WEXFORD COULDN'T have won the game in a better way. A last-gasp goal at the end of extra-time handed them a stunning three-point victory over Kilkenny after an enthralling Bord Gais Energy Leinster Under-21 hurling championship final played at sun-drenched Wexford Park on Wednesday evening last.
The manner of victory is quite remarkable. It took a Jack Guiney pointed free one minute into additional time to force extra-time, while as the clock ticked down they still trailed by one point one minute from the end of extra-time. Once againa Guiney 79th-minute pointed free brought the sides level, but it was by no means over in what was now an electric atmosphere.
Then in what was a remarkable final minute, the home crowd was brought to its feet. Ian Byrne and Conor McDonald linked up down the left sideline on the road side, before McDonald's low cross picked out substitute Niall Murphy to the right side of goal. The Crossabeg-Ballymurn attacker got in his shot across the face of the goal, with the ball being spilled over the line by 'keeper, Aaron Duggan.
With the packed goal area leaving the crowd waiting in anticipation as to the outcome, the ground erupted when the umpire stooped for the green flag, signalling the most crucial score of the game as it was to prove an eventual match-winner, although the home side still had some defending to look after. Both Lee Chin and Shane O'Gorman plucked a couple of high deliveries into the visitors' attack out of the air to clear their lines. This was tense stuff and on the final whistle of Pat Murphy the pitch was invaded by delighted Model county supporters.
There was always the possibility that this game would go to a replay. But this Wexford side showed character and passion to meet the challenge laid down by the reigning champions. Matching their opponents for quality hurling, they hauled themselves back from the dead on two separate occasions, first to force extra-time, going on to snatch a dramatic late winning goal.
Wexford were always capable of this display once they brought the passion of Model county hurling back. It was a remarkable performance over the 80 minutes reminiscent of days of old. Certainly on the evidence of this campaign to date Wexford hurling is marching in the right direction.
Wexford will take much more out of this game than the win over Kilkenny. Wexford have always been capable of once-off displays, but this Under-21 victory comes on the back of the Minors' victory over their arch-rivals, although they subsequently were to slip up against Laois, with the black and amber bouncing back to lift the provincial title. Wexford now have brought plenty to the under-age table, defeating a side that has dogged them for so long. The test will stand them in great stead as they now move on to an All-Ireland semi-final against the Ulster winners.
From the outset Wexford reached highs that they had not achieved in earlier games as they set about matching the skills and power play of their opponents. Within 60 seconds of the start Rhys Clarke got a brief sight of goal but was denied by the covering defence, while 30 seconds later John Power opened the scoring with a Kilkenny pointed free.
Wexford were laying down an early challenge, forcing an inspirational levelling point one minute later. The ball broke out under the stand close to the sideline, but a delightful pick and strike from Minor star, Conor McDonald, in his first game at this level yielded a magnificent levelling point which really got the home support behind the side. Three minutes later Ian Byrne followed with a 63-metre free out close to the sideline to edge his side into a 0-2 to 0-1 lead.
With Byrne directing play from centre-forward, before moving out to left half-forward in a direct swap with Jack Guiney, Wexford through points from Byrne, this time a superb effort from way out on the sideline, Rhys Clarke and Conor McDonald led by 0-4 to 0-1 after eight minutes. As expected Kilkenny struck back with three John Power pointed frees to level the sides (0-4 each) after eleven minutes.
Lee Chin with a great effort from midfield and Ger Aylward exchanged points, but Kilkenny through points from Power, Richie Reid, Aylward and Kevin Kelly moved into a 0-9 to 0-7 lead just 22 minutes into the game, as two Guiney pointed frees kept the home side in touch.
The sides continued to trade points through Ian Byrne and Power, both frees, while a Guiney pointed free left the minimum (0-10 to 0-9) separating them three minutes before the break. Kilkenny finished the half with a flourish as Power (free) and Kevin Kelly stretched their side into a 0-12 to 0-9 interval lead.
During the opening second-half exchanges Wexford came under intense pressure but 'keeper Brian Murphy showed real coolness, first in dealing with a dangerous high ball under the crossbar, and then saving from Aylward. Having lifted the siege, a Rhys Clarke point followed by a Barry Carton effort reduced the lead to the minimum (0-12 to 0-11) after 36 minutes and this lifted the home support who now got right behind their side.
Kilkenny got their first score of the second-half, a Richie Reid 38th-minute point, while five minutes later a John Power free stretched his side into a 0-14 to 0-11 lead. But Wexford were not for buckling as they bounced right back with a passage of excellent hurling bringing points from Guiney (free) and Ian Byrne with a superb effort from play, while ten minutes from the end he struck over a '65 to level the sides at 0-14 each.
The visitors edged two clear once again through Kevin Kelly and Richie Reid. As the intensity of the game reached fever pitch, Jack Guiney held his nerve for a pointed free, while five minutes from the end of normal time, Gary Moore struck over a superb sideline cut to tie the sides at 0-16 each.
Both sides were unleashing every effort in search of crucial scores. Power pointed a Kilkenny free three minutes from the end, and with the game having moved one minute into additional time Guiney sent over the leveller from a free (0-17 each) to force extra-time.
Guiney and Kelly exchanged early pointed frees, while the Rathnure attacker added a further pointed free after Barry Carton had been fouled. Approaching the break of the first extra-time period, Ian Byrne sent over a magnificent 64-metre points off a free out on the sideline, leaving Wexford leading by 0-20 to 0-18.
Kilkenny were quick out of the blocks for the second period as Kelly struck three pointed frees inside five minutes. They were still clinging to a 0-21 to 0-20 lead when Wexford, having forced a free, saw Jack Guiney level the sides.
Then came that dramatic Niall Murphy goal in the closing seconds of extra-time that led to Wexford Park erupting for the final minute.
From Brian Murphy, who was confidence personified in goal, right through the entire side, this was a magnificent team effort. The half-back line of Andrew Kenny, Shane O'Gorman and Dermot O'Leary was superb all through, while the full-backs showed their qualities especially through the opening minutes of the second period when they were subjected to intense pressure, but Garret Foley, with a terrier-like display, Conor Goff, who tamed Senior player Ger Aylward, and Eoin Conroy proved a rock-solid wall in front of goal.
Lee Chin was inspired in midfield, capping a wonderful display as he plucked crucial high balls out of the air in the closing tense minutes of extra-time, while substitute Seán Kenny got through a mountain of work.
Not for the first time Ian Byrne was a real leader in attack. Starting at centre-forward and moving to the wing, his ability to win and control possession was instrumental in so many scores. He received superb support play from Jack Guiney and Gary Moore in the half line of attack.
Minor star Conor McDonald had a dream debut at right full-forward, picking off two excellent points, while Barry Carton and Rhys Clarke gave their opposite numbers a torrid testing. Substitute Niall Murphy harried and won crucial ball but he will be remembered for that dramatic late goal.
Wexford: Brian Murphy; Garret Foley, Conor Goff, Eoin Conroy; Andrew Kenny, Shane O'Gorman, Dermot O'Leary; Lee Chin (capt., 0-1), Jack Hobbs; Jack Guiney (0-9 frees), Ian Byrne (0-5, 2 frees, 1 '65), Gary Moore (0-1 line ball); Conor McDonald (0-2), Barry Carton (0-1), Rhys Clarke (0-2). Subs. - Dean Wright for Hobbs (27), Niall Murphy (1-0) for Wright (47), Conor O'Leary for Carton (76).
Kilkenny: Aaron Duggan; Pat O'Carroll, Willie Phelan, Brian Kennedy (capt.); Pádraig Walsh, Luke Harney, Owen McGrath; Jack Langton, Ollie Walsh; John Power (0-9 frees), Richie Reid (0-2), Kevin Kelly (0-8, 4 frees); Conor Martin, Ger Aylward (0-2), Michael Brennan. Subs. - David Bourke for Brennan (HT), Cillian Buckley for Langton (46), Shane Donnelly for Martin (48), Ciarán Prendergast for Bourke (66).
Referee: Pat Murphy (Carlow).