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GALWAY WEXFORD 4-21 2-26 (AET)
IT WAS gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and incredibly hard to take.
A collective sickness afflicted the Wexford supporters after Wednesday’s epic Bord Gáis Energy Leinster Under-21 hurling championship final in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, so one can only imagine the scenes of devastation in the dressing-room after a fantastic effort to claim the last-ever provincial title in this age group fell agonisingly short.
This gripping game produced an abundance of thrills and spills, with the dominance switching one way and then the other before Galway eventually marked their first involvement in the Leinster championship with outright victory thanks to a last-gasp goal at the end of extra-time.
Wexford had forced that additional 20 minutes when all seemed lost after a brilliant finish by centre-back Ian Carty nearly raised the roof off the stand, and they were on the verge of glory after an outstanding long-range point by Rory O’Connor pushed them 2-26 to 3-21 clear with just over half of the one additional extra-time minute played.
Ian O’Shea lobbed the ball into the danger zone at the Portlaoise town end, and it broke for re-introduced Galway substitute Seán Bleahene who turned himself in a hero with an unstoppable shot to the net.
The final whistle was blown less than 30 seconds later, with devastated Wexford players collapsing on the ground while the animated Galway fans rushed from the stand to acclaim the champions.
That was how close it was, with the margin between victory and defeat about as tight as it comes.
Thankfully, the change in structures to the championship guarantees that Wexford’s year isn’t over, as they will now face Munster victors Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final in early August while Galway will take on runners-up Tipperary. If ever a team deserved a second chance, this is the one.
Our poor Minor record meant that precious little attention might have paid to the Slaneysiders by the counties more accustomed to success in the old Under-18 grade, but all that will change after this encounter.
Three alterations were made from the semi-final victory in Dublin, with goalkeeper James Henebery replaced by Jack Cushe, while Gary Molloy and Rory Higgins were selected outfield ahead of Seán Barden and Oisín Foley respectively.
Damien Reck reverted to left corner-back to keep tabs on dangerman Evan Niland, with Molloy partnering captain Conor Firman at midfield while Rowan White started once again at left half-back despite having number 9 on his shirt.
The game was brimful of passion and intensity from the off, a wonderful advertisement for a grade that will sadly be replaced by Under-20 in 2019. For a send-off in Leinster, it couldn’t possibly have been any better.
Kevin Cooney and Gary Molloy swapped early points, the latter from a Rory O’Connor handpass, before Brian Concannon and Thomas Monaghan pushed Galway 3-1 clear.
Liam Stafford set up the excellent O’Connor for his first point, but the westerners’ accuracy early on was first rate as Cianan Fahy, Concannon and Seán Loftus extended their advantage to 6-2 after only six action-packed minutes.
A lovely solo and sidestep by another leading Wexford performer, Seamus Casey, led to a point before he converted a free from inside his own half.
Evan Niland was successful from a placed ball before Galway made the first big breakthrough when they pounced for the opening goal in the twelfth minute.
Seán Bleahene played a pass out from the endline on the right to Thomas Monaghan who danced away from Rowan White and Gary Molloy before planting a low shot past Jack Cushe for a 1-7 to 0-4 lead.
It was important for Wexford to stay in touch, and this was accomplished when Casey pointed a free and Conor Firman set up Rory O’Connor to add another from play.
Cianan Fahy and Casey (free) exchanged points before a moment of high drama when erratic referee John O’Brien signalled for a Wexford penalty before changing his mind and throwing the ball in after consulting with his umpires.
It came after Casey popped a pass to Liam Stafford whose low shot flew high into the air off the stick of Galway netminder Eanna Murphy, with the dust rising and the net shaking as Rory Higgins just missed out on goaling from the rebound before it was kicked clear.
In fairness, it was hard to see what O’Brien merited as a penalty in the first place, but it wasn’t the first time that the officials at that end were in the thick of it before half-time.
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