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Clare achieve merited victory against the odds as Wexford falter

Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Group B: Clare 0-18 Wexford 0-15

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Conor McDonald has support from Jack O’Connor and Paul Morris as he prepares to take on Clare’s David McInerney

Conor McDonald has support from Jack O’Connor and Paul Morris as he prepares to take on Clare’s David McInerney

Conor McDonald has support from Jack O’Connor and Paul Morris as he prepares to take on Clare’s David McInerney

If the Wexford Senior hurlers go on to enjoy another fruitful summer, we may well look back on this game as the one that brought some of the more expectant supporters crashing down to earth.

Playing with an extra man from the 28th minute onwards, and with a gale of wind in their favour for the second-half, they seemed well placed to erase their 0-12 to 0-4 interval deficit as manager Davy Fitzgerald welcomed his native Clare to Chadwicks Wexford Park for this Allianz League Division 1, Group B, second round game on a miserable Sunday afternoon.

However, a Tony Kelly masterclass effectively put paid to their victory hopes, with the classy midfielder nailing the vital frees and also adding two priceless points from play into the elements to give new boss Brian Lohan a pleasing win over his former team-mate.

The spat between the duo was well documented in the lead-up to the game, and the customary handshake between managers certainly didn't happen in the immediate aftermath of the action as both were drawn on to the field towards their own players.

Whether the duo will reconcile doesn't really matter to Wexford followers one way or the other, and they were more concerned leaving the ground by the flat nature of the display.

Indeed, even though five points were pulled back inside eleven minutes of the second-half to bring the gap down to three, the home side never managed to draw level, let alone get ahead of their Munster rivals who had enjoyed a handy win over Carlow on the first weekend.

In fairness to the players, they have given us more good days than bad since their last home defeat in a league game, against the then All-Ireland champions Limerick in late January last year.

And it's precisely because we have grown accustomed to seeing them playing so well that this loss came like a bolt from the blue, with Clare repeating the margin of their 2019 success in Ennis (2-22 to 1-22).

Developing a stronger panel remains an ongoing issue, and the outcome of this game certainly highlighted how vital the main missing trio of Lee Chin, Matthew O'Hanlon and Diarmuid O'Keeffe are to the cause.

Only two substitutes were introduced, the experienced pair of Aidan Nolan and Harry Kehoe, so the jury remains out on the relatively new arrivals since most of them haven't locked horns with a top-ranked team in a competition that really matters yet.

Of those who did get an opportunity, Joe O'Connor looks like he could have a role to play and has taken his chance in the full-back line, while the management were sufficiently impressed with the progress made by Aidan Rochford to pit him against Tony Kelly in midfield.

Shaun Murphy was trying to keep tabs on the Clare star by the end, and doing his level best to put him off his game as both picked up yellow cards for an off-the-ball incident, but this was a vintage showing by a player who remains a joy to watch when in full flow.

The presence of one of Kelly's 2013 All-Ireland winning team-mates, Brendan Bulger, as the latest addition to the Wexford backroom added another interesting dimension to proceedings on a day when the home side were captained by Pádraig Foley who started at centre-back.

Clare had first use of the very strong wind blowing towards the town end, and the big and bustling David Fitzgerald, who appears to have made an effective switch from defence to attack, posted the first of his three points after a mere 16 seconds.

Conditions were difficult, with the elements making the flight of the dropping ball extremely hard to judge, and there was no real flow to a first-half featuring a total of 23 frees, 13 for the hosts.

A foul committed by Damien Reck led to Tony Kelly doubling Clare's advantage in the fifth minute with the first of his dozen points.

Mark Fanning's puck-out didn't work out as intended, with corner-forward Ryan Taylor lapping it up to rifle a shot over the bar, and he came very close to adding a goal just 40 seconds later.

The lively Shane O'Donnell got his stick to the re-start and found David Fitzgerald whose handpass to his right left Taylor with a clear sight of goal. He was definitely going for it too, but the ball whizzed over via the crossbar to the relief of a Wexford side who didn't create even one decent goalscoring chance in contrast when they had the wind behind them.

The gap grew to 0-5 to nil in the eighth minute when Kelly landed a free from his own 65-metre line, and it was clear that Wexford needed to get some sort of a grip in order to stay in contention.

Cathal Dunbar, who started at centre-forward, was narrowly off target with their first wide, and Kelly converted another placed ball from distance before the home side finally opened their account.

It came courtesy of a Jack O'Connor free in the 14th minute, after Conor McDonald won a delivery from Pádraig Foley and was fouled.

And it was the first of three strikes from the St. Martin's man that brought his side back into contention, as he added a second after Paul Morris was impeded when he controlled the scorer's neat ball in from midfield.

Rory O'Connor and Eoin Quirke were booked in separate incidents before the deficit became altogether more manageable from a Wexford point of view.

Some dissent from David Fitzgerald resulted in referee Seán Cleere bringing the ball forward after a foul on McDonald, and Jack O'Connor duly made it a three-point game as Tony Kelly had to retire briefly with a blood injury.

David Reidy missed a scorable free in his absence and, although they were ahead by 0-6 to 0-3, the odds seemed to be stacked against Clare when their captain, John Conlon, received a straight red card for a high tackle on sweeper Kevin Foley in the 28th minute.

A needless point was conceded in the immediate aftermath, as Pádraig Foley didn't spot Liam Ryan to his right and was instead blocked by the returned Kelly who duly knocked over the free after the Crossabeg-Ballymurn man fouled Fitzgerald.

Wexford's sole first-half point from play arrived in the 32nd minute, with Kevin Foley moving forward and supplying Aidan Rochford for a well-taken confidence-boosting score (0-7 to 0-4).

However, the remainder of the opening period, including four and a half added minutes, wasn't good from their point of view.

Joe O'Connor and his cousin, Jack (free), brought their wides tally to three, but of more concern and of greater impact on the end result was the manner in which Clare tacked on five points in a mere seven minutes.

Pádraig Foley fouled Ryan Taylor, and Conor McDonald was then penalised for charging, with Tony Kelly doing the needful for his team on both occasions.

Then an over-hit Rory O'Connor pass back towards his own half was intercepted by Shane O'Donnell, and he fed David Reidy before David Fitzgerald applied the finish to make it 0-10 to 0-4.

Liam Ryan was the next home player to be pulled up for charging, with Kelly converting the free before O'Donnell did very well under pressure to finish off a Stephen O'Halloran assist (0-12 to 0-4).

Wexford's second-half tactics were interesting, with the wind and extra man in their favour, as Damien Reck was pushed into an attacking position.

However, a couple of factors mitigated against their chances of turning the tie around, chiefly the errant shooting that led to ten wides after the break to bring their overall haul to 13 (Clare had a mere five).

Secondly, the failure to fashion any openings for goal proved their undoing. In general terms, they found it very difficult to create the kind of space that led to the sole point for Paul Morris in the 53rd minute.

On that occasion, Joe O'Connor picked him out one-on-one with Eoin Quirke from a delivery down the wing, with the Ferns man turning left first, and then back on to his right before splitting the posts.

That made it a two-point game, with Clare still clinging to a 0-13 to 0-11 advantage even though they had leaked scores at the start of the second period.

Pádraig Foley pointed a free after 40 seconds when David Fitzgerald overcarried, with Damien Reck then providing the passes that led to scores for the O'Connor brothers, Rory and Jack (0-12 to 0-7).

There was a brief scare when a Tony Kelly free into the wind came down off the crossbar and led to a scramble before an umpire signalled a wide.

Momentum continued to build when Rory O'Connor punished a poor crossfield passing attempt by Eoin Quirke with a long-range point, although the inaccurracy started too with missed chances from Kevin and Pádraig Foley, the latter from a free.

Some clever creation of space, with most of the Wexford players moving towards Jack O'Connor as he took a line ball under the stand, led to the next score.

He was able to glide a long crossfield strike to Mark Fanning who had read his intentions and had ample room to pick off a rare point from play (0-12 to 0-9).

O'Connor then lost a free in an incident that earned him a booking along with David Fitzgerald.

And he missed the placed ball that followed after he was tripped from the throw-in, while Cathal Dunbar also squandered a point attempt.

It took Clare more than 15 minutes to score in that second-half, with who else but Tony Kelly giving them a lift from a free after a surging run from wing-back Aidan McCarthy.

They had no time to relax all the same, as Fanning landed his long puck-out into the paw of Conor McDonald who immediately responded.

Morris then registered that point mentioned earlier, before McDonald converted a beauty from tight to the left sideline after good work by Rochford, Morris and McGovern (0-13 to 0-12).

Joe O'Connor conceded a cheap free when Shane O'Donnell was going nowhere, giving Kelly the opening to restore the two-point gap.

McGovern replied after a one-two with Kevin Foley who had received the puck-out, but Jack O'Connor then missed a free before the brilliant Kelly robbed Shaun Murphy with a lightning flick and made it 0-15 to 0-13 with his first point from play.

Pádraig Foley knocked over a free after an Aidan Rochford wide, but David Fitzgerald hit his third point after Shane O'Donnell's clever touch took the ball away from a Wexford opponent.

Kelly and Foley exchanged further scores from placed balls after a Rory O'Connor miss, leaving Clare 0-17 to 0-15 clear with two minutes of normal time left, and their rivals realistically needing a goal that never seemed likely.

And it was fitting that Kelly should latch on to the break after Foley's score and pick off what proved to be the final point given his immense second-half contribution.

And even though the five added minutes that were announced grew to seven, Wexford could only muster wides from Kevin and Pádraig Foley (free), while Conor McDonald was penalised for a throw after he emerged from a scramble around the 'D'.

Substitute Aidan Nolan was also crowded out after Cathal Dunbar tried to locate him to the left of the posts, and in truth the two points went where they belonged on a day when Clare were clearly the superior force.

Wexford: Mark Fanning (0-1); Joe O'Connor, Liam Ryan, Shane Reck; Damien Reck, Pádraig Foley (capt., 0-3 frees), Shaun Murphy; Aidan Rochford (0-1), Liam Óg McGovern (0-1); Rory O'Connor (0-2), Cathal Dunbar, Kevin Foley; Jack O'Connor (0-4, 3 frees), Conor McDonald (0-2), Paul Morris (0-1). Subs. - Aidan Nolan for McGovern (61), Harry Kehoe for D. Reck (64), also James Lawlor, Simon Donohoe, Conor Firman, Connal Flood, Jack Cullen, Andrew Shore, Seamus Casey, Gary Molloy, Mikie Dwyer.

Clare: Donal Tuohy; Jack Browne, Conor Cleary, Eoin Quirke; Aidan McCarthy, Pat O'Connor, Stephen O'Halloran; David McInerney, Tony Kelly (0-12, 10 frees); David Reidy, David Fitzgerald (0-3), Ian Galvin; Ryan Taylor (0-2), John Conlon (capt.), Shane O'Donnell (0-1). Subs. - Cathal Malone for Kelly, temp. (27-29), Domhnall McMahon for Galvin (46), Seadna Morey for Taylor (55), Malone for Reidy (60), Liam Corry for Quirke (68), Aaron Shanagher for O'Donnell (70+2).

Referee: Seán Cleere (Kilkenny).

Wexford People