By Marty Morrissey
Ah…the beauty of sport. You never know what way the script will turn out.
Hammered by 12 points in the Leinster SHC final four weeks ago, Wexford were the opponents of choice for the rest of the sides left in the Championship.
The 'no-hopers' from the sunny southeast were a soft and easy touch was the general consensus.
Tipperary got the alleged 'soft touch' by playing inspired hurling to beat Cork in Thurles in the final round of the qualifiers less than two weeks ago. So would they canter through to a semi-final, or could Wexford somewhere find their soul, their pride?
The answers to all our questions came fast and furious and in abundance in Croke Park this afternoon. Even before the game began there was debate down the Premier way.
No Eoin Kelly in the starting line up for Tipperary - a controversial move. Tipp manager Babs Keating felt his ace forward wasn’t 100% match fit, but would make an appearance sometime. He did, and he was needed.
The first half was all about Wexford misses. Goal after goal opportunity was squandered, while Tipperary goalkeeper Gerry Kennedy brought off a fantastic save from a piledriver from Stephen Nolan.
Eight wides they accumulated and how they trailed at half time was mystifying. Their goal came in the 18th minute when a long high ball was touched home by Rory Jacob.
Within a minute, Lar Corbett crashed the sliotar past Damien Fitzhenry at the other end when another high ball was caught brilliantly by the Thurles Sarsfields man over the head of Malachy Travers. At half time Tipperary led by 1-08 to 1-05 but one sensed that all was not well with the blue and gold.
Three minutes into the second half Rory Jacob fed Barry Lambert with a delightful pass and his shot whizzed past Gerry Kennedy. Wexford now led by 2-05 to 1-09. Defences dominated all through, but one fleeting moment saw Eoin Kelly through on Damien Fitzhenry but the Duffry Rovers star dived in spectacular fashion to his left to deflect it out for a '65'.
Seven times the teams were level in the second half and many in Croke Park or watching it on live television on RTÉ’s The Saturday Game must have anticipated that this was going to a replay.
But then came the turning point with just a minute to go on the clock. Darren Stamp caught a long ball on the 20-metre line in front of the Canal End and was subsequently fouled.
A Tipp player then spoke out of turn, the ball was moved in and soon Wexford goalkeeper and captain Damien Fitzhenry was making the long journey from in front of the still half empty Hill 16.
He arrived safely, stood over the ball, took a few paces back and let rip a rocket that nobody in Tipperary hardly saw. It was now Wexford leading 3-09 to 1-14.
One point advantage to the purple and gold and three minutes of injury time added on. Would Wexford hold on? Could Tipp find the power, the belief to go back to the well and create one more chance?
Instead it was Wexford who added on another point when Eoin Quigley, in front of the Cusack Stand and under severe pressure, pointed to give the Leinster boys a most unexpected but fully deserved two-point win.
Wexford had not beaten Tipperary in the Championship since 1968 and so they celebrated. Tears of joy literally flowed, men hugged each other in passionate bear hugs. Not solely because that 39-year hoodoo was broken, but also banishing the memory of a mother and father of a hammering in the Leinster decider.
Fair dues to John Meyler, the Wexford manager. From where he started with a team meeting on the Tuesday night after losing to Kilkenny to today in Croke Park was some journey. No man deserved the bear hug more.
Now, would you bet against them next Sunday in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-fnal? I wouldn't.