Teams at odds with themselves, or their managers, rarely deliver a performance as committed and raw as this one and it maybe says everything about Wexford yesterday they departed the scene knowing they had actually blown their shot at an Allianz League semi-final.
Superb in the opening quarter, they clung on to the league holders for much of the rest of the game before launching a comeback thanks to a 67th-minute Conor McDonald goal that ultimately fell just short of taking this south-east derby to extra-time. It was the least they deserved for their efforts having contributed so much to a contest few expected to be so entertaining or close, although both managers claimed otherwise as they digested their quarter-final encounter.
“To be fair, we were waiting in the long grass here,” said Wexford manager Liam Dunne afterwards, his words hinting at the rumours of discontent that flowed from his short trip to Spain last week and a league campaign that had disappointed more than it had delighted.
Derek McGrath didn’t see it that way. “We weren’t expecting anything different,” said the Waterford boss. “What’s overlooked is that Wexford have a lot of quality as well. It’s not all of a sudden we have surpassed them. We feel we are no better than Wexford where we are, but we are happy we got over the line.”
So they should be. Wexford outscored Waterford 1-9 to 0-7 from play, but they were let down by their own indiscipline at the back, where Maurice Shanahan punished them with nine frees, and at the other end where their own absence of a top-shelf dead-ball specialist and errant shooting cost them dearly.
There was one point in the second-half when seven Wexford attacks in succession ended with balls drifting wide of the post. It was a criminal catalogue of errors at a critical juncture in the game and at a point when Waterford weren’t firing on all cylinders either.
Wexford tore into Waterford from the off. There was zero time to dwell on any ball at any point. If McGrath had expected as much, it didn’t look as though the message had hit home with his players. It took them an age to reach the pace set by the hosts.
Wexford led 0-8 to 0-2 midway through the opening half, but Waterford finally found some rhythm as Austin Gleeson drifted back downfield from an unfamiliar full-forward berth and Tadhg de Búrca began to lord it in defence. De Búrca, playing as the spare defender throughout, was just sensational. Again. Imperious in the air, he did an unending degree of dirty work – in the best sense - elsewhere besides and his teammates cottoned on to his example as the tide turned.
One snapshot in that spell saw nine Waterford players fight it out with four from Wexford to reclaim the sliotar. The worm had turned and passions rose approaching the break when Austin Gleeson caught Aidan Nolan during a break in play. Twenty players congregated to give their opinions and square their shoulders, but it was a one-off conflagration in a game that saw next to no foul play of the disagreeable kind. That said, it was one decided by Wexford’s indiscipline and Shanahan’s accuracy from the deck.
The Lismore man landed a dozen of the 15 shots he attempted on goal from frees, a ‘65’ and open play. It was by some distance his most effective and encouraging performance of the year and it bodes well as the days lengthen and the stakes are raised.
There is, however, the argument his efforts helped mask difficulties experienced elsewhere against a side that spent the last few months in Division 1B and which was only minutes away from losing to Laois last time out. Derek McGrath had a different take on that.
“This chasm that is supposed to exist between 1A and 1B ... I was in Dublin (Saturday where Limerick beat the hosts), Clare beat Tipp, there’s nothing in it. Maybe when we (managers) talk about a 50-50 game people might interpret it as only building up the opposition.
“But it might be the fact we feel that’s the case. What is really pleasing is that knowing that was coming, knowing this rumour mill was circulating in Wexford all week, we knew Wexford would come with pride and quality and yet we still came out the right side of the result.”
I Byrne (0-4 frees); C McDonald (1-0); H Kehoe (0-3); L Chin and A Nolan (0-2); P Morris and S Tomkins (0-1).
M Shanahan (0-12, 9 frees, one ‘65’); A Gleeson (0-2); Philip Mahony, M Walsh, P Curran (all 0-1).
C O’Leary; J Breen, L Ryan, D O’Keeffe; E Moore, P Foley, M O’Hanlon; J O’Connor, I Byrne; A Nolan, L Chin, C McDonald; L Og McGovern, P Morris, S Tomkins.
H Kehoe for O’Connor (33); A Shore for Byrne (54); A Kenny for Nolan (61); C Dunbar for Tomkins (62); D Dunne for McGovern (68).
S O’Keeffe; N Connors, B Coughlan, S Fives; P Mahony, T De Burca, S Bennett; J Barron, C Dunford; J Dillon, M Walsh, K Moran; M Shanahan, A Gleeson, P Curran.
T Devine for Curran (46); B O’Halloran for Dillon (51); M Kearney for Bennett (61); S McNulty for Connors (64).
J Ryan (Tipperary).