By Martin Breheny
Offaly 1-15, Wexford 0-17
The Wexford fans in the crowd of 46,078 couldn’t believe it. Long after the final whistle had blown in Croke Park last Sunday, they stood in silent knots, trying to come to terms with a Guinness Leinster hurling semifinal defeat that looked so unlikely as the game ticked past the hour mark.
Wexford led by four points with 9 minutes remaining and seemed set to qualify for their third successive provincial decider. They had out-hurled Offaly for long periods, and while Wexford’ s superiority wasn’t fully reflected on the scoreboard, they still looked very comfortable.
Offaly’s revival started slowly but gathered pace, and when they cut the lead to a single point with 4 minutes left, their supporters began to dream again. Paul Codd put Wexford two clear in the 68th minute and as the game moved into injury time, the defending champions looked set for another great win.
Then Offaly won a “65,” which Brian Whelahan drove into the Wexford square, where, amid a thicket of swirling ash, Johnny Dooley connected and drove the ball to the Wexford net. Wexford were stunned but they still had one or two late chances, which came to nothing against a resolute Offaly defense.
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It was little consolation to Wexford that they had been involved in one of the season’s great games. The sides were level on seven occasions, and while Wexford did open a four-point lead in the second half, Offaly’s tenacity kept them afloat.
In the end, Wexford were left to regret a series of missed chances in the first half when, despite playing against the wind, they created far more chances than Offaly.
Unfortunately for Wexford, their shooting let them down and while the sides were level at the break – 0-9 each – Offaly might well have been in serious trouble had the Wexford attack been more accurate.
Wexford built on their territorial advantage early in the second half and with Colm Kehoe, Ger Cushe, Larry O’Gorman, Martin Storey and Paul Codd in fine form, they raised all sorts of awkward questions of an Offaly side which didn’t really get into their stride until the final five minutes.
Martin Hanamy, Kevin Martin, Johnny Pilkington, John Troy and Johnny Dooley all hurled with fire and vigor for Offaly, who once again were rescued by their utter refusal to take no for an answer.
It was a typical Offaly revival and brought back memories of their famous comeback against Limerick in the 1994 All-Ireland hurling final and of the footballers’ late smash and grab against Kerry in the 1982 All-Ireland, when the final score was the same as last Sunday’s.
Kilkenny 3-11, Laois 1-14
The same old story for Laois was retold in dramatic circumstances in the first Guinness Leinster hurling semifinal at Croke Park on Sunday.
Laois, without a championship win since 1989, seemed set for a glorious turnaround when they led by three points, 1-14 to 2-8, with seven minutes remaining. They were hurling with fire and passion but the it all went wrong.
Kilkenny regrouped for a final assault, which yielded 1-3 without reply. The goal came in the 64th minute when sub Ken O’Shea showed great calmness to drive the ball past Ricky Cashin. O’Shea pointed shortly afterward and the rescue job was completed by Charlie Carter and Pat O’Neill, both of whom added points.
It was heartbreaking for Laois, who had produced a level of performance which deserved better. They recovered from an early setback when P.J. Delaney scored Kilkenny’s first goal in the 14th minute to match their more experienced rivals ball for ball.
Kilkenny led by a point, 1-6 to 0-8, at halftime and when Niall Maloney scored their second goal 6 minutes after the break, it looked ominous for Laois. However, they dug deep and outscored Kilkenny by 1-5 to 0-1 over the next 15 minutes.
With D.J. Carey making little impression in the Kilkenny attack, Laois were beginning to look like winners. but they just couldn’t sustain their effort right to the finish, which was fatal against a team of Kilkenny’s caliber.
Laois manager, Padraig Horan said afterward that Laois simply didn’t get the breaks at vital times. “It’s as simple as that. You need a bit of luck and we didn’t get it,” he said. Not even the most partisan Kilkenny supporter would argue against him.
Galway 1-16, Leitrim 0-5
Leitrim crashed to their worst defeat in years in Carrick-on-Shannon on Sunday when they proved no match for a lively Galway side in the Bank of Ireland Connacht semifinal.
It was embarrassing for the Leitrim supporters as they watched their side outclassed and out-thought by a Galway team whose status as potential All-Ireland champions grows by the match.
They had Sunday’s game wrapped up by halftime when they led by 0-10 to 0-2. Padraig Joyce, Sean O’Domhnaill, John Divilly and Tomas Mannion were all outstanding for Galway leaving a hesitant Leitrim side trailing in their wake.
Leitrim’s obsession with the short-ball game was in marked contrast to Galway’s clever use of the early ball. The second half was a total anti-climax as Galway simply went through the motions as Leitrim fell further and further behind. Their day of misery was completed in the final minute when Niall Finnegan got in for Galway’s goal. It was a fitting finale to a fine performance.
Armagh 0-16, Down 0-11
Armagh had Enda McNulty sent off early in the second half, but it made no difference as his colleagues shared out the extra responsibility evenly, leaving Down with no answers in the Ulster quarterfinal at Clones.
Down were leading by a point at the time but they managed just two more in the second half while Armagh scored eight. Diarmuid Marsden was their top scorer on eight points, while Cathal O’
Rourke, prior to going off injured and Oisin McConville also showed prominently in a lively attack.
Armagh were quite superb in the second half. Their support play was first class, as was their finishing and while Down battled with customary courage, they could never exploit the extra man.
“Armagh football badly needed that, after losing in the first round for the last few years. We still have a long way to go though. Derry will be a different proposition but at least we’re in the semi-final so we can work from here,” said Armagh’s manager, Brian Canavan.
Antrim 0-19, London 0-19
Controversy erupted at the end of this Ulster hurling semifinal at Casement Park on Sunday.
London were hanging on to a one-point lead when a shot by Alistair Elliot was turned around the post by London keeper, Brian O’Malley. However, a point was awarded, although it was subsequently proven that the ball had, in fact, been outside the post.
So Antrim get a second chance in next Sunday’s replay, and while many will feel that London have missed the boat, they are confident that they can finish the job next time. They rarely allowed Antrim settle into any sort of rhythm, and with Timmy Maloney, formerly of Cashel and Tipperary, in fine form (he scored 10 points), London led for long periods. They were three points ahead with 10 minutes remaining, but Antrim’s late – and lucky revival – saved the day.