AFTER a gap of nine long years Wexford are back in a Leinster senior hurling final following an epic battle with Kilkenny at Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday night.
Leading by 0-12 to 1-5 after a wind assisted first half, the Models had to endure a ferocious onslaught from the defending champions.
But with Lee Chin outstanding and great support acts from Paul Morris, Liam Ryan, Shaun Murphy and Diarmuid Devereaux, Wexford simply refused to be beaten and secured a famous win – a first in Championship over the Cats since 2004 and a first final appearance since 2008.
Wexford had picked up where they left off in an impressive first half.
And when David Redmond bundled in a crucial 40th minute goal and when their excellent ‘keeper Mark Fanning saved from Chris Bolger, they dared to dream.
But Kilkenny showed the class of champions to hit back.
They made Wexford pay for some sloppy passing and over-elaborate play.
They tightened up at the back with Cillian Buckley prominent.
Working off booming ball into the Wexford defence, Colin Fennelly scored a great goal in the 54th minute and then the same man won a penalty a minute later which TJ Reid again spectacularly bashed to the net.
With 55 minutes gone it was 1-16 to 3-9 and maybe the Kilkenny of old sensing blood would have really gone for the jugular and delivered.
But the supreme athlete that was Lee Chin stepped into the gap to stop the rot. Winning ball, picking off
scores, making runs, He epitomised a night when the Model County were not in a mood to yield.
Kilkenny, losing here in Leinster for the first time since a semi-final replay to Dublin in 2013, deserve enormous credit for continuing to battle and threaten.
But with Richie Hogan under an injury cloud and TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly bottled up they hadn’t the spark to create another goal.
Wexford, full of strong running and enormous heart, were deservedly able to lift the siege and book a place in Croke Park against either Galway or Offaly who meet next week in the second semi-final.
Thousands poured onto the field at the final whistle as the tannoy blared out ‘Glory Days’ by Bruce Springstein.
It’s only a semi-final but you couldn’t begrudge them their fun on a night that will live long in the memory. Wexford haven’t won the Bob O’Keeffe since 2004. Now they dare to dream big.
Kilkenny meanwhile join Tipperary in the hurling qualifiers.
Any fears that this long awaited semi-final battle would fail to live up to the hype were spectacularly blown away after a gripping, intense and hugely entertaining first half.
In front of a capacity crowd of some 18,467 fans, the match exploded into life from the throw-in when a fired up TJ Reid brilliantly blasted home a second minute penalty won by Colin Fennelly.
However, some wildly erratic shooting from the Cats prevented them from building on this great opening.
Wexford, with their talismanic boss Davy Fitzgerald banned up into a box in the stand, began to use a strong wind advantage to edge into the game.
Great scores from Diarmuid O’Keeffe,Liam Ryan, long range Lee Chin frees and well worked scores from Jack Guiney and Jack O’Connor had them out in front.
Brian Cody reacted after a spate of poor finishing by taking off Padraig Walsh, who wearing three, played centre forward, and also Ger Aylward. Walsh was in a protective boot up until two weeks ago and he was clearly hampered. Michael Fennelly was also unable to be part of the panel due to injury and with Richie Hogan also hindered, Kilkenny were weakened and vulnerable.
This however, cannot take from what was a heroic display by a Wexford team full of big performers. They needed their big players to deliver – and they did.
Conor McDonald from frees and play was profiting from the damage being caused by the booming puck outs from Wexford ‘keeper Mark Fanning.
TJ Reid frees kept Kilkenny in it as their wides tally for the opening 35 went up to nine.
At the break the Models are well worth their four point advantage but the worry was that the wind was way stronger than four points.
Their supporters need not have worried. They had steeled themselves to do something special.