Haunted by exit
THE TAME All-Ireland qualifier exit to Laois last July haunted Aidan O'Brien and his Wexford Senior footballers.
And while there was no comparison in terms of importance at a miserable O'Kennedy Park, New Ross, on Sunday last, at least there was redemption of sorts when the home side started 2014 on a bright note amid the gloomy weather when they had eight points to spare over the same opponents in this Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup opener.
A scoring burst of 1-5 without reply between the 44th and 50th minutes despite playing into the wind was the catalyst for victory on an afternoon when some players without championship experience showed their potential.
Lanky wing-forward Colm Kehoe from Cloughbawn carried his good Under-21 form of 2013 into this tie as he picked off three points in a strong overall display, while inside him Kevin O'Grady of St. James' finished as top scorer with 2-1 and his second goal was a real peach.
Adamstown's James Breen, captain of the Leinster-winning Under-21 team of 2011, slotted in well at right corner-back while last year's best newcomer, his club colleague Michael Furlong, showed his versatility by starting on the '40 rather than in defence and contributed two points.
The biggest eyebrow raiser when the team was announced late last week was the selection of regular attacker Shane Roche in goal, a position he has filled in soccer in the past more so than Gaelic football. However, the pedigree is good as his father, John, is a former Wexford number one, and he wan't found wanting when called upon to make a save from Conor Meredith at the expense of a '45 midway through the last quarter. The kick-outs from the Geraldine O'Hanrahans man were generally fine on a difficult day for connecting with a placed ball, but it remains to be seen whether this is a stop-gap move or the mentors genuinely feel that Roche will be of more value to the team between the posts rather than up front.
As for first impressions of the black card rule, it didn't impact heavily on proceedings and Ciarán Lyng was the only man to be sanctioned in this manner after an incident off the ball with 15 minutes left, with Robert Dempsey coming on as his replacement.
However, even allowing for the tricky underfoot conditions and the varying fitness levels at this early time of the year, it is quite clear that it won't lead to a reduction in the number of fouls committed. Referee Anthony Nolan from Baltinglass awarded 52 frees over the 70 minutes, 28 in the first-half and 24 after the break, with 30 to Laois and 22 to Wexford. Yellow cards were also shown to Daithí Waters and Laois trio Peter O'Leary, Gary Walsh and John O'Loughlin for offences not covered under the black card regulations which are explained in detail on page 2.
The visitors, under new manager Tomás O Flatharta, twice took the lead early on playing against the elements courtesy of David Conway and free-taker Conor Meredith, only for Wexford to reel them in with left-footed scores from Colm Kehoe and Ciarán Lyng. All bar one point of the winners' tally came from play and this was pleasing, although it was difficult enough to judge the wind blowing into the scoreboard end as both sides kicked eight wides when they had it in their favour.
Wexford had first use of the elements and the key score of that opening half came in the ninth minute when Lyng availed of a slip by corner-back Stephen Attride to cut in from the right and force Eoin Culliton into a fine save, only for the ball to spill loose and Kevin O'Grady booted the rebound home (1-2 to 0-2).
Laois did draw to within one point by striking three of the next four scores, with a Ben Brosnan effort leading to replies from Conor Meredith (free), Damien O'Connor and a fisted David Conway effort before the first quarter was over.
A one-two between Ciarán Lyng and Colm Kehoe ended with the former making it 1-4 to 0-5 in the 20th minute, with wing-back Adam Ryan soloing upfield for a Laois point before Wexford hit the last three scores of the half. Kevin O'Grady should have goaled again when an inch-perfect crossfield free from Lyng found the advancing Conor Carty who popped a pass across the square, but the St. James' man screwed his kick high and over the bar.
A good solo point followed from Ben Brosnan before Colm Kehoe, the newcomer attracting the most attention from the small crowd in the stand, availed of a Brian Malone pass to extend the advantage to 1-7 to 0-6 at the break.
While the weather improved a bit for the third quarter and there was even some brightness for ten minutes, it actually coincided with a sloppy period for Wexford. Of most concern was the fact that two of the three points pulled back through Donie Kingston frees in the early stages of the new half were brought closer to goal for dissent on the part of Daithí Waters and Paddy Byrne respectively. These early-season games are all about finding areas to improve upon, and clearly some Wexford players need reminding that a referee will never change his mind after the whistle is blown.
For that brief period it looked like the advantage of the elements might see Laois push on to success, but Wexford well and truly wrapped up victory with a powerful burst between the 44th and 50th minutes.
Firstly Byrne redeemed himself with a fine solo point before Ciarán Lyng picked out Colm Kehoe for his third score. Michael Furlong then opted for a point when Byrne's hard running had created an overlap and possible goal chance, but the net was bulging again only moments later.
James Breen earned a free on the left flank and when the ball was moved quickly into Kevin O'Grady in the corner, he sold a delicious dummy to Paul Begley before planting the ball in the far top corner of the net for a quality goal that mightn't be bettered too often in 2014. Ben Brosnan added Wexford's sole point from a free after Paul Begley overcarried, and when main provider Lyng picked out James Holmes to make it 2-12 to 0-9, the destination of the first set of O'Byrne Cup points was fairly well decided.
Even though Conor Meredith stopped the rot for Laois with a pointed free in the 52nd minute, just two more scores followed as the game petered out to a satisfactory conclusion from a Wexford point of view.
Lyng walked on that black card after an umpire informed referee Nolan of the reason why a Laois back ended up on the ground as a Wexford attack developed, and three minutes later the visitors' only real goal chance was dealt with by a diving Shane Roche who seemed to divert the ball out for a fruitless '45 via his back.
The last Wexford point, from Michael Furlong with eleven minutes left, came after an excellent move featuring Paddy Byrne, Graeme Molloy and team captain Daithí Waters, and Evan O'Carroll closed the scoring for Laois with a drive off the ground which flew over the bar midway through the last quarter.
The Slaneysiders will now approach Wednesday's clash against U.C.D. in St. Patrick's Park, Enniscorthy, at 7.45 p.m. in the knowledge that a second win would leave them very well placed to top this group. They are away to Offaly - 0-13 to 0-12 winners over the students - in Tullamore on Sunday next, and an extra game at the semi-final stage would be of immense benefit in advance of the National League campaign which begins on February 2 at home to the same opponents.
Life after David Murphy and Redmond Barry was always going to take a lot of adjusting to, and it now appears as though long-serving netminder Anthony Masterson isn't in a position to give the commitment required for 2014.
As a result Aidan O'Brien has no choice but to experiment and the first venture down that route certainly proved successful on Sunday.