Fitzgerald left purring after Clare 'dog it out'
Clare 0-18 Wexford 1-11
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
A sweetheart finish from Clare on a day when the music of their hurling was never quite lucid or coherent enough to jet clear of a Wexford team, palpably, feeling the weight of the stars overhead.
Contentment of a kind in both camps then. For Wexford, this second defeat was a setback morally balanced by the evidence of a warrior pulse back beating through their hurling. They were never behind between the 30th and 64th minutes, but leaked five unanswered points in the closing flurries to a team just about holding true to their management's avowal of patience.
At times, Clare's coveting of possession drew them down cul-de-sacs and the stand in Wexford Park tingled with frustration at the bunching that would follow.
But Wexford were more than happy seeing the sliotar go to ground, armed as they were with the hunger of men broadly derided for their non-performance in Limerick one week earlier.
It made for a claustrophobic kind of contest, Clare having to chase and grind and, ultimately, battle their way to a victory that left Davy Fitzgerald smiling.
"It was great to fight out a result like that because we were finding it hard and they were dogging it out," reflected the Clare manager.
"But we didn't panic. We've six competitive games played this year and we're six from six, so we're happy. It's important for us to get the Ws, but it's even more important to get them like that today, when things were looking dodgy at times.
"The players believed in themselves and backed themselves. That's a good sign for us. Because any team that comes down here, when Wexford battle like they did in the second half, is going to find it tough."
There was little enough between the teams on the day then, yet a sense of two groups looking at one another from opposite rims of the galaxy.
Clare radiate positivity right now whereas Wexford encountered a scolding from their local media after the 14-point loss to Limerick with expressions like "going through the motions" and "struggling to locate its backbone" among those deployed in anger.
Liam Dunne got the response he will have hoped for, his team snapping into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead with the aid of a strong wind inside ten minutes. It took Clare 20 minutes to get their first score from play, but three then came in quick succession from Conor McGrath (two) and John Conlon.
That meant they led 0-7 to 0-4 after 27 minutes with the wind to come, but points from Eoin Moore and David Dunne narrowed things again and Wexford then got a goal that nobody could have foreseen.
McGrath was penalised for over-carrying maybe 40 yards from the Wexford goal and, when Podge Doran went to ground in traffic under Harry Kehoe's long delivery, referee James McGrath instantly spread his arms wide. Clare captain Cian Dillon was booked for his role in the incident, a role which he subsequently insisted to his manager had been that of a relatively innocent bystander.
No matter, with a sprinted arrival that Davy Fitz himself would have appreciated, Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning buried the penalty to send his team to their half-time refreshments leading 1-6 to 0-7.
Given the strength of the wind, two points looked a paltry advantage. But Wexford resumed manfully, defending in packs and, wisely, carrying the ball forward now rather than tossing it to the elements. Cornerstone men were standing up to be counted too, with Liam Og McGovern a constant threat down the right flank and men like Matthew O'Hanlon, Paudie Foley and Andrew Shore giving them a steely spine.
Clare were struggling to get Shane O'Donnell into any kind of clearing away from his second-half jailer, Eoin Conroy. Yet, the Ennis man was almost in for a 59th minute goal, Liam Ryan's wonderful block averting the danger and Aaron Cunningham's follow-up being deflected out for '65'.
With Colin Ryan's free-taking supplemented by smart points from David Reidy and Bobby Duggan, Clare kept pressing however and, slowly, Wexford began to feel the breath of panic on their necks.
The teams were level with three minutes of normal time remaining when Eoin Moore hauled O'Donnell down and Ryan's free put Clare in front for the first time in an age. Another score quickly followed after Shore got caught in traffic, Paul Flanagan and Colin Ryan combining brilliantly for the latter's only point from play.
A fluffed Fanning clearance then gifted substitute Duggan his second point before Conor McGrath caught O'Hanlon in possession and Ryan's free completed the scoring.
Five points then in the last five minutes from Clare and the sense of a team, perhaps, setting up base-camp for a strong season.
Wexford's promotion hopes are gone now, but they will draw hope that a quarter-final berth might not be beyond them.
"We were looking for a big effort from the lads," reflected selector Ger Cushe. "We didn't turn up last week against Limerick, there was no two ways about it. Just didn't hurl. The lads knew that themselves. Probably at the end of it today, t'was our mistakes that let Clare through.
"But at least we were in the game with a couple of minutes to go, which we really wanted to be. Our aim at the beginning of the year was promotion, that's out the window. Now it's qualification for a quarter-final and that's no foregone conclusion."
Man of the Match: David Reidy
SCORERS - Clare: Colin Ryan 0-10 (0-8fs, 0-1 '65'), C McGrath, J Brown, B Duggan 0-2 each, D Reidy, J Conlon 0-1 each. Wexford: H Kehoe 0-6fs, M Fanning 1-0 (pen), D Dunne 0-2, A Shore, P Doran, E Moore 0-1 each.
CLARE - P Kelly 7; P Flanagan 7, C Dillon 7, P O'Connor 6; C Cleary 6, D McInerney 6, J Brown 7; Conor Ryan 7, D Reidy 8; J Conlon 7, Colin Ryan 8, G O'Connell 5; C McGrath 7, S O'Donnell 6, A Shanagher 5. Subs: B Duggan 7 for O'Connell (46), A Cunningham 7 for Shanagher (56).
WEXFORD - M Fanning 7; L Ryan 8, M O'Hanlon 7, J Breen 6; E Moore 7, P Foley 6, S Murphy 6; L Chin 6, A Kenny 7; A Shore 8, H Kehoe 7, A Nolan 6; D Dunne 7, L Og McGovern 7, P Doran 6. Subs: E Conroy 7 for Murphy (29), I Byrne 6 for Breen (42), C McDonald 6 for McGovern (58).
Ref - J McGrath (Westmeath).