Wexford 2-25 Clare 2-22 (after extra-time)
The familiar strains of Kenny Rodgers’ The Gambler emanated loud and proud from Wexford’s dressing room late on Saturday evening.
Truth is, it took the bones of 180-plus minutes of a pulsating duel for this promising group to learn when to hold and fold them.
Against All-Ireland champions, it was probably never going to matter how strong their hand was. For the second week in a row, Clare had the weaker cards, and yet they managed to break even in normal time.
On this occasion, they were another man less. As they lost Podge Collins to a straight red card in Ennis, so too did they lose Brendan Bugler for a rash tackle. But when Jack Browne was sent to the line for a second yellow card, the odds towered against them.
Clare managed to force extra-time helped as much by Wexford’s profligacy — the story of the day had the result been any way different — as a last-gasp Colin Ryan 65 made it 2-15 to 1-18.
Restored to their full 15 with Jamie Shanahan, who scored a brace of points, and Aaron Cunningham introduced, Clare led by one. But Wexford ended the half ahead, 2-20 to 2-18, with the superb Jack Guiney setting up Harry Kehoe for a goal.
The sides were soon level again only for Paul Morris, having been replaced after hitting five first-half wides before returning to the fray, to post two vital scores against the wind.
Conor McGrath and Tony Kelly squared matters again but a hat-trick of scores by Guiney, the last two from frees, finally put Clare to the sword. After being level on 12 occasions, Wexford ultimately exerted their superiority.
In a perverse way, even if it meant his team having to go the distance once more, Liam Dunne was happy to won it in extra-time.
He explained: “People would be saying to me that we didn’t finish in full-time but for this team and the development of this team, it was good that the teams went back to 15 a side and we beat them fair and square in extra-time.
“That’s the pleasing thing. I would have taken the win in 70 minutes, to be honest but fellas went to the well.”
From the start of the league, Dunne stressed the need for Wexford to face the best teams. Here he couldn’t have asked for more.
“We spoke in Ennis last week and speaking to the players, I just said to them it was fabulous it was a draw.
“People would think I was half-mad but for the learning of this team, it was fabulous. I said to the lads the other night ‘when has a Wexford team had the opportunity to play All-Ireland champions twice in one week?’”
Just like in the Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin at the same venue four weeks ago, Wexford’s first-half wide count was startling. Eight against Dublin, here they managed 11 before the break.
Against a strong breeze, Clare had fared better. Although they lost Bugler, they were more au fait with the sweeper system while Keith Rossiter struggled with his free role.
At the break Clare were 1-5 to 0-6 ahead, the goal coming in the 22nd minute as Darach Honan was easily picked out by Colm Galvin and the inside forward had time to place the ball past Mark Fanning. John Conlon was also putting in a shift of two men as the visitors belied the conditions. Shortly after Bugler’s dismissal, Wexford were denied a seemingly clear-cut goal when a long Paul Morris free was deflected off David McInerney’s hand to the net.
Johnny Ryan, though, disallowed the score, on an evening when he struggled on occasions to punish similar fouls in the same manner. Sacrificing their sweeper and having seen Browne leave the field after a second yellow card, Clare grabbed a second goal when Peter Duggan laid off a ball for Conlon to smash to the net.
But Wexford’s response was instantaneous, when Conor McDonald was set up by Rory Jacob to goal.
Wexford went ahead for the first time on 55 minutes, Guiney impressing in Morris’s stead as freetaker.
They went ahead on three more occasions, by two points at one stage, before the end of normal time but 13-man Clare came back each time.
Dunne wasn’t worried, though. His selector and former Wexford team-mate Ger Cushe at full-time told the dressing room that their mistakes were eminently fixable.
“The one thing I said to the lads last week before we left the dressing room in Ennis was: a Wexford man hurls with spirit, hurls with honour. I got a lot of that in the last two weeks. We have to soldier on but it’s fantastic and they’ll grow from this and we want to keep it going. The commitment I’m getting from them, I can’t fault.”
Having been denied, it wasn’t until the final whistle of extra-time that Wexford believed they could win. They had learned not to count their money sitting at the table.
Scorers for Wexford: J Guiney (0-10, 8 frees); P Morris (0-7, 4 frees); C McDonald (1-1); H Kehoe (1-0); L McGovern (0-3); L Chin (0-2); D O’Keeffe, D Redmond (0-1 each).
Scorers for Clare: J Conlon (1-5); C Ryan (0-5, 4 frees, 1 65); D Honan (1-1); C McGrath (0-4); T Kelly (0-3); J Shanahan (0-2); C Galvin, P Kelly (free) (0-1 each).
Subs for Wexford: J Guiney for P Doran (27); R Jacob for G Sinnott (h-t); I Byrne for P Morris (42); PJ Nolan for D Redmond (45); R Kehoe for D O’Keeffe (60); P Morris for I Byrne (e-t); S Tomkins for PJ Nolan, P Doran for R Jacob (both 77); W Devereux for E Moore (inj 80).
Subs for Clare: C McInerney for J Conlon (blood, 28-ht); P Donnellan for P Duggan (56); A Cunningham for D Honan (65); C McInerney for J Conlon (blood, 70+3); J Shanahan for B Bugler, A Cunningham for J Browne (et).
Sent off: B Bugler (straight, 34); J Browne (second yellow, 48).
Referee: J Ryan (Tipperary)
WEXFORD: M Fanning; K Rossiter, L Ryan; M O’Hanlon; A Shore, E Moore, C Kenny; D Redmond, L Chin; D Redmond, L Chin; P Morris, P Doran, D O’Keeffe; G Sinnott, C McDonald, L McGovern. CLARE: P Kelly; J Browne, D McInerney, C Dillon; B Bugler, Conor Ryan, P O’Connor; T Kelly, C Galvin; P Duggan, C McGrath, Colin Ryan; D Honan, J Conlon, S Morey.
Wexford could only celebrate when Jack Guiney struck over a free to widen the gap to three in what was the penultimate puck of the game.
Talk of the town
Another epic, defined by Wexford’s growing belief and Clare defiance.
Did that just happen?
Clare enquired with officials about suspended Podge Collins’ availability in extra-time. They were told he wasn’t permitted as he hadn’t — and couldn’t — be named in the matchday panel.
Best on show
Jack Guiney will receive a lot of plaudits but our vote goes to Liam Óg McGovern. A menace who never stopped running. John Conlon put in one of his best shows in a Clare jersey.
Davy Fitzgerald wasn’t helped by his team’s indiscipline and was stretched come the second half. Liam Dunne had clearly targeted Clare’s full-back line with the high ball in the first half but it didn’t work. A more deliberate style against the wind in the second half was more successful. The call to withdraw Paul Morris was a good one but Morris restored faith in extra-time.
The man in black
Credit to Johnny Ryan for getting Brendan Bugler’s red card right but why Wexford were denied a first-half goal and strong Wexford fouls went uncarded is a mystery. Too much inconsistency.
A long break for the All-Ireland champions until February’s league. Wexford face Waterford in their second round qualifier in Nowlan Park on Saturday.
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