HomeFootballWexford hurlers under pressure following first-ever championship defeat against Antrim

Wexford hurlers under pressure following first-ever championship defeat against Antrim

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Antrim defeated us for the first time ever in the Senior championship, and let it be stated first and foremost that they thoroughly deserved to bask in the glory of that impressive achievement.

It wasn’t a lucky victory, or one clouded by a controversial refereeing decision. Quite simply, it was borne out of a savage desire and passion to succeed that the visitors were powerless to match.

The short-term implications are quite stark, with our rapidly-slimming hopes of securing one of the three provincial spots in the All-Ireland series requiring a home win over Galway next Saturday as a minimum starting point.

However, there are wider questions regarding Wexford hurling to be addressed in the long term, with the time needed to dig deeper into our problems simply not there in the here and now due to the tight Leinster championship structure and that pending must-win game.

What I cannot understand, above everything else on a growing list of puzzling issues, is how the current team appears incapable of closing out a game when a healthy lead has been secured.

Drawing with Dublin, having been ahead by five points near the finish, highlighted that last year’s collapse against Westmeath wasn’t merely a freak flash in the pan.

And it only took six days for history to be repeated, albeit with even more grave consequences on this occasion.

When midfielder Liam Óg McGovern slotted over a point in the 43rd minute on Saturday, Wexford led by 2-14 to 0-13 and had established some daylight after Antrim gave them all they wanted of it and had been a trifle unfortunate to go in at the break trailing by 2-9 to 0-12.

It had taken a disputed penalty award – technically correct, but for an offence rarely punished at this level – along with a piece of individual magic from Lee Chin to establish that advantage after a generally even opening half.

And yet, when we added five of the first six points on the restart, with McGovern’s being our fourth on the trot after an early exchange between the excellent Cian Byrne and Niall McKenna, Wexford were in a position of strength.

Ask yourself the following question, one which I stress is not meant to be disrespectful in any way to Saturday’s worthy winners: would Kilkenny, Galway, or any of the five Munster counties have allowed a seven-point advantage to slip in similar circumstances?

I don’t think so, but it unfolded before the eyes of a decent-sized Wexford support and it was crushing to witness.

Five unanswered scores in as many minutes at the end of the third quarter highlighted that the hosts weren’t going to be repeating the previous weekend’s 32-point collapse away to Kilkenny.

James McNaughton started it all with a monster free from distance after Conor McDonald tried to prevent a quick line ball being taken, before Simon Donohoe was booked for a foul on Conal Cunning and the Dunloy sharpshooter converted the placed ball.

Wexford were obliterated around the middle third as Antrim thundered legitimately into challenges and fought like demons for every ball.

Why we were unable to replicate that – given the importance of the two points on offer – is something that frankly baffles me, with the body language of some players more appropriate for a meaningless challenge game.

The lead was narrowed to 2-14 to 0-16 when Seaan Elliott caught a Conal Bohill delivery and fed Nigel Elliott for a point, before McNaughton launched another free from distance over the bar.

A potential point chance was squandered when retaliation by Conor McDonald resulted in a free being replaced by a throw-in, and Cian Byrne shot one of our twelve wides (Antrim had five) under pressure before Seaan Elliott finished off Ryan McGarry’s well-placed ball inside with a fine score.

With the margin now reduced to just two points, Wexford were in dire need of a settling score and, after a Kevin Foley wide, it came from Lee Chin with his sole second-half effort from play.

That marked the end of nearly nine worrying barren minutes, and hopes were high that the storm had been weathered when Conor McDonald made it 2-16 to 0-18 after a long Mark Fanning free wasn’t cleared by Antrim.

There was a let-off for the visitors in the 54th minute, when Aodhán O’Brien got a touch on Keelan Molloy’s high ball in from the left to find the net, but the score was ruled out for a square ball offence.

Antrim were undaunted and, after a Conor Foley wide, his foul on Conal Bohill led to Conal Cunning converting the free before Molloy split the posts from distance after a short Ryan McGarry pass (2-16 to 0-20).

Wexford had introduced Eoin Ryan, Richie Lawlor and Séamus Casey in a five-minute spell when the pressure was growing, and Kevin Foley moved to midfield after the Oylegate-Glenbrien clubman replaced Conor Hearne.

However, the visitors were unable to turn the tide, even after the outstanding Lee Chin was fouled and brought his tally to 2-10 from the placed ball.

The first Antrim goal – that brought them level in the 60th minute – should never have been conceded at this level of hurling.

James McNaughton surged down the left, beating Ryan and the Reck brothers in the process, before crossing from close to the endline for Niall McKenna to gather at the far post and rattle the net (1-20 to 2-17).

Cian Byrne – who, along with Chin, was the only Wexford player to consistently hold his own – provided an instant response with his fourth score directly off the hurl, and Conor McDonald added one from long range to re-establish a two-point lead.

Wides followed from Rory O’Connor and Chin (free) before Antrim hit the front after Simon Donohoe struggled under a high ball in the 63rd minute.

James McNaughton gathered the break and pierced another gaping hole in the defence – this time straight down the centre – before handpassing to his right for Seaan Elliott to stitch the ball beyond Mark Fanning.

With their team now ahead by 2-20 to 2-19, the Antrim supporters sensed that something special was on the cards and were in a frenzy of excitement.

However, the composure needed on the field briefly deserted them as two shots dropped short and a free veered left and wide before Chin equalised after a foul on McGovern midway through the first of three additional minutes.

Conal Bohill caught the restart but lost his footing, with the sliotar going out for an Antrim line ball from 40 metres off Rory O’Connor.

And from the moment that wing-back Gerard Walsh – my man of the match – connected so sweetly, it was clear that it was heading over the bar at the St. John’s clubhouse end.

Wexford tried to hit back, with McDonald unable to make the most of an O’Connor handpass, and Antrim earned a free tight to the left flank after clearing their lines that Conal Cunning pointed from 63 metres.

A goal was needed now by the pre-match favourites, and Fanning launched one last long ball. For a split second it looked like McGovern might break Antrim hearts, but he was hooked and with that the final whistle of referee Colm Lyons sparked wild celebrations among the home faithful.

It wasn’t quite up there with the county’s sensational All-Ireland semi-final win over Kilkenny at the same venue in 1943, but in terms of modern-day achievements it was a huge success for the Ulster side and one that was thoroughly merited.

That 2-9 to 0-12 half-time lead Wexford had enjoyed was largely down to the expert finishing of Lee Chin, who reeled off 2-6 to go along with two fine Cian Byrne points plus one from Cathal Dunbar.

The sides were level on four occasions before Byrne struck twice, on either side of a vital near-post save by Antrim’s Ryan Elliott that kept out a Rory O’Connor shot.

The home side had edged ahead by 0-8 to 0-7 with a booming point from wing-back Gerard Walsh before Wexford goaled for the first time in the 27th minute.
A Chin free came back off the post, and referee Lyons punished Paddy Burke for a jersey tug on McDonald by awarding a penalty that the captain lashed home (1-7 to 0-8).

Chin added two more points from placed balls, but a fired-up Antrim replied with three prior to conceding a second goal in the 37th minute.

Fanning’s long ball was won by Chin, and he used his power to create space to the left of the posts before firing low across Ryan Elliott and into the far corner of the net.

A James McNaughton free followed to leave Wexford ahead by 2-9 to 0-12 at half-time, and they seemed to be well placed when Byrne, Chin (two frees), O’Connor and McGovern contributed to that game-high seven-point advantage on the restart.

On an afternoon when the performance on the field left so much to be desired, the mentors also seemed to freeze.

Certainly, given that our half-back line was wiped out during that Antrim surge, it was difficult to understand why Conor Devitt wasn’t introduced.

Likewise, the height and heft of Jack O’Connor would surely have been a useful tool in trying to halt their advances.

It beggared belief that Niall Murphy was the only defender to be withdrawn, and he probably paid the price for being the least experienced of the sextet because he was by no means the worst performer in that sector of the field.

The team that starts against Galway – not the 15 that will be released to the media on Friday – is going to be awaited with considerable interest, because the stark reality is that some players appear to be surviving on reputation alone at this stage.

Wexford: Mark Fanning (Glynn-Barntown); Shane Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Matthew O’Hanlon (St. James’), Niall Murphy (Ferns St. Aidan’s); Simon Donohoe (Shelmaliers), Damien Reck (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Conor Foley (Horeswood); Conor Hearne (Shelmaliers), Liam Óg McGovern (St. Anne’s, 0-1); Cathal Dunbar (Naomh Éanna, 0-1), Kevin Foley (Rapparees), Rory O’Connor (St. Martin’s, 0-1); Conor McDonald (Naomh Éanna, 0-2), Lee Chin (Faythe Harriers, capt., 2-11, 0-8 frees, 1-0 pen.), Cian Byrne (Fethard, 0-4). Subs. – Eoin Ryan (St. Anne’s) for Murphy (54), Richie Lawlor (Faythe Harriers) for Dunbar (57), Séamus Casey (Oylegate-Glenbrien) for Hearne (59), also Aaron Duggan (Oylegate-Glenbrien), Mikie Dwyer (Fethard), Darragh Carley (Glynn-Barntown), Conor Devitt (Tara Rocks), Jack Doran (Naomh Éanna), Tomás Kinsella (Askamore), Jack O’Connor (St. Martin’s), Joe O’Connor (St. Martin’s).

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Conor Boyd (0-1), Niall O’Connor, Paddy Burke; Gerard Walsh (0-3, 1 line ball), Ryan McGarry, Conal Bohill; Keelan Molloy (0-2), Eoghan Campbell (capt.); Conal Cunning (0-7 frees), James McNaughton (0-4, 3 frees), Niall McKenna (1-1); Seaan Elliott (1-3), Conor McCann, Nigel Elliott (0-1). Subs. – Fred McCurry for Molloy, temp. (24-27), Aodhán O’Brien for McCann (31), Cormac McKeown for N. Elliott (48), Michael Bradley for McKenna (70+3).

Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).

LEINSTER SHC ROUND-ROBIN

P W D L F A PTS

Kilkenny 2 1 1 0 74 42 3

Galway 2 1 1 0 60 49 3

Dublin 2 1 1 0 51 46 3

Antrim 2 1 0 1 41 71 2

Wexford 2 0 1 1 50 52 1

Carlow 2 0 0 2 42 58 0

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