Cork, first and foremost, were haunted to find themselves ahead by the minimum with just nine minutes left on the clock on Saturday evening. Having trailed from the 20th minute to the 60th, Cork’s green flag was a product more of Wexford incompetency than Rebel enterprise.
A Mark Ellis delivery had been poorly dealt with by the otherwise excellent Paudie Foley; Conor Lehane pounced on the mistake, offloaded to Kearney, and the Cork sub drilled a low shot past goalkeeper Mark Fanning. The scoreline, Cork 1-15 to Wexford 0-17, made a mockery of the preceding hour’s fare.
Kieran Kingston’s men, having somehow navigated a path to take them ahead of Liam Dunne’s side despite being outworked, outmuscled, and out-thought for the majority of the second period and, indeed, the latter stages of the first, were well placed to drive for home, well placed to seize upon Wexford’s vulnerability.
That they didn’t, not even close, spoke volumes of their attitude on the night.
Cork had barely finished celebrating the goal when Lee Chin, so effective in his deep-sitting centre-forward role, struck his third point. Level pegging. And given there were no overly convoluted systems in play by either team — Paudie Foley carried out the sweeper role in the Wexford defence with quiet assurance — and given the hurling wasn’t of such blinding pace as you’d associate with this time of year, this second-round qualifier contest would be decided, rather simply, by who wanted it more.
A Mark Fanning free into the opposition danger area was fielded by Liam Óg McGovern, Conor McDonald collected the offload and split the posts. Patrick Horgan levelled proceedings for an eighth occasion with a ’65, but back roaring down the field came the underdogs – Chin and McDonald (free) on target.
In the six minutes since Kearney’s goal, Wexford had outscored Cork by 0-4 to 0-1. Storm weathered, even if it turned out to be more light drizzle than gale.
Lehane, with his third, brought it back to the minimum. McGovern, in response, threw over a pair of absolute beauties in front of the Kinane Stand to seal a first Wexford win over Cork in the championship since 1956.
“We contributed to our own demise,” Cork manager Kieran Kingston said afterwards.
“We said we needed a goal. When we got the goal we felt that we would kick on. They reacted better to it than we did, which is disappointing. When we didn’t kick on, we were always under pressure coming down the stretch.”
That they didn’t kick on was no huge surprise. The problems which blighted them at the finish were evident from early in proceedings.
Alan Cadogan’s poor effort on goal after 22 minutes was their ninth wide of the match. That tally had extended to 11 by the break. Frustrating Cork was their erratic decision making and deplorable distribution when coming out of defence. On 32 minutes, Aidan Walsh tried to find Cadogan in the corner by the Kinane Stand. The pass was overcooked and the sliotar trickled out over the end line. It certainly wasn’t an isolated incident, but the subsequent booing from the Cork supporters told the story.
Six different Cork players — Horgan, Cadogan, Bill Cooper, Seamus Harnedy, Luke O’Farrell, and William Egan — were on the mark inside the opening quarter to leave them 0-6 to 0-5 in front. Wexford’s difficulties lay in locating their outnumbered forwards. What bolstered them was the host of needless fouls committed by defenders wearing red. Conor McDonald finished the half with eight points, six arriving from the placed ball.
The young full-forward contributed six of their seven unanswered points as the underdogs surged 0-12 to 0-6 clear approaching the break. David Dunne also succeeded at troubling the Cork rearguard. A Conor Lehane effort in first-half stoppage time brought an end to their 21-minute scoring drought. While he and Horgan further closed the gap before the break — 0-12 to 0-9 was the interval scoreline, the favourites failed to build on this mini-burst on the resumption.
For Wexford, the 13-point drubbing at the hands of Dublin in mid-May must seem a distant memory as they ready for a second All-Ireland quarter-final in three years. For Cork, 2016 draws to a close with just two wins — a league relegation play-off against Galway and the recent defeat of 14-man Dublin.
As one supporter remarked on his way out of Thurles, the Kerry hurlers won more competitive fixtures than Cork this year.
“It has been a tough year,” said Kingston. “It has been a baptism of fire. There wasn’t any honeymoon period, not that I expected one. I am not going to make any excuses.”
C McDonald (0-13, 0-10 frees); L Chin (0-4); L Óg McGovern (0-2); M Fanning (0-1 free); J O’Connor, P Morris, E Moore (0-1 each).
P Horgan (0-7, 0-5 frees, 0-1 ’65); D Kearney (1-0); L O’Farrell, C Lehane (0-3 each); A Cadogan, B Cooper, S Harnedy, W Egan (0-1 each).
M Fanning; D O’Keeffe, M O’Hanlon, J Breen; E Moore, P Foley, E Martin; J O’Connor, E Conroy; L Óg McGovern, L Chin, P Doran; P Morris, C McDonald, D Dunne.
H Kehoe for Doran (34 mins, inj); A Kenny for Martin (43, inj); S Donohue for O’Connor (62); C Dunbar for Moore (66); A Nolan for Morris (72).
A Nash; S McDonnell, D Cahalane, C O’Sullivan; A Walsh, C Joyce, M Ellis; B Cooper, W Egan; L O’Farrell, S Harnedy, J Cronin; A Cadogan, P Horgan, L O’Farrell.
D Kearney for Cronin (31 mins); B Lawton for Cooper (54); S Kingston for Harnedy (60); C Murphy for Joyce (62); M Coleman for McDonnell (67).
B Kelly (Westmeath).