Liberation for Wexford as long wait for Leinster glory ends in style
Wexford 1-23 Kilkenny 0-23
More than three-quarters of an hour after the end of a game that created a new generation of Wexford heroes, the players were still on the pitch, enjoying a special feeling that left them reluctant to leave Croke Park.
Supporters hung around for a long time too, savouring an occasion not experienced by the county since the last Leinster title success in 2004. In fact, it was Wexford's best Leinster Championship day since 1970, the last time they won the senior and minor titles in the one season.
It augurs well for the future of Wexford hurling, but as supporters headed down the N11 last night, their thoughts weren't of future years, but rather of the coming weeks and the exciting possibility that yesterday was a launchpad towards All-Ireland glory.
There's work to be done and refinements to be made, but having emerged as No 1 from a provincial campaign which also featured such fancied sides as Galway, Kilkenny and Dublin, nobody can question Wexford's right to consider themselves genuine All-Ireland contenders.
There's poise and purpose in how they go about their business, each one comfortable within a system which Davy Fitzgerald believes best suits their talents.
Kilkenny aren't out of the race yet either. Despite being guilty of some uncharacteristic misfiring, they lost by just a single score and will believe that repair work in Nowlan Park can leave them in good shape for the quarter-final against Cork or Westmeath on the weekend after next.
The key stat in an absorbing game was the wides count, which finished 12-3 to Kilkenny. It's rare enough for them to miss the target more often than the opposition, but to do it at a four-to-one ratio was very surprising.
And if that wasn't unusual enough, they shunned some point-taking chances during three minutes of stoppage time, opting instead to pursue the goal that would have earned them a Leinster final draw for a second successive year.
Goalkeeper Eoin Murphy left his goal on a few occasions in that period to take some long-range frees, but dropped them short as Kilkenny tried to batter their way through a massed Wexford defence. The wides count was 8-1 to Kilkenny in the second half, a period in which their scoring rate dropped by seven points (15 down to eight) on the first half.
They led 0-15 to 0-14 at half-time and by 0-22 to 0-21 after 63 minutes, but from there on Wexford were the better side, not just in the individual and collective battles, but also in their decision-making.
Irrespective of how intense the pressure became, they never lost composure. Their passing - both long and short - remained crisp and accurate, enabling them to get out of trouble in tight situations and set up opportunities with angled deliveries.
One of the latter provided the match-turning moments in the 64th minute when Rory O'Connor's driving run ended with him being fouled by Enda Morrissey in the square.
Goalkeeper Mark Fanning drove the penalty to the net to give Wexford a two-point lead and an opening to land the Bob O'Keeffe Cup, which they duly took.
O'Connor's role in the crucial goal was only one of many excellent contributions he made in an attack where Conor McDonald and Lee Chin were also very much on their game. It was evident from the start that they were geared to take on the Kilkenny defence at every opportunity.
Like O'Connor, McDonald scored 0-4 from play, while Chin's accuracy from long-range frees ensured that Kilkenny were punished for every misdemeanour.
TJ Reid didn't let Wexford off the hook at the other end either, but apart from Adrian Mullen and Colin Fennelly, the threat to Wexford elsewhere in the Kilkenny attack wasn't especially high.
With Kevin Foley reading his sweeping role expertly, Kilkenny needed to be working off high precision levels, but they rarely managed it.
At the other end, Wexford did better in isolating Pádraig Walsh, who was the spare man in the Kilkenny defence.
There were times in the closing stages when Wexford did to Kilkenny what the Cats did to them so often in the past. Having pounced for a goal at such an important stage, they increased pressure while maintaining a tight defensive shape.
It would have delighted Fitzgerald, who has put so much into the Wexford project for three seasons. There were plenty of people in the county who remained unconvinced about his structures and tactics, but he never wavered from the conviction that they gave Wexford the best chance of eventually landing a big prize.
Suggestions that the wide open spaces of Croke Park would make it more difficult for Wexford to jam space in the middle third as successfully as they had done against Kilkenny in Innovate Wexford Park two weeks previously proved wide of the mark. It required an even higher work-rate but that was willingly produced by a group whose self-belief has increased substantially.
Kilkenny's capacity to inflict serious damage on opposition in the second half has been a hallmark for many years, but Wexford were having none of it yesterday.
They trailed by two points just after half-time, but the response was quick and effective, yielding four unanswered points. And even when Kilkenny scored the next three, they couldn't shake off their gritty pursuers.
Just as they had done all season, Wexford finished strongly, completing a task which saw them end the provincial campaign as the only unbeaten team in Leinster and Munster.
Scorers - Wexford: L Chin 0-9 (7f, 1 '65); C McDonald, R O'Connor 0-4 each; M Fanning 1-0; D O'Keeffe 0-2; L Óg McGovern, P Morris, S Donohue, J O'Connor 0-1 each. Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-12 (5f, 3 '65s); A Mullen 0-3; C Fennelly, W Walsh 0-2 each; A Murphy, J Maher, G Aylward, E Murphy (f) 0-1 each.
Wexford - M Fanning 8; S Murphy 8, L Ryan 7, S Donohue 7; M O'Hanlon 7, P Foley 7, S Reck 7; K Foley 8, D O'Keeffe 7; L Óg McGovern 8, L Chin 9, R O'Connor 9; J O'Connor 7, C McDonald 8, P Morris 7. Sub: C Firman 6 for Reck (48), C Dunbar 6 for Morris (59), D Dunne for McGovern (66), H Kehoe for McDonald (71).
Kilkenny - E Murphy 7; P Murphy 7, H Lawlor 8, J Holden 6; P Deegan 7, P Walsh 6, E Morrissey 6; J Maher 6, C Fogarty 6; R Leahy 7, W Walsh 6, TJ Reid 8; A Murphy 5, C Fennelly 7, A Mullin 8. Sub: G Aylward 6 for A Murphy, B Ryan 5 for W Walsh (56), R Hogan for Fennelly (72)
Ref - J Keenan (Wicklow)