide this thunderous Allianz National Hurling League quarter-final at Nowlan Park, but there was nothing lucky about Wexford’s win.
Sure, Kilkenny were in the hunt up to the finish. Sure, they gave it their all.
But everything they mustered was bettered by the opposition, who posed questions the Cats never really found answers to when they played with a sweeper between their two lines in defence.
Wexford didn’t only play the unorthodox, a well-known Fitzgerald ploy, they played it to perfection and backed it up with a near fanatical application by the entire team.
This was championship intent from the Slaneysiders, and any team hoping to call their number in the ’League had better be prepared to travel the hard miles for the full 70 minutes of the contest.
Kilkenny never really found a solution to midfielder Shaun Murphy dropping back to augment the Wexford defence. They bombed high ball forward. They tried to attack the wings, but Wexford crowded them out at every turn.
It has to be pointed out that Wexford had an edge in fitness and intent, which they freely admit because of the challenges of the journey they need to travel, but their tactical plan was an absolute success too.
On top of Murphy cleaning up ball, the vast majority of the Wexford clearances from defence were cleverly angled deliveries across the field to men expecting post. Rarely did they opt for the straight up the wing or down the middle ball.
Wind assisted Kilkenny were chased and harried out of their stride from the off, and when the teams went to the dressing-rooms level at half-time - 1-7 (W) to 0-10 - the advantage was with the visitors.
Kilkenny were lucky to be in the position they were, because goalie Eoin Murphy had brought off two magnificent saves during that half to keep out bullets from the wonderful Conor McDonald (20 seconds) and David Redmond (23rd minute).
The gap between the teams during the second half varied from one to four points until Fanning’s goal finally buried the home side. Crucially, Kilkenny never led.
The winners failed to gain any reward from a 45th minute penalty - Fanning crashed his shot against goalie Eoin Murphy’s right upright - at a time they were showing 1-11 to 0-12 in front.
The penalty looked questionable, and especially so after David Dunne had been allowed an advantage to play on before putting his shot wide.
Questionable too was a non-decision in the first half when Colin Fennelly appeared to be body charged by the goalie when through on goal. A penalty looked on, but it wasn’t given.
We rarely make much comment on referees here - his decisions didn’t decide the match - but I couldn’t fathom some of the calls. Kilkenny earned virtually everything they got here!
When Wexford really needed to perform in the second half, they did.
McDonald was superb, as a creator and finisher. Shaun Murphy, Lee Chin, defensive hounds James Breen and Diarmuid O’Keeffe, who never gave their opponents an inch, Fanning, Aidan Nolan and space finder Paul Morris were all top class.
No one went back from anything, a point underlined by the incident involving Fennelly and goalie Fanning in the 36th minute. Ollie Walsh made the play that got Fennelly clean through on the country end goal.
The ’keeper charged out and straight into the attacker. Penalty! None was given.
The point, though, is that Fanning didn’t hold back. No one in the Wexford colours did. This was ‘produce or leave the stage’ stuff.
The fight and pride is back big time in Wexford hurling! And now they have a plan that appears tailor-made too!
The pitch was in top order, the sun kissed the grounds, and the place was packed. This was a good day for hurling, and the teams simply let rip.
Kilkenny registered three wides during the opening four minutes when they landed one point per Walter Walsh. Diarmuid O’Keeffe posted a reply to set the trend for a close first half during which the scores were level seven times.
From the off T.J. Reid was man marked, and it was amusing to see his shadow, James Breen follow him to the sideline in the 16th minute when Brian Cody wanted to whisper something in the ear of the Shamrocks man.
The first major strike arrived in the 30th minute when David Dunne, following a great run up the right wing by Aidan Nolan who received from his own goalie, crashed the ball to the Kilkenny net (1-6 to 0-6).
The Cats thundered back, shooting points through Liam Blanchfield, Cillian Buckley and T.J. Reid to level it again in the 33rd minute.
The Walsh/Fennelly/Fanning incident followed before Kilkenny won a free which T.J. Reid pointed. As play in the half drifted towards the 37th minute Conor McDonald, playing at full-forward, was fouled and he squared it again: 1-7 to 0-10.
What appeared a harsh call against Shane Prendergast early in the new half was made worse when the Clara man disputed it and the referee brought the ball forward. Conor McDonald picked off an easy point. Ollie Walsh replied.
McDonald punished a pick up by an under pressure defender moments later before Reid tipped over the equaliser. Another foul by an under pressure defender earned the now flying McDonald a third point of the half before Paul Morris landed a mighty one from his own 50 (1-11 to 0-12).
The Wexford missed penalty followed before Reid missed a testing free at the other end.
Wexford’s next point from McDonald, who controlled the ball wonderfully in the air, was a real beauty.
Kilkenny, with points from Reid following a foul on Liam Blanchfield, and Paddy Deegan brought the gap back to the minimum (1-12 to 0-14) in the 53rd minute, but slowly the visitors defence was strangling the opposition.
After goalie Fanning and T.J. Reid swopped scores from placed balls, McDonald, Fanning and Lee Chin rose flags for Wexford to take them 1-16 to 0-15 clear.
That was the first time in the half the gap was that big.
Wexford simply refused to surrender after that.
“Wexford are back,” screamed a thrilled, cap wearing man in front of the press box when the final whistle sounded.
“Now we are back, you are going to have to put up with us,” added a female friend, who spotted former GAA President Nickey Brennan in the press box and invited him to Wexford in June.
“I will be there,” Brennan assured.
As will we all; as will we all.
SCORERS: Wexford - Conor McDonald (0-8, four frees); Mark Fanning (1-2, frees); Paul Morris (0-3); Lee Chin (0-3, one free); David Dunne (1-0); Diarmuid O’Keeffe, David Redmond (0-1 each). Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (0-10, nine frees); Liam Blanchfield (0-3); Ollie Walsh (0-2); Paddy Deegan, Walter Walsh, Richie Hogan, Cillian Buckley (0-1 each).
Wexford - Mark Fanning; Willie Devereux, Liam Ryan, James Breen; Damien Reck, Matthew O’Hanlon, Diarmuid O’Keeffe; Aidan Nolan, Shaun Murphy; Conor McDonald, David Redmond, Jack O’Connor; Paul Morris, Lee Chin, David Dunne. Subs - Jack Guiney for D. Redmond 52nd min; Harry Kehoe for J. O’Connor 59th min; Barry Carton for P. Morris 69th min; Aaron Maddock for A. Nolan 71st min.
Kilkenny - Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, Padraig Walsh, Shane Prendergast; Lester Ryan, Jason Cleere, Paddy Deegan; Ollie Walsh, Cillian Buckley; Colin Fennelly, Walter Walsh, T.J. Reid; Liam Blanchfield, Richie Hogan, Conor Martin. Sub - Jonjo Farrell for L. Ryan 49th min.
Referee - A. Kelly (Galway).
Attendance - 14,568.