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Friday 22 August 2014

Victory was all that mattered

Published 08/04/2014 | 05:42

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Animated manager Aidan O’Brien during Sunday’s tense encounter in Wexford Park.

VICTORY WAS all that mattered in Wexford Park on Sunday last for the county Senior footballers and they duly delivered when the pressure was at its greatest, with a two-point margin ensuring that opponents Longford make the drop to the basement division of the league for 2015 instead.

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It has been a poor campaign on the whole for the Slaneysiders and this was a very tough test given what had gone before it, but they deserve credit for responding so positively when the stakes were high.

It was a knockout encounter in everything but name and the outcome could be significant in the long run given that Wexford will be travelling to Longford for the Leinster championship quarter-final on the weekend of June 7/8 if Sunday's opponents overcome Offaly in the first round.

A couple of factors ensured success, firstly a much-improved defensive display in the opening half which meant that the sides went in on level terms at the break (0-8 each) even though Longford had been backed by the wind. After the horror show in the first 35 minutes in Enniskillen seven days earlier a decent start was essential, and this was achieved.

Then when Wexford resumed with the elements in their favour, they got well on top in the third quarter, hitting an unanswered 1-5 with Kevin O'Grady's well-taken goal in the 49th minute of huge importance.

The only down side was a very sloppy finish as Longford plundered two late goals, one with the second-last kick, to cause a few anxious moments which could have been avoided. Indeed, when one looks back on the game as a whole the contribution of netminder Shane Roche to the win cannot be over-stated as he came to the rescue on more than one occasion.

The decision to deploy the long-time forward in goal was the biggest eyebrow-raiser at the start of the year but it has certainly been justified. Michael Furlong was the stand-out performer in a more composed defensive unit still prone to major lapses in concentration, while the class of Ciarán Lyng shone through up front. A man for the big stage, he picked off five points from play and looked like scoring every time the ball came his way.

Wexford took the lead twice in the first ten minutes which was encouraging against the wind, courtesy of Kevin O'Grady and Lyng, with Mark Hughes and free-taker Seán McCormack cancelling those efforts out. There was also one let-off when Shane Roche, in his sole dodgy moment, saw a short kick-out intercepted by Michael Quinn but he wasted the chance in the seventh minute.

Two more Lyng points, the first from a tight angle from play and the second from a free after Daithí Waters was fouled, made it 0-4 to 0-2 but Longford hit back through McCormack with a brace of frees.

Quinn then initiated a move which also featured Paul Barden before McCormack had a chance to rattle the net, only for his shot to fly over in the 20th minute to put the visitors ahead for the first time (0-5 to 0-4).

Ben Brosnan and Brian Malone kicked the first two of Wexford's three opening half wides before James Breen gave the last pass in a lengthy move and James Holmes split the posts.

Paul Barden restored the Longford lead when he hung the ball in the air and the wind did the rest, but Lyng sold a beautiful dummy from a Holmes pass and equalised with his less-favoured right peg after nearly 25 minutes (0-6 each).

James Breen, who was very involved throughout, then set up P.J. Banville for his sole score before Kevin O'Grady missed the target, and he then conceded a free which Seán McCormack converted (0-7 each).

The St. James' man figured more positively though in the 32nd minute when he exchanged passes with temporary substitute Tiarnan Rossiter who pointed at the Clonard end, but Michael Quinn brought the sides to parity for the seventh time just before the interval. Indeed, Longford would have led at the break but for a super save from Shane Roche in the 33rd minute when he dived low to his right and held on to a Quinn shot after substitute Shane Doyle and Enda Williams created the opening.

With a lot of hard work done into the wind, it was essential that Wexford kicked on quickly on the re-start with the elements in their favour.

It was a slow process though at the outset before that O'Grady goal lifted the crowd and put them on the right course.

Ben Brosnan had converted a close-in free inside 90 seconds after Brian Malone was impeded, but six scoreless minutes elapsed before Ciarán Lyng kicked a sweet left-footed point from a tight angle after Graeme Cullen supplied the last pass.

A nice dummy by the same player from a short Brosnan free saw the gap widened to 0-11 to 0-8 in the 47th minute, and that goal was next on the agenda.

A quickly-taken James Holmes free found Lyng who handpassed to Kevin O'Grady, moving at pace down the centre. Advancing goalkeeper Paddy Columb narrowed his angle but he got a slight enough touch on the ball and it rolled sweetly into the corner of the net for the most important score by a Wexford footballer in a long time.

P.J. Banville could have rattled the net again moments later but his effort went too high and came back off the left post, and three quick wides followed before substitute Michael O'Regan made it 1-12 to 0-8 with his first kick. When Daithí Waters won the kick-out and soloed through for another point, the job should have been done and dusted but that wasn't the case as Wexford didn't put Longford away.

Shane Roche had to be alert to deal with a Paul Barden head-high snapshot before the attacker kicked their first point of the half nearly 23 minutes in and added another immediately (1-13 to 0-10).

And when Seán McCormack fisted across the square and Shane Doyle palmed the ball in the 63rd minute, Roche was in the right place to keep his goal intact.

Adrian Flynn and Ben Brosnan (free) increased the margin to eight with three minutes left but there was still time for drama after Wexford kicked two wides to bring their overall tally to eleven, compared to four from their rivals.

Nearly 80 seconds of added time had been played when Colm P. Smyth palmed a goal which was quickly followed by another as Paul Barden caught a Michael Quinn cross and bundled the ball over the line from close range. Thankfully the final whistle sounded on the kick-out but that poor finish should serve as a timely reminder that Wexford still have a lot of improving to do before the championship.

The grand total of 57 frees were awarded in this nervy encounter, 28 to Wexford, while yellow cards were served up to Kevin O'Grady and Longford quartet Brian Farrell, Shane Mulligan, Colm P. Smyth and Simon Kiernan.

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