Hannon proves cut above
LIMERICK 1-22 WEXFORD 2-13
WHAT A difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, Limerick hurling fans were cleaved down the middle in a sporting feud so bitter that many feared it would take decades to recover.
Now the entire county is behind them again, cramming into the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday night to roar on their every move as they successfully negotiated the first shallows of the qualifiers.
Limerick didn't play particularly well in a nervy, error-strewn display that will have to improve greatly if they're to stay involved, yet nothing but adulation poured their way and every player called ashore received a rousing ovation.
Manager Donal O'Grady was mobbed afterwards too and, as hurling deities go, Limerick could hardly wish for a better messiah right now.
Their young side -- led brilliantly by teen star Declan Hannon, who whipped over a sublime sideline-cut -- had a two-point lead at half-time (0-11 to 1-6) but had already dominated possession, shot seven wides, wasted two goal chances and let Wexford's Eoin Quigley in for one against the run of play.
Many a manager would have been reaching for the foghorn and the bullwhip, but not the experienced Corkman, whose coaching and tactical nous, and Zen-like personality, is such a perfect fit for this emerging side.
There was no fire and brimstone, O'Grady confirmed. "We just asked the players to keep playing the game they were playing all year," he said.
"The qualifiers are a different animal. We were playing at home, in front of a big Limerick support, and I was thankful for that because they really got behind the team.
"But when you have that pressure, and maybe the pressure of the notion that we left the last game behind us, players never play as fluently as you'd like."
He was spot on, just as he's been proven right in giving young Hannon his chance this year. The rangey Adare man was blooded in the NHL but missed the Waterford game because he was sitting his Leaving Cert. He aced this latest test, top-scoring on his championship debut with 0-9.
High expectations already follow full-forward Kevin Downes, a 2010 Ardscoil Ris graduate, but this time it was Graeme Mulcahy who provided the vital goal. Mulcahy typified Limerick's first-half problems; a forward blessed with feet of fire who was over-concentrating on Limerick's possession game, a tactic that was backfiring because of nerves.
But 18 seconds after the restart, when Darren Stamp fumbled a clearance, Mulcahy pounced and the net shook.
He immediately added a point as Limerick racked up 1-3 in four minutes and got another five minutes later, finally unleashing his trademark pace to great effect.
And yet, as Colm Bonnar -- who stepped down as Wexford manager immediately afterwards -- noted, they were still clinging on when the game's biggest turning point came.
They trailed by six when corner-back Paul Roche launched a long ball into Rory Jacob, who bore down on goal only to be foiled by a combination of Nicky Quaid and Tom Condon.
From the counter-attack Hannon scored a free and what might have been a three-point margin was extended to seven -- game over.
Wexford already trailed by eight when Roche was sent off on a straight red for an off-the-ball incident with Mulcahy and only a late consolation goal by Jacob took the bare look off it.
"I knew this would be the last game with us," a crestfallen Bonnar said at the end of his three-year stint.
"It's disappointing to finish on that note. We're just not taking our goal chances, but we learned so much more this year in Division 1 and Wexford are still in Division 1, they've something to build on for next year."
Wexford got just five frees in the entire 77 minutes, a remarkable statistic. But they created many of their own problems, letting Brian Geary operate as a free-standing sweeper for too long and not taking Lar Prendergast off Hannon quickly enough.
Matthew O'Hanlon did well on Downes after looking in trouble early on, but up front Quigley almost single-handedly kept Wexford in it.
Limerick's full-back line did particularly well with Condon, before his injury, keeping Jacob largely anonymous.
Donal 'Dodge' O'Grady and Niall Moran (Hannon and Downes' ex-teacher) started particularly well -- the latter scoring a quick 0-3 off Mick Jacob -- and when they fizzled out, Mulcahy and Hannon picked up the slack.
Scorers -- Limerick: D Hannon 0-9 (5f, 1 s-l), G Mulcahy 1-4, N Moran 0-3, D O'Grady 0-2, S Tobin, K Downes, M O'Riordan, T O'Brien 0-1 each. Wexford: R Jacob, E Quigley 1-2 (1 s-l) each, G Sinnott 0-3, PJ Nolan 0-2, D Redmond, K Rossiter, H Kehoe, E Martin 0-1 each.
Limerick -- N Quaid 7; D Moloney 7, S Hickey 8, T Condon 8; W McNamara 7, B Geary 7, G O'Mahoney 6; D O'Grady 7, P Browne 5; N Moran 8, J Ryan 7, D Hannon 9; G Mulcahy 9, K Downes 7, S Tobin 6. Subs: M O'Riordan 8 for Browne, (44), S Walsh 6 for Condon (50), T O'Brien 8 for Tobin (57), D Ryan for Mulcahy (65), D Breen for Geary (69).
Wexford -- N Breen 7; P Roche 7, M O'Hanlon 7, K Rossiter 7; M Jacob 5, D Stamp 6, L Prendergast 5, H Kehoe 7, M Travers 5; PJ Nolan 7, E Quigley 8, S Banville 5; R Jacob 6, G Sinnott 7, J Berry 5. Subs: C Farrell 7 for Travers (47), D Redmond 8 for Quigley (55), B Doyle 6 for Berry (58), E Martin for Kehoe (70).
Ref -- M Wadding (Waterford).