O'Brien 'haunted' by Wexford wide woes
Laois 0-16 Wexford 2-8
All-Ireland qualifiers rd 3
Sunlight larceny in Wexford Park. As the sun slowly sunk in melancholic compassion to hasten Wexford's championship exit, Down referee Ciaran Branagan unearthed the first ironic cheers of support from the home crowd by ordering four extra minutes.
They would only compound the deepening sense of gloom.
And still, having reduced the margin to an improbable minimum, after kicking away an even more improbable 3-20 tally in hot-headed profligacy, they somehow had Laois in their sights.
As for much of the night in Wexford Park, though, home hopes would slump; Colm Kelly swooped to add the clinching point in injury-time.
"A score at that time was crucial," remarked Laois boss Justin McNulty. "It meant Wexford were looking for a goal. Eoin Culleton also made a wonderful save and I think over the 70 minutes we were the better team."
And so the handful of Laois support escaped to the exits with apologetic bowed heads; Wexford's 7,000 or more simply nodded theirs in yawning disbelief.
The Midlanders, completing a seventh successive qualifier win, now stand 70 minutes away from a second successive Croke Park championship quarter-final – although a stung Donegal side stand in their way.
This was truly a fine effort from McNulty's men, particularly given that their squad continues to undergo cosmetic surgery on an even more regular basis than Cher.
But any words can only be explained by the numbers – Wexford's 18 wides, three missed goal chances and two further efforts lobbed into Culleton's lap.
For them merely the absolute desperation of the man trying to blow up a paddling pool without realising it has a massive puncture; the more they huffed and puffed, the further it seemed they were from their target.
And boy were they a long way from the target at times; they were utterly democratic in their reckless extravagance with 10 of their players guilty of imprecision.
Poor manager Aidan O'Brien could only nod his head too in regret.
"I'm devastated to lose a game such as that, given the number of chances that we created and the opportunities that we had but the wide count really did kill us," he lamented.
"We had 18 wides and we spurned a few really good goal chances. With that kind of profligacy you can't hope to win games this deep into the championship.
"Laois showed themselves to be a side of some quality last year and they won two games comfortably this year.
"They're not going to refuse the opportunity we afforded them today by missing the chances we did. It's a stat that we will be haunted by.
"Maybe confidence is something people would point to.
"These are guys who are experienced players, good players, players who are prolific scorers with their club and county over the years. It's hard to put a finger on why players miss.
"Why is Rory McIlroy sitting at home after two rounds of the British Open? It's indefinable and a difficult one in sport.
"A player's form dips a little and small things can start eating at them."
The away side's course management was much more intelligent; playing against the stiff offshore breeze in the opening half, their supremely physical outfit carried the ball strongly.
Wexford, in contrast, despite unearthing some profit with decent direct diagonal ball, giddily sprayed ball hither and thither with abandon.
However, their eye for goal adequately compensated for the 12 wides as they struck for two three-pointers to ensure that their profligacy wasn't even more severely punished in the opening act.
After a cagey start which saw Laois go 0-4 to 0-2 ahead, Wexford struck in the 14th minute.
Redmond Barry chose to bypass the half-back line with a searing diagonal ball from which Ciaran Lyng streaked towards goal, before unselfishly off-loading to PJ Banville, who had the easiest of tap-ins from a yard.
Two minutes later, Colm Begley was harried by Conor Carty as he ran from defence and Barry arrowed the turnover ball into the grateful arms of Adrian Flynn, who finished neatly with a left-footed drive.
Two Lyng points pushed Wexford into a five-point lead but they failed to score in the last 12 minutes of the half; another 12-minute famine in the second half would further undermine their chances.
Laois, aided by the accurate free-taking of Ross Munnelly, who tacked on four frees to his point from play, chipped away at the deficit, which was reduced to the minimum at the break.
Although they opened the scoring in the second half, Wexford, contrary to their manager's insistence, seemed to visibly wilt as the exertions of last week's gruelling extra-time win in Longford gradually took their toll.
However, they did have three clear goal-scoring opportunities that could have put some distance between the sides, with Paddy Byrne's the best opportunity but Culleton made a fine save. Barry also had a goal-bound shot blocked by Laois full-back Mark Timmons, while Banville dithered before softly lobbing the ball into Culleton's hands with the goal begging.
Laois, who did not kick a wide until the 51st minute, made their strength in the middle third tell in the searing evening heat as Munnelly's frees kept the scoreboard ticking over.
And so Wexford depart after a season in which they have merely treaded water; inspirational duo Barry and David Murphy may now be tempted to cash their chips.
And enigmatic Laois?
The scenic route of the qualifiers seems to suit them; in Evan O'Carroll they have unveiled a gem and the man he replaced at the 11th hour, Donie Kingston, made an unexpected appearance to indicate that they may have the momentum to push on from here.
One can only wonder what they could achieve if the large swathe of players who have either emigrated, hibernated or absconded – sometimes all three – were available to McNulty.
Scorers – Laois: R Munnelly 0-8 (5fs), D Conway (3fs), C Begley 0-3 each, C Kelly, E O'Carroll, 0-1 each. Wexford: C Lyng 0-5 (2fs), PJ Banville 1-1, A Flynn 1-0, A Doyle, C Carty, 0-1 each.
Laois – E Culleton; P Begley, M Timmons, P O'Leary; D Strong, P McMahon, K Lillis; P Clancy, J O'Loughlin; B Sheehan, C Meredith, C Begley; R Munnelly, E O'Carroll, D Conway. Subs: C Boyle for Clancy (43), D Kingston for Conway (45), S Attride for Timmons (56), C Kelly for O'Carroll (64), D Booth for Lillis (65).
Wexford – A Masterson; M Furlong, G Molloy, R Tierney; B Malone, D Murphy, A Flynn; D Waters, R Quinlivan; C Carty, R Barry, A Doyle; C Lyng, P Byrne, PJ Banville. Subs: B Brosnan for Doyle (41 mins), J Holmes for Tierney (56), S Roche for Banville (61), K Gore for Byrne (65), S Culleton for Gore.
Ref – C Branagan (Down)