Wexford had goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry to thank after their 2-12 to 1-11 victory over Offaly in the Guinness Leinster SHC final in Croke Park yesterday. Offaly had five clear chances to score a goal in the first half, but Fitzhenry was outstanding and kept his side in the game.
Offaly got off to the better start with three unanswered points. Rory Hanniffy shook off Darragh Ryan to open, followed by a second from Brenday Murphy when he capitalised on some slack passing from the Wexford backs to seize possession and point well, and a third coming when Damian Murray passed into space out wide to find Brian Carroll who pointed from a tight angle.
During this period Wexford got up the field twice and both times drove the sliotar wide.
It looked like Offaly were going to fly into an unassailable lead and it took the brilliance of Damien Fitzhenry to stop them. A Damien Murray shot brought the best from the Wexford ‘keeper, who leapt to his left to turn the ball wide with his outstretched hurl. The ensuing 65 was missed.
It seemed to inspire Wexford, who opened their account through Barry Lambert minutes later and began to take a more active role in the game.
Offaly, however, were still raiding and a Michael Cordial point from way out on the sideline gave them a 0-04 to 0-01 lead after 11minutes.
The Offaly half-backs were giving the Wexford forwards very few opportunities and Wexford’s second score, through Eoin Quigley, came from midfield.
Offaly were given a second goal-chance minutes later when the Wexford backs dithered in the face of a Damien Murray charge. Murray lost the sliotar but kicked it hard towards goal only for Fitzhenry to save brilliantly on the ground, and spring up again to save the rebound.
Then Wexford did what Offaly could not manage for the first half in spite of a glut of chances. Tomas Mahon hit the sliotar in from the left and Brian Mullins’ save was flicked out to Michael Jacob who drilled it home to leave Wexford leading for the first time, 1-02 to 0-04.
Offaly levelled seconds later through Gary Hanniffy and the Faithful men had yet another chance at goal when Michael Cordial drove a hard shot into the corner and Fitzhenry showed his class once more to keep his side in front.
Mitch Jordan put Wexford in the lead again with a point from a free after he had been fouled, but Damien Murray soon answered with a converted free for Offaly after his jersey had been pulled.
The game simply wasn’t igniting at all, and both sides were struggling to come to terms with the greasy top-surface and conditions.
On the half-hour mark, Offaly forward Brendan Murphy found himself in on goal and fell under a hard challenge and the referee stepped up to award a penalty. Murray positioned himself in front of the goal and drove it hard at the three men on the line only to see Damien Fitzhenry save his side for the fifth time in less than half an hour. With a lead of only one point, each goal chance missed by Offaly – or rather, each goal chance saved by Fitzhenry – was crucial to the Wexford cause.
As the clock ticked towards half-time, the sides traded points. David Franks pucked in from out the pitch and Brian Carroll tapped over the bar for 0-07 to 1-03. Eoin Quigley levelled it for Wexford before Damien Murray had the last word in the half with a point from a free, leaving the score at 0-08 to 1-04 to Offaly.
The second half got off to a scrappy start, but this time Wexford were the stronger side. Three scores without reply for Wexford, through Barry Lambert from a free, Eoin Quigley from way out on the sideline, and a super point from substitute Paul Codd left Wexford leading 1-07 0-08 after ten minutes of the second period. During that ten minutes, crucially, Offaly lost the inspirational Brian Whelahan, who tore a hamstring while stretching out to flick a ball to safety in the 45th minute.
It took the Faithful County fifteen minutes to register their first score of the half and, tellingly, it came from a Damien Murray free. It was soon cancelled out when Paul Carley, Wexford’s sub-goalkeeper from last year, found himself in acres of space and shortened the hurl to drive low and hard inside Brian Mullins’ right hand post. That was soon followed by a brilliant Adrian Fenlon point, putting Wexford 2-09 to 0-09 in the lead.
The Faithful men, as they have done so many times in the past, showed their grit and responded by finally hitting Damien Fitzhenry’s net. An Offaly attack seemed to have been quelled by the Wexford backs only for the ball to squirt out to Gary Hanniffy who drove hard and low past an unsighted Fitzhenry to put the midlanders right back into the game. As if to underline this, Colm Cassidy pointed from a free on the 65th minute to put Offaly within a point again, on a scoreline of 2-08 to 1-10.
However, Wexford were not to be deterred. Two points from Rory Jacob and a score each from Paul Codd and goalscorer Paul Carley were answered by only one Offaly point - a brilliant Barry Whelehan effort. And so the Model Men took the title and the Bob O’Keeffe Cup they last won in 1997.
Filed by Barry J Whyte