Wexford reeled in by Blues
SSE Airtricity First Div Series 19: Waterford FC 2 Wexford FC 1
It was simply too good to be true at half-time in the Regional Sports Centre which had a rocking atmosphere on Friday, with Wexford F.C. holding a 1-0 lead against their high-flying Waterford opponents despite being played off the park beforehand.
Home fans in the 1,508 crowd were in high spirits, and who could blame them as they seem well placed to claim the only promotion spot on offer to the Premier Division this season.
Waterford did everything but score in that opening half, completely dominating possession to such an extent that the corner count read 8-0 and their netminder, Matthew Connor, was left twiddling his thumbs as his former Ferrycarrig Park colleagues struggled to stretch their best run in a tough campaign to four games.
Amazingly though, he was picking the ball out of his net in the 44th minute and those exuberant Blues supporters were temporarily silenced as Wexford's sole attack of the half yielded the lead goal.
It was created by Waterford lad Andrew O'Connor, facing one of his former clubs after replacing Craig McCabe in the 28th minute when the captain sustained an injury to his left knee.
A.J. Lehane reverted from left- to right-back, with O'Connor slotting into the former role, and it was from his favoured flank that he provided the pass to finally unlock the Waterford defence.
He found Wexford debutant Aaron Dobbs in the box on the left, and the young Enniscorthy lad signed on loan from Shamrock Rovers delivered the ball to the far post where another recent arrival, Carlow youngster Dean Kelly, was on hand to knock in his first goal for the club.
It was a rare moment of discomfort for a Waterford defence marshalled superbly as ever by very experienced captain Kenny Browne who has that gift of being able to conserve his energy and still be in the right place to cut out attacks - most of the time.
He was partnered by James McClean's brother Patrick, meaning there was no game time for another Wexford old boy, Gary Delaney, while Dobbs had a familiar foe in Waterford's left-back role as they have also acquired a Shamrock Rovers player, Seán Heaney, on loan.
Conor Whittle, back with his home club after his spell in Ferrycarrig, manned the right-back slot, meaning there was just a brief late cameo for Wexford's Robin Dempsey in added time.
Thomas Croke missed the chance to play against his own people due to suspension, while Adam Hanlon was ruled out with an ankle injury which will unfortunately keep him out for six weeks. Yet another Waterford man, Aaron O'Connor, and Aaron Dobbs were the replacements in a week that saw Liam Donnelly leave the club due to work commitments, while Ricky Fox (suspended) and Seán Hurley (injured) were also unavailable.
From the off it was practically all Waterford, with the first of those eight opening half corners earned inside two minutes but coming to nothing.
Their second was headed over by Garry Comerford from a delivery by Derek Daly who gave various Wexford opponents a torrid time with his marauding runs down the left flank.
Craig McCabe found him a tough customer to deal with before succumbing to injury, and A.J. Lehane then had the onerous task before substitute Conor Sutton tried to close him down as part of his wing-half duties near the end.
A weak John Martin shot was partially blocked and didn't trouble Corey Chambers in the ninth minute, but the goalkeeper had to really show his worth on the next Waterford attack.
Kenny Browne delivered a beautiful ball from deep for right-back Conor Whittle to run on to, but he was denied a goal against his former club as the number one narrowed the angle and spread himself to divert it for a fruitless corner.
The pressure was unrelenting as Waterford's top league scorer, Mark O'Sullivan, miscued a shot after a corner, before Anthony McAlavey's free-kick from the left had Chambers back-pedalling before he tipped the ball out for another.
O'Sullivan's header from that set-piece on the right hit a body in the box and was cleared, while Owen McCormack blocked a Derek Daly shot in the 20th minute.
A.J. Lehane cleared a John Martin pull-back before Aaron Dobbs was on the receiving end of a 'welcome to the First Division' challenge from Patrick McClean. However, he quickly recovered and proved he is not one to be messed with by returning the 'compliment' to the Derry man less than four minutes later.
While Dobbs had scraps to survive on against such a strong defence, there was enough evidence in what he produced to suggest he will score regularly before the season is over.
Only two players have goaled more than once in the campaign and the overall tally is still at a miserly ten after Kelly's strike last Friday, so the scope is there for the new acquisition to quickly become a fans' favourite.
His partner up front, Danny Doyle, was yellow-carded in the 33rd minute as Wexford struggled to advance out of their own half, while minutes later another long ball from Browne located the head of Garry Comerford whose header was palmed over by Chambers for a corner.
A stretching Patrick McClean nearly got a touch on a Browne knock-down from Shane O'Connor's long ball in the 36th minute, while John Martin directed a weak downward header wide on the next attack.
McClean didn't worry Chambers with an off-target shot from distance before that scarcely believable moment when Wexford launched their first attack and it ended with Dean Kelly's calm finish.
Derek Daly fired a free-kick over the crossbar before the break, and Waterford's intentions were clear and understandable on the re-start when they altered their formation from one to two up front, with David McDaid replacing midfielder Garry Comerford.
By game's end the corner count had risen to 13-0, with Chambers conceding the first of the new half on the 46-minute mark with a near post save from the lively substitute.
The netminder dealt with a Shane O'Connor through ball and a Seán Heaney cross before John Martin couldn't make a connection on Mark O'Sullivan's flick from an O'Connor delivery from the right.
Wexford had a slight sniff of goal in the 56th minute when Kenny Browne almost left goalkeeper Matthew Connor short from a back pass with Aaron O'Connor lurking.
However, they were relieved themselves 60 seconds later when Dean Kelly cleared an O'Sullivan ball into the box after a fresh air kick by A.J. Lehane.
Derek Daly posed a huge threat down the left as the half wore on, and that constant pressure eventually led to the leveller in the 59th minute.
John Martin was taken down in the box by Ross Kenny, and McDaid drilled the penalty low to the left corner to leave Waterford best placed to claim all three points.
Their momentum saw them create another good opening two minutes later, but Chambers saved superbly and the subsequent corner was cleared.
Daly (twice) and Seán Heaney posed problems with crosses before a rare breakaway saw Matthew Connor produce a comfortable save from Aaron Dobbs' long-range shot in the 65th minute.
Daly nearly grabbed what would have been a special lead goal shortly afterwards, nutmegging Lehane before drilling a low shot across goal and narrowly wide.
What proved to be the winner arrived after Conor Sutton conceded a corner from a Seán Heaney cross in the 67th minute. Daly fired in a bullet from the left and O'Sullivan rose highest to connect with a meaty header and direct it to the net for his ninth league goal of the season.
The pressure was off Waterford at that stage, given that losing to the bottom team would have been such a serious blow.
And though Wexford can be pleased to an extent with making them earn their victory, in truth that lead goal had been completely against the run of play and it would have been a travesty if the locals had lost.
Chambers saved from Anthony McAlavey after that second goal and later had little trouble dealing with a McDaid free-kick.
There was another momentary scare for the leaders in the 76th minute when Andrew O'Connor's cross was headed by Aaron Dobbs and beat advancing netminder Connor, but it went to the right and wide.
A quick Shane Dunne free-kick found Conor Sutton whose cross was cleared by McClean, while Kenny Browne made a timely tackle on Danny Doyle after the teenage attacker rounded Connor to the left of the area but still had an awful lot to do to turn it into a real opening.
Likewise, Andrew O'Connor made a fine intervention to stop McDaid after he initially rounded Sutton on a breakaway in the 84th minute.
The best chance of an equaliser fell to Shane Dunne who had time to control the ball and shoot from Sutton's cross, but he drove it back across goal and wide.
And there was a lively finish in added time as, after Browne did brilliantly to stop Dunne from playing Aaron Dobbs in, the subsequent Waterford attack ended with Daly firing one last ball into the box where a stretching Dean O'Halloran wasn't close enough to direct it to the net.
Nine league games remain for Wexford, and the attainable target is to leapfrog Athlone Town at the foot of the table.
Three points divide the teams at the moment, and the next chance to eat into that deficit will arrive on Friday with a trip to Tolka Park to take on Shelbourne who are in fourth spot and have already beaten Wexford at the Dublin venue this season in both league and Leinster Senior Cup.
The next home game will be against Longford Town on Friday week, July 21.
Wexford F.C.: Corey Chambers; Craig McCabe (capt.), Owen McCormack, Ross Kenny, A.J. Lehane; Dean Kelly, Mikey Byrne, Eoin Porter, Aaron O'Connor; Danny Doyle, Aaron Dobbs. Subs. - Andrew O'Connor for McCabe, inj. (28), Conor Sutton for Kelly (62), Shane Dunne for Aaron O'Connor (73), also Michael Walsh, Mark Slater, Conor Dunne.
Waterford F.C.: Matthew Connor; Conor Whittle, Kenny Browne (capt.), Patrick McClean, Seán Heaney; Anthony McAlavey; Shane O'Connor, John Martin, Garry Comerford, Derek Daly; Mark O'Sullivan. Subs. - David McDaid for Comerford (HT), Dean O'Halloran for O'Sullivan (86), Robin Dempsey for Whittle (90+2), also Ian McLoughlin, Gary Delaney, Dean Walsh, Jack Lynch.
Referee: Jim McKell (Tipperary).
New Ross Standard