A Day To Forget For Wexford Handballers

Written by Antoin Ó Braoin, Runaí Contae
A day that promised so much for Wexford handball ended in bitter disappointment at two venues this afternoon as all four players taking part in All Ireland finals suffered the bitter taste of defeat in their quest to be crowned champions. Paul Lambert (Junior Singles), John Roche (Masters B Singles), Robert Doyle (Silver Masters B Singles) and Stephen Murphy (Golden Masters B Singles) all entered the court with high hopes of victory and while many reasons will undoubtedly be put forward for the disappointing defeats, the answer is will most likely be found in the old fashioned truth, which is that on the day they were simply not good enough.
The highest expectations probably rested on the shoulders of Paul Lambert in the Junior Singles decider against Martin Raftery, Leitrim. Vastly experienced at this level having won the provincial junior title in four of the past five years, the Wexfordman saw this as his best chance yet to finally win that elusive junior medal.  Sadly and rather frustratingly though, just as in previous years, he found one too good for him yet again. Sadly too, the age old inability to ‘put the ball away’ when the chances were created, again proved very costly.

Martin Raftery, Leitrim, and Paul Lambert, Wexford with Frank Daly, Na Fianna
Martin Raftery, Leitrim, and Paul Lambert, Wexford with Frank Daly, Na Fianna

All seemed to be going to plan in the early stages as ‘Curley’ dominated the exchanges to build a very big looking 18-7 lead, but the Leitrim player was keeping up his impressive work rate and slowly but surely he got a foothold in the game. Raftery did not have a ‘killshot’ to win his points but his sheer persistence was making it difficult for Lambert to close it out. In the end the Wexfordman did prevail by 21-16 but Raftery was now very much in the match and a tough battle lay ahead.
The second was a see saw affair all the way as a fresher looking Raftery again worked his socks off to stay in touch as Lambert threatened to put away. The scores were level at 4-4, 5-5, 10-10, 11-11, 12-12 and finally at 16-16 before Raftery pulled out the bigger shots to clinch it 21-17 and leave the tie all square.
The Wexfordman continued to find scoring difficult in the deciding third set and after he had led 3-0 at the start the determined Raftery took over to forge ahead by 13-5. It looked ominous for the Wexford player at this stage but he battled back to level at 13-13 as the temperature rose considerably in an already very warm court. Raftery did get the next point to lead 14-13 but Lembert levelled again at 14-14. Raftery then produced a series of brilliant serves that were to win him this All Ireland title as he found a spot very close to the back wall from which the ball was almost unreturnable. That helped him into a 20-14 lead and on to the verge of a historic victory. Lambert rallied one more time to reduce this to 20-19, but in a welter of excitement the brilliant Raftery finally nailed the point he needed for a victory he just about deserved.
From a Wexford perspective ‘Curley’s’ preference for his trademark overhead shots against an opponent who matched him in this regard was doomed to fail and were reminiscent of previous defeats in this grade for the Wexford player. His decision to run his opponent at every opportunity backfired badly as the extremely fit Raftery simply revelled in the exchanges and when it went down to the wire in the later stages it was he who had the greater energy and desire in his repertoire. Lambert is undoubtedly one of the most skillful players in the game but he needs to add a ‘kill’ to his game plan if he is to get the reward his talents deserve.  Raftery too could struggle at intermediate level if he does not attack the ball a bit more but his ability to retrieve lost causes will make him a handful for everyone, whatever the grade.
John Roche, Wexford and Shane Bruen, Sligo with Frank Daly, Na Fianna
John Roche, Wexford and Shane Bruen, Sligo with Frank Daly, Na Fianna

John Roche, Wexford and Shane Bruen, Sligo were nip and tuck for most of the first game in the Masters B Singles final with scores level on several occasions.  Significantly though it was always the Sligo player who forged ahead each time and when he picked up three ‘soft’ points when the scores were level at 16-16 it clinched him the first game.
That 21-17 win gave Bruen the early impetus on the restart and he quickly went into an early 3-0 lead. Roche then hit a purple patch when everything went his way and he forged into a 9-4 lead with intelligent play and some fine killshots. But then inexplicably his resurgence stalled and when Bruen came at him again his challenge evaporated.
The Sligo player soon had the scores level at 9-9 and from there to the finish he simply closed up shop to seal a comfortable victory by 21-9.
It was a disappointing day for Roche who never reached the heights he is capable of but he has the game to win this title and he will benefit from the experience.
Bruen is a fine mobile athlete and his all round display today made him a worthy winner.
Martin Cooney, Sligo and Robert Doyle, Wexford with Na Fianna official Frank Daly
Martin Cooney, Sligo and Robert Doyle, Wexford with Na Fianna official Frank Daly

The task facing Robert Doyle, Wexford in the Silver Masters B Singles decider against Martin Cooney, Sligo had been well documented ahead of this match but not even that could have prepared the Wexford player for the onslaught he faced in the opening game of this All Ireland final.
Cooney was absolutely deadly with his killshots, especially in the right hand corner and his accuracy all over the court was more in keeping with a A player on the top of his form. Time after time he flattened the ball stone dead and there was little Doyle could do as his opponent romped home 21-10 in the first game.
The second followed a similar pattern as try as he might, Doyle was unable to push the Connacht champion into deep court and roaming around the shortline, Cooney made him pay every time.  The Wexford deficit grew from 2-7 to 2-13  before the competitive Doyle began his fightback. Slowly the rallies got longer and as Cooney wilted for the first time Doyle had his best period of the match to add 12 points on the trot for a 14-13 lead.  Cooney showed his class to come again and lead 18-14 and then 20-18 before this match finally lived up to expectations. Twelve hotly contested rallies followed with both players having six serves each, but Doyle could only manage a further point to bring it to 19-20. Cooney eventually managed to secure the point he needed for victory and on balance, it was a victory he had earned. That said, Doyle is fiercely resilient and if he had snatched that second game a very interesting third game would have been in prospect.
Stephen Murphy’s wait for that first All Ireland medal goes on following another heartbreaking loss in a national final at Cashel, Co Tipperary today.
Stephen Murphy, Wexford with George Miller, Mayo ahead of their final
Stephen Murphy, Wexford with George Miller, Mayo ahead of their final

Pitted against George Millar, Mayo in the Golden Masters B Singles final he came within a whisker of the first game, going down by 21-20 and he followed that with another  narrow loss in the second, on a scoreline of 21-17.
It was a tough one to take for Murphy as he had a chance to win both games but as so often happens, that little bit of luck needed to get over this psychological barrier never seems to be there when you need it.
Stephen will be back again next year and all of handball will hope this dedicated player will get his just reward.