Hurlers turn on style to reach final
Derry 0-16 Wicklow 2-16
The Wicklow hurlers secured their place in the National Hurling League Division 2B final thanks to a terrific performance away to Derry and with a little help from neighbours Kildare who defeated Down in Newbridge at the same time.
Beating Derry in Derry is never an easy job and Saturday's six-point victory was anything but easy. Facing an unbeaten Derry side with all eyes on a clean sweep, Wicklow's performance would need to build on the improvements made to date and that they did with aplomb.
Fierce work rate was the name of the game at the Ballinacreen GAA grounds from the first whistle to the last. Wicklow's half-back line of Gary Byrne, Stephen Kelly and Warren Kavanagh were outstanding. Martin O'Brien at corner-back, John Henderson at midfield, Eoin McCormack, Enda Donohue, Christy Moorehouse, Andy O'Brien and Jonathan O'Neill all put in massive shifts over the course of this game.
One voice could be heard above all others on a pleasant day up north and that was belonging to full-back Billy Cuddihy; the Greystones man hurling like a young stag these days, chest out, head up, bellowing advice and encouragement to all around him.
To Billy's right is Kiltegan's Bryan Kearney, a young and very promising hurler. Lots of pressure descended on this man's young shoulders on Sunday and he wasn't found wanting in any way.
If you want someone who will work at the coal face and in many ways sacrifice his potential for the good of the team then you look to midfielder Jack Doyle. You won't see Doyle's name in lights this year and you might glance at the team list and see him being replaced after 45 or 50 minutes but there's good reason for that and that's the punishing role he's playing in the middle third, breaking ball, disrupting, battling for all he's worth.
In that regard, Doyle is joined by Michael Boland whose full potential we will see on the hard ground later in the year but who for now is chipping in with precious goals and points and contributing massively to the Wicklow cause.
The signs that Wicklow were looking too strong for John McEvoy's side were visible early on but you daren't even let such thoughts cross your mind with the likes of Niall Ferris, Meehaul McGrath, Thomas Brady and Richie Mullan loitering around the Wicklow defence. Any infringement within 50 yards of the Wicklow goal was punished ruthlessly by Mullan who finished with 11 points (nine frees). There was little room for complacency.
But Eamonn Scallan's men set about their mission to win this game and do all they could to progress to a league final with gusto and tenacity in the face of a fairly ferocious Derry side on the field and on the sideline.
Derry, too, started with plenty of bite and bravado, blocking and harassing where they could but Wicklow looked well up for the fight with Gary Byrne, John Henderson and Stephen Kelly thriving in those opening few minutes in the face of serious Derry pressure around the middle.
An overzealous challenge on Jack Doyle that left the Carnew man prostrate on the ground as early as the second minute earned Wicklow an early free from the 65 but Christy Moorehouse would fire to the right and wide.
Derry's first dangerous ball across the Wicklow square was dealt with by Bryan Kearney and the Garden men cleared but only as far as Derry full-back Sean Cassidy who had started brightly on Andy O'Brien. Derry attacked again but Billy Cuddihy broke to Gary Byrne who pumped the ball up to Enda Donohoe who plucked the ball from the sky and walloped over impressively for the game's opening score.
Wicklow were operating with Andy and Jonathan O'Neill Jnr inside while Christy Moorehouse was on duty further out and the Bray man won and pointed his own free with six on the clock to give Wicklow a 0-2 to 0-0 lead.
A Jack Doyle ball to Andy O'Brien eventually earned Wicklow a 65 but Moorehouse fired wide before Derry got off the mark with a pointed free from Mullan after a foul when Wicklow should have cleared the ball just before it.
By the end of the first quarter Wicklow led by 0-5 to 0-1 thanks to points from Christy after good work from Michael Boland to rob possession further out the field, a 65 from Enda Donohoe, and a simple free for Christy after Derry goalkeeper Sean Kelly picked the ball clean off the ground.
By half-time it was 1-9 to 0-4 to the visitors, the goal from the ruthless Andy O'Brien who got in behind the Derry defence from a long John Henderson missile, the points from Christy Moorehouse (a free after a wild pull on Eoin McCormack), a sweet strike from Michael Boland after a handpass from Jack Doyle and two bombs from Jonathan O'Neill Jnr to send Wicklow in looking in a very healthy position albeit with Derry having whatever breeze there might be in the second half and likely to emerge a much more focused outfit.
As tense as the atmosphere on the field was, it was equally so on the sideline in that opening half. Derry manager John McEvoy and a maor foirne were heard to shout plenty of less than pleasant offerings during those opening 35 with Gary Byrne coming in for particular criticism at one stage. Such was the uncalled-for nature of this carry on that Wicklow County Chairman got involved to try and fight the good fight for the county and its representatives.
Derry made two changes at the break. John Mullan came in for Naoise Waldron and Dara Cartin for Niall Ferris as they tried to light a fire under their attack that was finding very little joy out of the Wicklow back six.
Richie Mullan got them up and running from play, but Andy O'Brien struck back. Mullan again for Derry, but Enda Donohoe restored the eight-point advantage.
And now the pressure started to increase from the home side. Mullan pointed a free, Gerald Bradley from play, Meehaul McGrath after a poor puck out from the visitors and John Mullan from play and all of a sudden it was 1-11 to 0-10 after 50 minutes.
Eamonn Scallan had replaced Jack Doyle with Danny Staunton after 48 minutes and the Glenealy man won a free which Christy Moorehouse pointed to lift the siege. In came Eamonn Kearns in place of Michael Boland but another Mullan point reduced the arrears to four for the home side.
But Wicklow responded to the Derry pressure superbly. They lifted their game and went for the jugular. Moorehouse from a free, Staunton with a beauty from distance and John Henderson with a touch of class made it 1-15 to 0-12 as Derry started to panic slightly knowing that if Down beat Kildare and Wicklow bettered Derry by more than seven then Wicklow and Down would go through by virtue of the head to head.
The main reason for Derry's panic was Eoin McCormack's goal after 68 minutes that pushed Wicklow eight clear at 2-15 to 0-13.
Calls started to arrive from the Derry sideline to take points and in fairness to them they did, adding three more in the final few moments to Wicklow's final point bagged by substitute Luke Evans.
Something must have been said after the final whistle because there was a bit of jostling between a few players from either side for a few seconds until the commanding tones of Billy Cuddihy could be heard directing the Wicklow players to gather around in a circle and appreciate the shift they had just put in.
It's off to Monaghan this Sunday for the league final. Derry will be better, no doubt, but if this current trend continues for Eamonn Scallan's men then they will improve as well. The Wicklow boss now has selection headaches. Eamonn Kearns is ready and willing, Danny Staunton looked keen, while Luke Evans and Gary Hughes are more than capable options.
It's very likely he'll go with the same starting 15 if the old adage of 'don't fix it if it's not broken' holds true. This was a good performance from Wicklow, a great win under pressure. Expect lots of spice on Sunday. Wicklow have a fair hill to climb, but they're well equipped to do so.
Scorers - Wicklow: Christy Moorehouse 0-6 (4f), Andy O'Brien 1-1, Enda Donohue 0-3 (1f), Eoin McCormack 1-0, J Henderson and J O'Neill 0-2 each, M Boland and L Evans 0-1 each.
Derry scorers: Richie Mullan 0-11 (9f), Mark McGuigan, Gerald Bradley, Dara Cartin, Meehaul McGrath and J Mullan 0-1 each.
Wicklow: Cian Staunton; Bryan Kearney, Billy Cuddihy, Martin O'Brien; Gary Byrne, Stephen Kelly, Warren Kavanagh; John Henderson, Jack Doyle; Eoin McCormack, Enda Donohue, Michael Boland; Christy Moorehouse, Andy O'Brien, Jonathan O'Neill. Subs: Danny Staunton for J Doyle (48), Eamonn Kearns for M Boland (53), Luke Evans for C Moorehouse (65), Gary Hughes for E Donohue (68.)
Derry: Sean Kelly; Paddy Kelly, Sean Cassidy, Ruaidhri McCartney; Conor Kelly, Brian Og McGilligan, Liam Hinphey; Mark McGuigan, Paul Cleary; Gerald Bradley, Richie Mullan, Thomas Brady; Naoise Waldron, Meehaul McGrath, Niall Ferris. Subs: J Mullan for N Waldron (HT), Dara Cartin for N Ferris (HT), Cian Waldron for T Brady (53).
Referee: Colum Cunning (Antrim)