A match defined by an extraordinary closing phase of the game, victory looked destined to go Wexford’s way when Mickey Dwyer sent a score in the 57th minute to make them six points clear. Nothing, you say, but Claire seemed dead at her feet, empty of thoughts and drained of vitality.
And then it changed, as the earth shook under our feet at Sample Stadium.
From there to the end, Claire was transformed. Back by six points, 0-15 to 3-12, when Dwyer pointed, he was copying the side that had put Limerick in the pin of his collar in the Munster final. Wexford were claiming a more compelling victory, enjoying a favorable swing of luck in the 51st minute when Lee Chin scored after hitting the crossbar moments from Ian Galvin.
Yet when all seemed lost, Brian Lohan’s side found something, a burst of energy and a complete take. Whistling from there to the end, including six minutes of injury time, they outscored Wexford 1-9 0-2. Was surprised to see this.
A name that wasn’t really on anyone’s lips, Aaron Shanagher, proved to be one of Claire’s saviors. He exemplified on his introduction from the bench, indicating the time for the procession of the Clare scores to begin. By the time Wexford scored a chin-free goal in the 69th minute, Claire had accumulated 1-6 without an answer. Shanagher took 1-2 for himself and without him it would be no exaggeration to say that Claire would have been doomed.
Shane Meehan, an intelligent livewire, was also introduced and got two points and Tony Kelly, who was too high for the same, also entered the match with two late scores. Kelly scored a happy point in the first half, but otherwise made little impact. Due to three misses, one from 45 meters in front of the goal, duties were transferred to Peter Dugan as he was in the Münster final. But he came well in the deciding stage of the match and finished with four points from the game.
Clare had already left herself five points in a row to leave a trail behind when Shaagher scored her own goal in the 67th minute, with Wexford desperately trying to breathe. There was a Kelly free-drop by Mark Fanning and Shanagher pulled over the net before Wexford could clear the ball.
Claire’s deepest fear of going into the match was physical and mental exhaustion after an energy-saving Munster final. Their first loss of the championship, followed by an exhaustive effort, only a fortnight later raised questions about their preparation for the expected turbo-charged challenge from Wexford.
The effect of the proposed dual suspension for Duggan and Rory Hayes was impossible. The news caused a storm of outrage in Claire. Never mind that both players exposed themselves to such penalties by their actions, the fever that provoked them, compared to the unhealthy distraction caused by Colin Lynch’s affair in 1998, which caused three did much to derail his bid to win a third All-Ireland in years.
Duggan and Hayes got unexpected relief during the past week, but the entire episode did little to keep the team’s attention on the Wexford trial coming down the track. In just eight minutes into the match, Hayes was removed struggling on a chin, replaced by Sean Nolan, who secured a spot for the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny after a fine performance. Paul Flanagan was excellent in the second corner and Connor Cleary did much to subdue Conor McDonald who failed to score.
Claire’s fears were born in the early stages of the match, Wexford got a dream start when Jack O’Connor caught Fanning’s puck, ran through a gap in the middle and a low over the net after only 25 seconds. Shot sent. He was beaten at Thurles last year after a very poor start.
They were very excited in the opening round, with Chin massive and Oisin Foley also in scoring form. Hayes bowled a ball before his replacement and McDonald nearly claimed a second Wexford goal, his ground shot clearing outside the far post. It didn’t take long for Claire Line to make the change.
To pick up Kelly, Wexford brought on Shane Rake, who played on the inside forward line, and Diramuid O’Keefe played as a sweeper, meaning that Clare was unable to find any fluency in his hurling.
Still he went at half-time on level terms, 0-10 to 1-7, hitting nine wides into Wexford’s six. Ian Galvin scored two points, with Shane O’Donnell also scoring, but Ryan Taylor was not able to repeat his final performance of Munster. But Taylor had an impact in the final round of the match.
Wexford also had bad luck, losing only to injury to Rory O’Connor in 14 minutes. After losing to Claire in the 2020 and ’21 qualifiers, and the 2018 All-Ireland quarterfinals, she didn’t lack for inspiration. David Ready put Claire first in the opening minute of the second half and half-back Diarmuid Ryan took his tally to three points by the 40th minute, giving Claire two points.
But Claire was facing another set-back 12 minutes into the half when a Fanning free fell into the opposing goal, Chin trying to make contact in mid-air. Wexford was back in front. Four minutes later, Galvin dropped his effort off the crossbar, and within seconds Chin drove the ball into the net at the other end, leading to a five-point lead. It’s an ominous look for Claire followers, but the best was yet to come.
Scorers – Claire: A. Shanagher 1-2; P Duggan 0-5 (all FS), T Kelly 0-4; D Ryan 0-3; S. Meehan, S. O’Donnell, I. Galvin 0-2 each; D Fitzgerald, C Malone 0-1 each. Wexford: El Chin 1-8 (5 fs); M Fanning (F), J O’Connor 1-0 each; O Foley 0-2; D O’Keefe, D Rake, R O’Connor, M Dwyer 0-1 each.
Claire: E Quilligan; R Hayes, C Cleary, P Flanagan; D. Ryan, J. Conlan, D. McInerney; R Taylor, C Malone; D Fitzgerald, S O’Donnell, P Duggan; T Kelly, I Galvin, D Ready. Subsequent members: C for Nolan Hayes (8 min); ready for M Rodgers (54); A. Shanagher (59) for Fitzgerald; S. Meehan (62) for Galvin.
Wexford: M Fanning; S. Rake, L. Ryan, S. Donohoe; M O’Hanlon, D Reck, P Foley; D’O’Keefe; C DeWitt, L Og McGovern; R O’Connor, J O’Connor, O Foley; El Chin, C McDonald. Subs: M O’Dwyer to R. O’Connor (Eng. 14 min); Kay Foley (61) for O’Keefe; Sea Flood for McGovern (63); C McGuckian (67) for S rake; P Morris for De Reck (68).
Referee: Sea Leon (Cork).