SSE Airtricity First Division Series 4: Shelbourne FC 3 Wexford FC 0
Wexford F.C. produced their best 45 minutes of a dismal season thus far in the first-half in Tolka Park, Drumcondra, on Friday, but it still wasn't enough to prevent a fourth straight SSE Airtricity League First Division defeat as promotion favourites Shelbourne took the lead early on the re-start and never looked back.
The resilience of the visitors led to some anxiety among the local crowd up to the interval, and they must have feared a repeat of their team's sole home tie beforehand when they were surprisingly beaten 3-2 by Dublin rivals Cabinteely.
However, the pressure eased on Shels when holding midfielder Darragh Noone opened their account with a superb goal from distance in the 49th minute, and they were comfortable thereafter as the much-travelled Ryan Brennan doubled their lead before Dan Byrne left them with a 3-0 winning margin.
Wexford welcomed Danny Furlong and Danny Doyle back from suspension, with both returning to the starting line-up, while there was also a first start in central defence for Darragh O'Connor who had made his full debut off the bench at right-back in the defeat down in Cobh.
With vice-captain Owen McCormack dropped to the substitutes, the armband was worn this time by Jack Doherty who was the closest man on the field to Furlong in a re-jigged 4-4-1-1 formation.
Seán Kelly and Nika Arevadze were demoted to the bench too, while Andrew Farrell - the right-winger against Ramblers - wasn't on another threadbare squad of just 16 players from a permitted 18 at all this time as his Under-19 game the next day took priority.
With Seán Callan returning from injury to form a new central defensive partnership with O'Connor, it freed up Paddy Cahill to move to midfield where he was one of his side's more productive performers against a Shels side full of experienced League of Ireland figures.
Although we didn't know it at the time, Wexford's best chance of the entire game arrived on their very first attack, with just over two minutes elapsed.
Full-back Liam McCartan won number one of their five corners (Shels had eight) down the right, and Jack Doherty pinged a waist-high drive towards the near post.
It was met on the volley by Danny Furlong and his connection was sweet, but long-serving netminder Dean Delany was equal to the task as he got down low to make the save.
Unfortunately, this promising start wasn't a sign of things to come, and the Shelbourne captain didn't have a save of similar importance to make for the remainder of the game.
Nonetheless, the hotly-fancied home side took longer than they would have liked to wear down the resistance posed by their rivals, despite the example shown by crowd-pleasing left-back Lorcan Fitzgerald whose battling qualities were in stark contrast to some of his more lackadaisical colleagues.
Their first chance fell to the other full-back, John Ross Wilson, who pulled a shot wide after a one-two with Conan Byrne in the ninth minute.
Three successive corners were dealt with by the defence before another Jack Doherty flag kick at the other end didn't clear the first back at the front stick.
A long-range shot by Oscar Brennan was turned around the post by Joseph Walshe in the 19th minute, and the two corners that followed didn't lead to any openings for Shelbourne.
The Wexford number one made an even better stop in the 24th minute, acrobatically keeping out Ciarán Kilduff's header from close range after a Darragh Noone pass had given Conan Byrne the space to deliver a cross from the right.
Seán Callan then made a well-timed tackle on Kilduff in the box, with referee David Keeler refusing to be swayed by the penalty appeals voiced by an increasingly frustrated home crowd.
And the teams went in scoreless at the break, with Wexford surviving one late scare when a Lorcan Fitzgerald free-kick landed at the feet of Ryan Brennan close to goal, but he could only deliver a hopeful poke among a sea of bodies before the ball was eventually cleared.
It took something special to break the visitors' resistance, and it arrived in the 49th minute.
After some incisive build-up play down the left, the ball made its way to Brennan with his back to goal in the box. He rolled it out for Darragh Noone whose superb first-time strike was pinpointed for the top right corner of Joseph Walshe's net, and it marked the beginning of the end for Wexford.
John Ross Wilson went into the notebook for a foul on Paddy Cahill, who later had to leave the fray, before Shelbourne survived a brief scare in the 58th minute.
Wilson stood on the ball in his own box after a Liam McCartan cross, injuring himself in the process, but he had managed to knock it clear beforehand just as Jack Doherty prepared to pounce.
The clinching second Shelbourne goal was a thing of beauty in the 60th minute, although initially Wilson's cross from the right was a shade too high for the head of honours-laden ex-Dundalk striker Ciarán Kilduff.
The ball was retrieved close to the left byline by winger Karl Moore, and when he stroked it in low, it was all about the awareness of Kilduff as his astute dummy left Ryan Brennan with the relatively straightforward task of blasting it to the net.
Wexford did force three corners in a five-minute spell midway through the half, but the only time goalkeeper Dean Delany had to do any work was when a clearance fell to Ryan Nolan whose low volley required a save at the near post.
Conan Byrne has scored some spectacular Premier Division goals in his time, and he almost claimed a more basic third for Shels in the 77th minute when he rolled the ball to the left and wide after a Lee Costello clearing header landed at his feet.
He was stopped in his tracks on their next attack by a cynical foul by Costello which earned a yellow, but it was probably just as well given that he hopped up immediately and planted the ball in the top left corner of the net after the whistle had been blown.
However, Byrne's determination to get that third goal was finally rewarded in the 83rd minute when his free-kick from the left was met with a meaty header by centre-half Dan Byrne which gave Joseph Walshe no chance.
Fellow defender Derek Prendergast headed over the bar late on for a Shelbourne side whose victory leaves them top of the table after four rounds on scoring difference, above Bray Wanderers and surprise packets Athlone Town.
Wexford will host the Co. Wicklow side - who were relegated after a long stint in the top flight - on Friday at 7.45 p.m., with the difficult games coming thick and fast for new manager Brian O'Sullivan and his assistant, David Breen.
One notable stat is that Bray have only conceded one goal in their four outings, whereas Wexford have already shipped 17. It doesn't bode well for what passes as the closest thing to a 'local derby' in Ferrycarrig Park these days, now that Waterford have left us behind and are well settled among the bright lights in the top flight.
Wexford F.C.: Joseph Walshe; Liam McCartan, Seán Callan, Darragh O'Connor, Lee Costello; Danny Doyle, Ryan Nolan, Paddy Cahill, Emmet Nugent; Jack Doherty (capt.); Danny Furlong. Subs. - Seán Kelly for Cahill, inj. (80), Nika Arevadze for Doyle (80), Owen McCormack for Costello (85), also Corey Chambers, Thomas Croke.
Shelbourne F.C.: Dean Delany (capt.); John Ross Wilson, Derek Prendergast, Dan Byrne, Lorcan Fitzgerald; Darragh Noone; Conan Byrne, Oscar Brennan, Ryan Brennan, Karl Moore; Ciarán Kilduff. Subs. - Dayle Rooney for R. Brennan (72), James English for Kilduff (89), Daniel McKenna for Noone (90+2), also Colin McCabe, Aidan Friel, Luke Byrne, Seán Quinn.
Referee: David Keeler (Cork).