Written by AOB
In the end it came down to a few aces and after 118 minutes of a riveting and compelling Wexford GAA Handball Willie Lyng Cup senior softball singles final between the holder Tommy Hynes, St. Mary’s and Barry Goff, Castlebridge at Taghmon on Friday evening last, it was the Wexford town man who held on to his title by the slender margin of 13-21, 21-15, 21-18.
Anticipation was in the air all evening at the famed handball centre, with the viewing gallery almost filled to capacity a good 45 minutes before the starting time. Memories of great matches and great players at the venue were recalled as the attendance waited for the action to commence and the occasion was further enhanced by the presence of the great Dick Lyng from Ballyanne, himself a multiple All Ireland senior singles and doubles champion and a man who had contributed to the making of many of those memories at this historic venue. Also there was Seamus Buggy who partnered Dick to victory in three of those finals, as well as sharing the world doubles title with him back in 1970.
The occasion clearly demanded a final to match and two of the best softball players ever to play the game produced just that! In a county proud of its hero’s and appreciative of their talents and achievements, it seemed almost unfair to pile such expectancy on the shoulders of two men now in their 40s, but Hynes and Goff went on to give the attendance a match that will surely go down in history as one of the finest ever seen, not just in Wexford, but anywhere handball is played.
The 2019 county softball championship had already been different, with all thirteen entrants put into a single group instead of splitting the field into two groups as was done in the past. It added up to a total of 78 league games and while a small number of players did drop out along the way, all of the main contenders stayed the course and distance to qualify for the knockout stages.
Amongst those earlier league games was the Hynes v Goff tie back on 18th May when the Castlebridge man was victorious in straight games, but that ‘clash’ had a slightly phony feel to it at the time (both were pretty certain to qualify) and therefore neither the players, nor the supporters, would have attached much significance to it when attempting to analyse what might happen in this final. One thing is certain though, the additional matches generated by the new format was a major contributory factor in both players taking the court in such unbelievable shape, particularly when their age is taken into consideration.
The story of the match
Right from the off there was a feeling this was going to be a ding-dong affair as the rallies were long and well contested and it was Hynes who got the better start to lead 7-3. As expected he was shooting for the bottom brick at every opportunity while Goff was working hard to ensure the game was played at the back of the court. And indeed that strategy began to pay dividends almost immediately as Hynes got stuck on 7 while Goff kept the scoreboard ticking over to level at 7-7, before pulling away to lead 16-7. During that period the reigning champion had 10 (yes 10!) scoreless serves when he simply couldn’t buy a point against an impervious opponent but then, quite unintentionally, he was granted a lifeline of sorts. Referee Gavin Buggy requested Goff to change his gloves and although the Castlebridge man increased his advantage to 18-7 almost immediately, the break appeared to give Hynes a bit of momentum after a period of stagnation. Gone was the inability to win rallies and at the 11th attempt he was finally off 7 and scoring again. 7-18 became 10-18 and after he dismissed Goff without further concession he was really back in the game when he added another three points to stand 13-18 down. But then he lost his serve and while he did get Goff out straight away without falling further behind, he failed to score himself and as quickly as it had appeared, his challenge was snuffed out by Goff who secured the three points needed for this first game win. The game had taken took just over a half hour to play and although the pace had been relentless throughout, Goff had managed to finish very strongly for a deserved win. It all looked very promising for the Castlebridge player as he went to a short break.
Any notion however that Goff would now take command of this tie was dispelled right from the beginning of the second game when Hynes again got off to a very positive start. He was soon 3-0 to the good and while Goff was to level at 4-4 and later at 13-13, he could never get his head in front as Hynes kept up a ferocious work rate. The Wexford town man led 11-5, was hauled back to 11-9, then went 13-9 up before again being brought back to 13-13. Scoring then dried up as both resisted fiercely but Hynes could always rely on a killshot to get himself out of trouble and he managed this often enough to gradually pull away to 17-13 before getting home 21-15 and leave this tie finely balanced.
Incredibly the third game saw an increased level of intensity as both attempted to stamp their authority over the other. At 6-6 four scoreless serves followed, before two good visits by Hynes sowed the seeds for his 11th title. The first of these came when he flattened four balls in a row to go from 10-8 ahead to 14-8 and then again when he repeated the dose at 14-11 to lead 18-11. This was Hynes best period of the match as it included not only some terrific ‘killing’ but also a number of almost unbelievable ‘gets’. Some of the retrieving by both players in the third game of this match simply defied logic and the athleticism and skill level on show throughout the entire match was awe-inspiring.
At 18-11 Hynes was in the driving seat but Goff never gives up and slowly but surely he clawed his way back with a mixture of left corner kills and well placed safety shots. As one of the most scientific and thoughtful players in the game, Goff’s safety play is usually executed with surgical precision and although it can sometimes take time for that strategy to bear fruit, for a while near the end of this match, that time seemed like it could be now. Goff did get the score back to 18-19 but then missed two attempts at corner kills which cost him dearly and Hynes was not to be denied as he closed out an incredible senior final to claim a deserved 11th title.
At 47 years of age Tommy Hynes has shown himself to be, not just a remarkable handballer, but also a remarkable athlete. The level of fitness he has attained this year appears greater than he has ever enjoyed throughout his stellar career and his ability to kill the ball under extreme pressure has surely never been better than it is today. He needed to be that good against Barry Goff who, even at 40, normally runs his opponents out before applying the coup de grâce, but on this occasion Hynes was able to maintain the punishing pace and at the finish it was he who was going the better of the two.
The Billy Lyng Memorial Cup was presented by Dick Lyng who said his brother would have been very happy with what took place at Taghmon. He said he had great memories of the place having played minor there in the 1960s as well as many great senior matches later on.
County Chairperson Tracey Hogan presided over the occasion and she complemented the local committee on the recent refurbishment of the centre which she said looked very well. She presented both players with their medals and thanked each for producing such a wonderful display.
It was very uplifting to all associated with Wexford GAA Handball that players who have won so much at a higher level still hold such regard for the local championship and that the prestige associated with winning this title still resonates so strongly within them. All of those privileged to be at Taghmon on Friday saw two of the very best Wexford players of all time produce what many consider to have been the best senior singles final ever played in the county and with the history of handball in Wexford to be measured against it, that is raising the bar to a place it has possibly never been before. That they could produce a match of such quality and intensity at such an age speaks volumes for the calibre of both Tommy Hynes and Barry Goff and that Wexford GAA Handball could have such a finale to what has been a riveting senior softball championship confirms yet again that when it comes to this sport, there really are no other contenders around the country for the title of ‘The Home of Handball’!