Late Mitchell brace secures sensational win for wonderful Westmeath hurlers
Very occasionally in life, events in a sporting arena take place in front of an array of incredulous eyes which defy logic and belief.
The period from approximately 3.55pm to 4.33pm in Chadwick’s Wexford Park last Sunday neatly ticks that box, as 2,500 fans – a good 2,400 of them supporting the home team – watched on as Westmeath recovered from a truly dire first half performance to eke out perhaps the greatest single hurling result in the history of a largely unsuccessful – but always proud – county.
A whopping 16 points in arrears at half-time – it had been 17 in the 33rd minute – a team of heroes in green and maroon jerseys hurled out of their individual and collective skins to deservedly overturn a traditional small ball power by two points.
Accordingly, three teams, rather than the widely anticipated two of Westmeath and Antrim, will be fighting to avoid the relegation trapdoor next Sunday at two venues, with the Slaneysiders facing the very genuine threat of an ignominious drop to the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2024.
The sunny south-east lived up to its name last Sunday at the resplendent home of Wexford hurling, where the home team played the first half aided by a useful wind. It was far from a 16-point wind, but Darragh Egan’s charges swatted aside a very poor visiting outfit by that margin in the opening moiety.
All Westmeath had to show for their feeble efforts was a quintet of converted frees by Ciaran Doyle in the fourth, 21st, 30th, 34th and 35th minutes (the latter two from quite difficult placed balls). For their part, the Model County scored a whopping 2-15 at their virtual ease, despite occasional patches of gutsy Westmeath defending.
Both goals were scored by Conor McDonald, with Rory O’Connor providing the two assists in the tenth and 24th minutes respectively. The points were shared among eight players – three each from Rory O’Connor (play), Lee Chin (all frees), and Jack O’Connor (including one lineball), two from Oisín Foley, and one apiece from Mike Dwyer, McDonald, Ian Carty, and Cathal Dunbar. With Wexford ahead by 2-15 to 0-5 at the break, much of the interval talk honed in on the “folly of teams like Westmeath taking up a precious slot in the Leinster championship” – not all of it from the mouths of home fans.
Now for the second half! An unanswered 1-4 between the 36th and 43rd minutes – the goal from a rejuvenated Niall O’Brien in the 38th minute, and all the points from Doyle (the third a superb score from play) – seemed to belatedly ensure a modicum of respectability for Westmeath. Despite Dunbar spurning a glorious goal chance in the 47th minute, Wexford outscored their opponents by four points (three from Chin, including two frees, and another sublime lineball by Jack O’Connor) to three (O’Brien and two Doyle frees) by the 54th minute, to leave them ahead by 2-19 to 1-12.
The as-ever tenacious Darragh Egerton was correctly black-carded in the 55th minute for a foul on goal-bound Rory O’Connor, but the latter’s brother Jack struck the resultant penalty weakly and Noel Conaty was on hand to keep his goal intact, with the hard-working Robbie Greville vigilant for the rebound. Conaty did well to keep out another Jack O’Connor shot, this time from play, and one could sense the ‘Yellow Bellies’ feeling some butterflies in said bellies at this juncture.
A fabulous point from energetic young sub Peter Clarke was cancelled out by a McDonald point. O’Brien skilfully doubled his goal tally in the 63rd minute and the gap was down to seven points (2-20 to 2-13). Sub Conor Hearne increased it to eight, but Westmeath could smell blood and points from Joey Boyle, O’Brien, and veteran sub Derek McNicholas were followed by a 70th-minute goal from Niall Mitchell, whose aerial threat had the home rearguard in real bother.
Five minutes of injury-time were signalled, and Wexford fans were visibly wishing it away. Up popped Mitchell again in the second added minute to somehow conjure up another goal. Incredibly, Westmeath now led by a point. Eoin Keyes made it two before Hearne doubled his haul. The winners’ steely defence survived another Jack O’Connor lineball, and a counter-attack resulted in a free which O’Brien calmly converted.
Cue the final whistle and scenes of unbridled joy which will live long in the memories of those fortunate enough to have made the long journey to Wexford.
Scorers – Westmeath: C Doyle 0-11 (10f), N O’Brien 2-3 (0-1f), N Mitchell 2-0, P Clarke, J Boyle, D McNicholas, E Keyes 0-1 each.
Wexford: C McDonald 2-2, L Chin 0-6 (4f), J O’Connor 0-4 (2s/l), R O’Connor 0-3, O Foley, C Hearne 0-2 each, M Dwyer, I Carty, C Dunbar 0-1 each.
Westmeath: Noel Conaty; Conor Shaw, Tommy Doyle, Johnny Bermingham; Aaron Craig, Robbie Greville, Darragh Egerton; Shane McGovern, Ciaran Doyle; Eoin Keyes, Niall O’Brien, Charlie McCormack; Owen McCabe, Joey Boyle, Davy Glennon. Subs used: Peter Clarke for McGovern (h-t), Cormac Boyle for McCormack (h-t), Niall Mitchell for Glennon (51), Derek McNicholas for C Doyle (66).
Wexford: James Lawlor; Shane Reck, Liam Ryan, Conor Devitt; Ian Carty, Matthew O’Hanlon, Simon Donohoe; Jack O’Connor, Cathal Dunbar; Liam Óg McGovern, Lee Chin, Oisín Foley; Rory O’Connor, Conor McDonald, Mikie Dwyer. Subs used: Charlie McGuckin for Dunbar (60), Conor Hearne for Dwyer (60), Diarmuid O’Keeffe for Foley (70).
Ref: Chris Mooney (Dublin).