Wednesday 23 January 2019

Title within touching distance

Soccer, Continental Tyres Women's National League: Wexford Youths 1 Shelbourne 0

A heading duel between Edel Kennedy and Rachel Graham
A heading duel between Edel Kennedy and Rachel Graham

Dean Goodison in Ferrycarrig Park

Rianna Jarrett bundled Wexford Youths to within touching distance of the Continental Tyres Women's National League title in Ferrycarrig Park on Tuesday.

The Irish international striker forced the ball home on the goal-line after Emma Hansberry's inswinging corner, right under Amanda McQuillan's crossbar, caused mass panic in the Shelbourne defence.

The close range strike, with Kylie Murphy in the vicinity too, means Youths take a six-point lead into the final three games of the season, needing just four points from clashes with Galway United, Cork City and U.C.D. Waves to clinch their fourth title in five seasons.

It was a deserved winner for Wexford, who did exactly what any team with a three-point lead heading into the encounter would do. They kept it tight, looked to pick their spots to attack, but rarely commited the numbers that would see them stretched at the other end.

It was another hugely committed performance across the park. If Shelbourne had the disadvantage of having to travel, Wexford had to perform after leaving it all on the field three days earlier against Peamount while the Dublin side eased past Cork.

The pace of the previous game was clearly evident in the first-half and Youths just looked to manage their way through it. While technically it might not have been their best showing of the season, it held all the hallmarks of a title-winning performance for sheer guts and the refusal to give an inch.

Trailing by three points, it was up to Shelbourne to come south and have a go. Instead, much like last season, they chickened out and hoped they would get by on scraps and Wexford errors.

They played like a side completely devoid of urgency. There was a little response after they fell behind but any neutral would be hard pressed to point out which side trailed by three points going into the game and needed the win to keep their destiny in their own hands.

Shelbourne are a little different to the other floundering contenders, Peamount. They have no cutting edge through the centre, not to the level that could hurt the exquisite Lauren Dwyer or the resurgent Orlaith Conlon.

They have lively youngsters on the wings, who might grow up into good footballers, but at the moment they are heavily reliant on pace, with their technical ability not at the level of the players they are coming up against.

In all likelihood, the north Dublin side wouldn't have even been in contention up to this point if it wasn't for Malinda Allen in midfield. She has held this run together and when she was forced off injured with six minutes left, symbolically it was the end of the Shelbourne challenge.

Tom Elmes made just the one change from the side that started three days earlier, bringing in Emma Hansberry, someone who could help his side keep the ball better in a slower game, in the place of Orla Casey, who performed the job of keeping Peamount off balance in the whippet-paced contest.

Otherwise it was business as usual for Wexford, and they were first to create half an opening when Jarrett pulled back for Parrock to slice wide in the seventh minute. At the other end Rachel Graham flashed over when a left wing corner fell to the midfielder just outside the area.

When Dwyer fed over the top for Parrock, it looked like the winger held position on Jess Gleeson but the former Wexford defender got back to clear. A lovely Edel Kennedy ball picked out Jarrett but she flipped it over the crossbar from just outside the six-yard box.

Allen shot wide for Shelbourne at the back post in the 19th minute before Kennedy's volley was held by McQuillan. Parrock headed wide from Doireann Fahey's cross before Jarrett's volley from McKenna Davidson's cross was easily held by the Shelbourne stopper.

As half-chances turned to no chances at all, Kennedy saw her volley easily saved by McQuillan in the 28th minute and the sides played out the remainder of the period sparring but refusing to over-commit.

It felt like the half-time break came at the wrong time for Wexford, as they were controlling things and it gave Shelbourne a chance to re-group. In reality the visitors were woeful in the third quarter as Youths gently pushed on.

Fahey couldn't replicate her magical free-kick against Peamount when flashing one over in the 57th minute, and Murphy then drilled over the bar from Rianna Jarrett's lay-off as the game moved well into the second-half.

The one problem Wexford were having for a while was down the right wing, as Davidson was continually reaching for her strapped quad and was struggling for a while before Elmes picked her up on the issue.

She was replaced by Aisling Frawley but it was down the other wing that Wexford made the breakthrough. Katrina Parrock won a corner from almost nothing, Hansberry whipped it in, over McQuillan, and Jarrett forced the ball home in a crowded six-yard box.

Seconds after captain Noelle Murray was withdrawn, Shelbourne created their first chance of the half when her replacement, Emily Whelan, laid off to Isibeal Atkinson and she flashed over the bar.

Murphy floated over a free header from Hansberry's 76th-minute corner as Youths looked to wrap up victory. At the other end, Sophie Lenehan, who has conceded just one goal, from a penalty, in her last three games, saved from Rachel Graham's fizzer from the edge of the box.

The Wexford 'keeper then made an even better save, tipping Jamie Finn's rocket shot from the right past the post. When Allen came off with six minutes left, Shelbourne had no substitutions left and the hosts relaxed.

Emma Hansberry shot wide of the post from the edge of the area in the 89th minute before the Sligo native sent Jarrett in behind Gleeson. The Youths hotshot connected well with her shot but McQuillan made a solid save diving to her right.

However, after six minutes of added time, referee Darren Ennis blew his full-time whistle and Wexford had their six-point lead.

Attention turns to the shield final away to Cork on Sunday (3 p.m, Turner's Cross) before the final three league games and an FAI Cup semi-final against U.C.D. on October 17.

Getting the win and draw, and doing it as soon as possible, is undoubtedly the most important task ahead of Tom Elmes' side. However, in the eighth season of the National League, Wexford have some other records to chase down.

Should Youths win their final three matches, they will take the title with the best points per game ratio ever. It would give the Ferrycarrig Park side an average 2.76, slightly superior to the 2.71 Raheny managed in 2013-'14. The worst? Wexford's 2.22 last season.

As well as points, Elmes' charges are on target to have the best defensive record in the league's history. They are currently conceding at the rate of exactly two goals every three games, the same as Shelbourne in the shortened 2016. They will match that record should they allow two goals in their final three games, or beat it with fewer conceded.

The first of those games comes away to Galway United on Saturday week (October 13), with a positive result setting up the chance to wrap up the Continental Tyres WNL title a week later at home to Cork.

Wexford Youths: Sophie Lenehan; Nicola Sinnott, Lauren Dwyer, Orlaith Conlon, Doireann Fahey; Kylie Murphy (capt.), Edel Kennedy; McKenna Davidson, Emma Hansberry, Katrina Parrock; Rianna Jarrett. Subs. - Aisling Frawley for Davidson (65), Becky Cassin for Parrock (89), also Ciamh Dollard, Orla Casey, Rachel Hutchinson, Aoife Slattery, Cloidhna Ní Shé.

Shelbourne: Amanda McQuillan; Seana Cooke, Jess Gleeson, Pearl Slattery, Niamh Prior; Rachel Graham, Malinda Allen; Jessica Ziu, Jamie Finn, Alannah McEvoy; Noelle Murray (capt). Subs. - Isibeal Atkinson for Ziu (65), Siobhán Killeen for McEvoy (65), Emily Whelan for Murray (73), also Alex Kavanagh, Fiona Donnelly, Rachel Kelly, Kate Mooney.

Referee: Darren Ennis (Wexford).

New Ross Standard