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Thursday 21 November 2019

14 men 'Tipp' scales to win titanic battle

Sheedy's heroes survive gut-check moments to dash Wexford's dreams

ALL OVER: Kevin Foley of Wexford is consouled by Padraic Maher of Tipperary after the All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park. Pics: Sportsfile
ALL OVER: Kevin Foley of Wexford is consouled by Padraic Maher of Tipperary after the All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park. Pics: Sportsfile

For Liam Sheedy, you couldn't write the script any sweeter than this.

An All-Ireland semi-final is all about winning; the finer details ultimately don't matter. But for a Tipperary scrutinised to death over this past month, yesterday's triumph in adversity will have felt like validation and vindication for prodigal manager and players alike.

"This is a wonderful bunch," Sheedy enthused. "This is a bunch that has given me everything since November - and they have been challenged.

"I'm just fortunate to have put a really solid team around them that has asked questions of them every night, and the reason you did it is for days like today. A man down and five points down, it really was backs to the wall.

"I sit here today a really proud man because you don't coach that. That comes from the inner resolve that each of those guys has."

BOOST: Lee Chin of Wexford celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal at Croke Park yesterday
BOOST: Lee Chin of Wexford celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal at Croke Park yesterday

The doubters have been circling since that Munster final collapse to Limerick; underwhelming victory over Laois did little to scare the naysayers away. Could Sheedy's men win enough hard ball? Could their legs carry them far enough and fast enough in a marathon 70-minute sprint with Davy Fitzgerald's Model County marauders?

Put more bluntly still, were they mentally tough enough to survive the type of full-on examination that Wexford were always likely to pose?

Maelstrom

Those gut-check moments arrived - in multiples - in a Croke Park maelstrom yesterday.

To reach the sanctuary of the dressing-room only two adrift, 1-14 to 1-12, was probably a minor victory in itself - notwithstanding that Tipp already had two 'goals' scratched off by then.

At times during that first half, the Munster men were barely hanging on - everywhere bar the scoreboard. That they were still in touch owed partly to a moment of genius from skipper Séamus Callanan on nine minutes, unleashing a stunning ground stroke for his seventh goal in consecutive games.

Yet Conor McDonald's first green flag on 25 minutes offered a telling snapshot of Tipp's first-half struggle to contain those Wexford runners - especially Shaun Murphy, ghosting onto a Paul Morris pass to deliver a pinpoint cross that McDonald pounced on with glee.

The second stanza, though, brought a different script.

From the opening minutes, there were clear signals of increased Tipp intensity. Their forwards were starting to make inroads, notably John O'Dwyer who won a brace of frees (converted by Jason Forde) to sandwich his own point after a fine catch.

No sooner had Tipp drawn level than Michael Breen pushed them ahead, on 39 minutes, after an inspirational puckout catch from Ronan Maher.

But then, after Morris equalised, came the start of Tipp's second-half travails ...

45 MINUTES: John McGrath, already booked, is banished on a second yellow for an ill-judged swipe of the hurl on Damien Reck.

49 MINUTES: Wexford have raced two clear before Liam Óg McGovern and Murphy slickly combine to release Lee Chin, racing at the heart of an exposed defence. Chin pulls the trigger, Brian Hogan's despairing dive fails to repel a seemingly stoppable shot ... and Wexford lead 14 men by five.

In a game of oscillating momentum, surely this is the decisive period?

Tipp have not been reading that script, and Callanan kickstarts a run of five unanswered points in the space of six minutes. Parity again. But then ...

60 MINUTES: Morris is released into open prairies down the left flank. Eschewing personal glory, he passes to the far post where McDonald is lurking, unmarked, for his second goal.

Kilkenny referee Seán Cleere checks with his umpires and is satisfied there has been no 'square ball' infringement: Wexford again lead by three.

What happens next tells you everything about Tipp's second half: within five minutes they are level again. The identity of those scorers is equally telling: a brace for Noel McGrath, who was masterful in that second half, and an equaliser from Mark Kehoe, one of four different subs who added scoring momentum in that fourth quarter.

71 MINUTES: The last of several cruel setbacks that, on another day, could have unhinged the winners. Another sub, Willie Connors, has just levelled again when Tipp launch another attack: Liam Ryan manhandles Callanan under a high ball but the sliotar breaks loose and Jake Morris rifles to the net. Except it isn't a goal at all.

Cleere has already earned the wrath of Tipp by disallowing those earlier goals for Breen (a debatable Forde foul on Matthew O'Hanlon) and John McGrath (Hawk-Eye's belated award of a Chin point, no fault of the referee).

Here, though, instead of playing advantage, he has blown for a foul: his initial signal appeared to indicate penalty but instead it's a free-in and Tipp must satisfy themselves with a tap-over Forde point.

Crucially, by now they have this game in a vice-grip and won't let go. They have demolished Mark Fanning's puckout down the home straight. They look fresher than a physically wilting Wexford.

And when they add two more points - a Forde '65' bringing his tally to 12 and a magical Morris effort - to sandwich a Chin free at the other end, it means they have outscored Wexford b y 0-12 to 1-2 from the moment that Chin put Wexford five up and in dreamland.

And so the day belongs to Tipp. Roll on the Cats ...

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