By Kieran Galvin
Westmeath have caused a sensation in the Leinster hurling championship as this draw with Wexford could yet cost the Slaneysiders a place in the All-Ireland series.
There was a highly dramatic finish to a game that looked like it was going to peter out into an unconvincing win for Wexford.
In the fifth minute of stoppage time, veteran Westmeath substitute Derek McNicholas got the vital touch after Wexford netminder Mark Fanning was unable to deal with a delivery into the goalmouth from another sub, Kevin Regan.
It was the second soft goal Wexford conceded on the evening and combined with their wasteful shooting, it leaves their championship hopes hanging by a thread.
Wexford registered 14 wides in the second half and a total of 21 as a combination of poor finishing and questionable shot selection came back to haunt them.
With Wexford having already lost to Dublin and drawn with Galway, they really needed to win this game. From Westmeath's point of view, this famous result is a major shot in the arm ahead of their upcoming clash with Laois which will decide who holds on to Liam MacCarthy Cup status.
On a glorious sunny evening in Mullingar, Westmeath caused Wexford plenty of problems in the first half, with the visitors leading by the bare minimum at half-time (0-12 to 1-8).
Westmeath generally opted to go short with their puckouts in the first half, often looking for the returning Aonghus Clarke to set up attacks by spraying diagonal passes forward.
Wexford were more effective at curbing this tactic in the second half, but Darragh Egan's charges were still unable to see the game out in the pressure cooker closing stages.
Westmeath's first-half goal was highly fortuitous as Niall Mitchell's speculative long-range point attempt was spilled by Wexford goalie Fanning and the ball dropped into the net. That 24th-minute score lifted the Westmeath players and fans alike and a number of mini-battles started to go their way.
Lee Chin was showing the way from general play for a rattled Wexford side in the opening half, scoring five points (four frees). However, Chin had a number of uncharacteristic misses from placed balls.
Rory O'Connor also looked dangerous but the supply of ball to the St Martin's attacker was patchy to say the least.
At the other end, Killian Doyle put some early misses behind him and went on to register five points from placed balls in the opening period. The Raharney sharpshooter ended the evening with a tally of 0-11 and it was his scoring prowess that kept Westmeath in touch for long spells.
Wexford built a lead of 0-16 to 1-9 by the 46th minute and Westmeath's first point from play in the second period didn't arrive until the 68th minute.
Impressive Wexford defender Simon Donohoe landed two points from long range and the home side's challenge appeared to have wilted in the second half.
To make things worse for Westmeath, they were reduced to 14 men with four minutes of normal time remaining, after Davy Glennon was shown a second yellow card.
Yet, the visitors were unable to put genuine daylight between themselves and the spirited underdogs. They still looked like they would do enough to hang on until that dramatic late goal involving Regan and McNicholas.
As added time continued, Wexford had chances to claim victory after the second Westmeath goal, but they couldn't take them as home fans celebrated the draw like it was a victory.
Westmeath: Noel Conaty; Johnny Bermingham, Aonghus Clarke, Darragh Egerton; Robbie Greville, Tommy Doyle, Aaron Craig (0-1); Cormac Boyle, Shane McGovern; Davy Glennon (0-1), Joey Boyle, Niall O'Brien (0-1); Niall Mitchell 1-0, Eoin Keyes, Killian Doyle (0-11, 9f, 1 65).
Subs: Kevin Regan (0-1) for C Boyle (49 mins); Owen McCabe for Keyes (50); Derek McNicholas (1-0) for J Boyle (67); Darragh Clinton for O'Brien (70); Jack Gillen for Mitchell (73).
Wexford: Mark Fanning; Simon Donohoe (0-2, Liam Ryan, Conor Devitt; Matthew O'Hanlon, Damien Reck, Paudie Foley; Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Liam Óg McGovern (0-2); Jack O'Connor, Oisín Foley (0-2), Lee Chin (0-9, 7f); Paul Morris (0-1), Conor McDonald (0-2), R O'Connor (0-2).
Subs: Kevin Foley for O'Keeffe (29 mins); Charlie McGuckian for Morris (50); Connal Flood for J O'Connor (54); Mikie Dwyer for O Foley (62); Conor Hearne 0-1 for Ryan (inj., 67).
Referee: Shane Hynes (Galway).