Saturday 20 January 2018

ONE POINT wins are always the sweetest

ONE-POINT wins are always the sweetest, although new manager Aidan O'Brien will realise that a significant degree of good fortune was attached to Wexford's last-gasp victory over a bitterly-disappointed Longford side in this Allianz Football League Division 2 opener in Wexford Park on Sunday last.

Trailing by a clear three goals approaching the break, the home side didn't hit the front for the first time until the 68th minute when they capitalised on a defensive error to fashion a well-worked major. And although the midlanders pulled back a point and subsequently forced a '45, Wexford held on for a victory which didn't seem likely for long periods of this proverbial game of two halves.

Just consider a couple of facts: seven of the Slaneysiders' ten scores were from frees, and none of the starting six forwards managed to pick off a point from play. More often than not a loss would be the outcome in those circumstances, but not on this occasion as Wexford were rewarded for their persistence despite some poor play at several stages.

The winning goal arrived two minutes from the end of normal time with Longford hanging on to a 1-9 to 1-8 lead. Substitute James Holmes' punt forward appeared to be covered by wing-back Fergal Battrim, but he failed to control the ball which spun loose for Paddy Byrne. He saw that an overlap was on as he picked out P.J. Banville who in turn unselfishly handpassed across goal to new team captain Redmond Barry, and the St. Anne's man will never score an easier, or perhaps more important, goal as he palmed it to the net.

Substitute Kevin Diffley did respond with a Longford point via the post at the Clonard end 20 seconds into added time, and they almost created a goal chance just over one minute later when Michael Quinn and Paul Kelly combined to pick out Robbie Smyth slightly to the left of goal. However, just as he pulled the trigger, Adrian Flynn dived on his boot to make a brilliant block and Quinn's subsequent '45 drifted wide off an attacker's hands.

If Wexford had one man to thank for this success above all others, then it was towering midfielder Daithí Waters whose marvellous catching ability was the chief inspiration behind the comeback. Time after time he went into the heavens to pluck the ball from the air and, although Longford resorted to fouling him constantly, his efforts spurred the home side on when others were struggling.

The distribution of the ball coming out of defence was very poor when facing the elements in the opening half, with several simple passes going astray. However, the wind was always going to have a huge bearing on proceedings, with Longford availing of it first to take the early initiative.

The new mentors handed league debuts to Glynn-Barntown's Craig Doyle at midfield and versatile Adamstown wing-forward Michael Furlong who is corner-back on U.C.D's Sigerson Cup team. Wexford fell behind after just 58 seconds when Seán McCormack converted a free from the left, and they were restricted to a Redmond Barry wide and another effort from the same player into the goalkeeper's hands during a generally unproductive first quarter.

It took Longford a while to get into their stride too, but they gained an edge in the eleventh minute when Shane Doyle popped a pass to centre-back Michael Quinn who was allowed to make a powerful run through the middle unchecked. He handpassed to Robbie Smyth at the perfect time and the full-forward fired a low left-footed shot beyond Anthony Masterson for a well-worked goal and a 1-1 to nil lead.

Wexford did open their account when Ben Brosnan pointed a free off the ground after Adrian Flynn was fouled in the 14th minute, but they went on to concede six scores in succession as the pressure mounted. Francis McGee picked up the pieces with a point after a Seán McCormack free came back off the post, and the latter then fisted over from a tight angle to make it 1-3 to 0-1 after 21 minutes.

Michael Quinn ('45) increased the advantage to six points before yet another Longford effort - this time from Bernard McElvaney - struck the woodwork, with McGee latching on to the rebound once more as a clear gap opened.

It got worse before it got better for Wexford too, with Shane Mulligan thundering forward from left half-back to fire his side ahead by 1-6 to 0-1 in the 27th minute. Seán McCormack increased the gap to nine, but the rot was finally stopped in the lead-up to half-time as a foul on Daithí Waters enabled Ben Brosnan to narrow the gap slightly.

Of far greater significance was the opening Wexford goal which arrived over one minute into added time at the end of the half. It started with a trademark Daithí Waters catch, with Adrian Flynn and Paddy Byrne involved in the build-up before Ben Brosnan avoided a would-be challenge by flicking the ball inside to P.J. Banville. The attacking ace relishes this type of situation, and he calmly sent a low shot past Damien Sheridan to leave Longford with an interval lead of more manageable proportions (1-7 to 1-2).

Joey Wadding resumed at centre-back in place of David Murphy, and Shane Roche converted an early free from the left after seeing a first effort from further out drift slightly wide. Longford missed a couple of chances before Ben Brosnan pulled back another point after Redmond Barry was impeded, although the forwards were finding space hard to come by and shots at goal were limited enough.

Indeed, the team's only point from play in the entire contest arrived from left half-back Adrian Flynn who was picked out by a Daithí Waters pass in the 46th minute as the gap lessened to 1-7 to 1-5.

Longford earned a respite from a Seán McCormack free, but the deadly-accurate Ben Brosnan placed the ball on the turf and coolly split the posts again after yet another foul on Waters at the start of the last quarter. For the record, Wexford were awarded 26 of the 50 frees.

A harsh over-carrying call against Michael Quinn enabled the Bannow-Ballymitty man to reduce arrears to the minimum with twelve minutes left, and an opening for goal was nearly carved out when Shane Mulligan took his eye off the ball which broke to P.J. Banville. Shane Roche was free inside but Banville's first-time chip was cut out by Dermot Brady, setting an attack in motion which ended with another pointed free from Seán McCormack (1-9 to 1-7).

A pick-up off the ground by Pádraig McCormack led to Brosnan's sixth point in the 66th minute, and that match-winning goal was just around the corner. It will leave Wexford in high spirits for the trip to Armagh on Sunday next, with two points in the bag but clearly a lot of work still to do as the team gradually takes shape under Aidan O'Brien and company.

New Ross Standard

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