WICKLOW'S HURLERS moved to outright leadership of the Division 3A league on Sunday last following their one-point win over Derry in their top of the table clash at Aughrim.
Both teams went into this game unbeaten after three games and determined to continue their winning streak and they produced a combative and hard-fought encounter that was befitting its important status.
Derry threw everything bar the proverbial kitchen sink at their opponents but they just could not break the resolve and determination of these heroic Wicklow hurlers who have only lost one game since the start of the year.
But one thing the Oak Leafers could not match or counter was Wicklow's double-barrelled scoring machine, with Jonathan O'Neill blasting the northerners into eventual submission with his points from frees, and that after Andy O'Brien had put them on the ropes with his killer goal strikes.
We have said many times that this group of Wicklow hurlers does not countenance any talk of defeat in any game and that fact was reinforced yet again on Sunday last when they hurled defiance at Derry despite being down to 14 men for over half the match.
Ten minutes after he was introduced to the attack as a substitute, Enan Glynn was sent off on a straight red card, but his questionable dismissal served only to make his colleagues even more defiant and determined to take the battle to their opponents.
Derry trailed by a mere point at the break, 0-9 to 1-7 and when they shot three rapid-fire points after the restart we feared that this might be the beginning of the end for Casey O'Brien's men.
Not a bit of it. Wicklow showed once more that they are made of sterner stuff. With the wind at their backs they kept taking the fight to Derry, Andy O'Brien drilled home his second goal and at the death Jonathan O'Neill slotted over the winning point from a pressure free deep in injurytime.
The win puts Wicklow through to the league final before their last game away to Armagh in two weeks time.
After the defeat of London at the weekend, it is possible that we will face Derry in another showdown in the league final and that it something we will have to be prepared for as the Oak Leafers will be going all out to gain revenge in such a rematch.
The bonding that has developed among the players of this Wicklow team is truly remarkable and heart-warming. It is a case of one for all, and all for one. They play like a close-knit club outfit.
Geoffrey Bermingham lined out at wing-back even though he had a hand injury that would have kept a less brave soul in the casualty ward. Centre-back Liam Kennedy, just back off a hamstring injury, shipped a heavy tackle in the second half, but played on through the pain barrier.
And not only that, both men turned in champagne performances with Bermingham a strong contender for man of the match. These Wicklow hurlers are made of stern stuff and no mistake.
Twice in the first five minutes Jonathan O'Neill traded points with Derry's Paddy Kelly, and then Derry posted their intent in the next five minutes as they edged into a two-point lead with further scores from winger Paddy Henry and centre-forward Ruairi Convery.
Just when Wicklow might have been in danger of losing further ground, up popped Andy O'Brien to lift the team and rock the northerners back on their heels. On 11 minutes O'Brien curled over a super point from the right touchline and then three minutes later he slipped his marker to drill the sliothar into the left corner of Daryl McDermott's net.
Jonathan O'Neill answered further Derry points from Paddy Kelly and Alan Grant, before the Oak Leafers snatched the lead with three points from their top scorer and ace free-taker Paddy Henry.
Into injury-time and Derry were 0-9 to 1-5 ahead. Worse calamity was to befall Wicklow in the 36th minute when they found themselves down to 14 men with the sending off of Enan Glynn on a straight red card.
Andy O'Brien brought Wicklow back to parity with a point and Don Hyland evaded the clutches of Derry's tight-marking bull-back Conor Quinn to land a point and sent the Garden County in for the break leading by 1-7 to 0-9.
Derry hit the ground running at the start of the second half with lead points by Pat McCloskey and Ruairi Convery (2) and one wondered if this game was going to be decided by the extra man. Momentarily Derry seemed to have men on the overlap and they stretched their lead ominously to three points, 0-15 to 1-9, at the end of the third quarter. Fortunately Jonathan O'Neill was punishing every indiscretion by Derry as he slotted over points from those frees. Wicklow had cut the margin to a single point, 1-11 to 0-15, by the 57th minute.
In the next five minutes we were treated to some more of Andy O'Brien's hurling magic. He latched on to a clearance from Geoffrey Bermingham on 60 minutes before posting a great point with an overhead shot from an acute angle to the left of goal. A minute later he drilled to the net after taking a pass from Jonathan O'Neill and he had the home crowd on its feet cheering on the team.
Derry responded immediately with an answering goal by Paddy Kelly and the sides were again level 2-12 to 1-15 on 63 minutes.
Urged on by the crowd, Wicklow were in no mood to concede. Jonathan O'Neill pointed from another free, Wicklow back in front.
Ruairi Convery made it all square, but O'Neill fired the Garden County ahead from another placed ball.
Derry were not conceding either as midfielder Kevin Hinphey left it all to play for in the third minute of injury-time.
It was nail-biting stuff. Spectators were enthralled even though many of them would not be regular supporters of hurling.
Wicklow came to the well one last time. And they won a free to the right of the Derry posts. With the outcome hanging on his puck, this was a pressure free for Jonathan O'Neill.
But the Glenealy man has been in this situation many times before. And he has not become Wicklow's top scorer in every game through missing the target in those vital situations.
Earlier in the game he had scored a mighty point from a free well outside the 70 metre line. And Jonathan did not let us down this time either. He drilled his shot straight between the posts and Wicklow were celebrating anther famous factory. And this was essentially a team victory with every player making his contribution.
There were three contenders for the man of the match. Geoffrey Bermingham was magnificent at wing-back, Jonathan O'Neill faultless with his point and free-taking, but for me the accolade goes to corner-forward Andy O'Brien.
Andy is a true artist of the game of hurling. He scored 2-3 for Wicklow on Sunday, his two goals came at crucial times in the match, but more important he lifted the team and the crowd every time he got on the ball.
There was an air of excitement, anticipation and expectation every time he bore down on the Derry goal.
Wicklow's Eugene Dunne loses sight of the ball against Derry.