Promotion bid shattered by Louth
Two late points seal victory and final spot for home side in winner-takes-all tie
Wexford's promotion prospects and the bid to make an immediate return to Division 3 of the Allianz Football League were ripped to shreds in a tension-filled conclusion to their winner-takes-all clash with Louth in Drogheda's Gaelic Grounds on Sunday.
Louth 0-13 Wexford 0-11
The attempt to clinch a top two place and a beneficial group final clash with Antrim in Croke Park looked to be on course when P.J. Banville struck an equalising point for the wind-aided visitors with just under four minutes of normal time left.
Louth had 13 players planted behind the ball at the time, but Wexford's best attacker left them clutching at straws as he made some room for himself just inside the 45-metre line and drove a sweet kick over the bar via the outside of his right boot.
It looked like the momentum was with the Slaneysiders who had restricted Louth to just one second-half point at that stage, recovering well from a double scores interval deficit of 0-10 to 0-5.
However, with the home side chasing the exact same prize as Wexford, their supporters really got behind them as the finishing light came into view with the outcome hanging in the balance.
The influence of Louth's substitutes in their last burst to victory was considerable, particularly the talented Ryan Burns who restored their lead in the 69th minute after good work by Derek Maguire and Anthony Williams.
And even though they lost influential midfielder James Califf to a black card for the deliberate pull down of Naomhan Rossiter, his replacement, Gerard McSorley, enjoyed a memorable late cameo.
Six extra minutes had been indicated, a figure justified by long delays following injuries to Daithí Waters and John Tubritt. However, Wexford managed just one more scoring effort in that spell, another kick from Banville which was waved wide although the umpire following its flight didn't seem to know a great deal about it.
The insurance Louth point arrived with the stopwatch reading 37 minutes and 27 seconds, with Ryan Burns turning provider on this occasion as he played a neat ball into the right corner to fellow substitute McSorley who turned quickly and hooked a high, left-footed kick into the air which was greeted with a thunderous roar when it arrowed its way over the bar.
There was still three minutes for Wexford to salvage something from the game, although a goal was really needed at that stage. Louth held their nerve though and managed to retain possession effectively, and when impressive referee John Hickey blew for full-time it resulted in celebrations for the Wee county and despair for Wexford.
It had all started so brightly for the visitors despite playing into the wind on a cold day, as they held their own in the first 15 minutes and actually led by 0-4 to 0-3 at that stage.
Unfortunately, they completely lost their way in a 23-minute scoreless spell until Adrian Flynn added their fifth point just before the break. Louth owned the ball in that period and added seven points on the trot, with big midfielder James Califf exercising a major influence along with skilful number 13 Declan Byrne who spent most of his time around the middle third of the field too.
Wexford will look back with immense regret on two missed goal chances given the outcome.
The first fell to Donal Shanley with just over three minutes gone following an inch-perfect crossfield pass from left to right by P.J. Banville that he gathered on his chest, but his low shot struck the far post with netminder Craig Lynch well beaten and came back into play. The St. Fintan's youngster tapped over a point seconds later, but it could have been so much better for Wexford.
The second clearcut chance arrived just 33 seconds after the interval when a Ben Brosnan shot from close range was somehow smothered by a defender who was fortunate to get his back in the way.
Those two incidents adequately summed up the absence of lady luck for Wexford on a day when a heavy shower of rain before throw-in was followed by sunshine for the opening half, before the weather deteriorated again after the break.
The constant threat posed by Louth full-forward Conor Grimes was evident from the off as he picked off a point from a tight angle on the right after just 19 seconds. Jim Rossiter was given man-marking duties on the big number 14 while Naomhan Rossiter operated as a sweeper when Declan Byrne drifted outfield.
Another Grimes point, from a diagonal James Stewart pass, doubled the lead for wind-aided Louth in the third minute before that near miss at the other end when Donal Shanley struck the post.
At least he managed to salvage something with the side's opening point within seconds, and Wexford drew level in the sixth minute when Michael O'Regan broke a free from Shanley into the path of P.J. Banville who fired over the bar.
A sweet long-range point from Declan Byrne restored Louth's advantage before they shot the first of their six wides of the opening half, with Wexford hitting no effort off target in that period.
A foul on John Tubritt led to Shanley restoring parity in the 13th minute, and roles were then reversed as the St. Fintan's attacker found his Fethard colleague who pointed via the post for a 0-4 to 0-3 lead.
It was a case of so far, so good, but the remainder of the half was disastrous from a Wexford viewpoint. They found it hard to get the ball beyond midfield as Louth attacked Anthony Masterson's kick-outs with a vengeance and mopped up a lot of breaking ball.
James Califf judged the wind to perfection for a very good point off his left peg to leave the sides deadlocked for the third time. And once the prolific Conor Grimes made it 0-5 to 0-4 from a crossfield Cian Doyle pass, they were in the mood to kick on and put daylight between the teams.
Another Declan Byrne point from 45 metres, after James Califf won a Wexford kick-out, left two between them after 23 minutes. Joey Wadding collected a yellow card for a necessary foul on Derek Maguire to prevent a goal chance, with Califf converting the free to extend Louth's lead to 0-7 to 0-4.
Again Califf was the influential figure for the next score, catching another Masterson kick-out to start a move which ended with Jim McEneaney giving the locals a double scores lead.
There was nobody on the end of a dangerous John Tubritt cross on a rare Wexford breakaway, and seconds later the ball was at the other end where the excellent Declan Byrne picked off his third point.
A Jim McEneaney pass to Cian Doyle led to Louth making it 10-4 before some light appeared for the visitors in first-half added time when Adrian Flynn ended their scoring drought from the left corner.
It was his last involvement as Ciarán Lyng replaced him for the second period, slotting in at full-forward while Michael O'Regan went to the '40 where he was flanked by Ben Brosnan and P.J. Banville.
That early goal chance for Brosnan might have altered the outcome but for a rather fortunate block, although it was too good an opportunity to miss at the same time.
Strong pressure applied by John Tubritt on Derek Maguire forced a free which Donal Shanley converted before Michael O'Regan kicked the first of Wexford's six wides (Louth added three after the break for a total of nine).
The Louth midfielders combined for their next point, with James Stewart finding James Califf all alone in space, but it would be their last score for a staggering 28 minutes as Daithí Waters started to drive his team on after recovering from an injury.
A foul on P.J. Banville led to Shanley narrowing the gap to four in the 43rd minute, with the latter then hanging a high kick in the air that earned the approval of the umpires after a patient Wexford move from left to right (0-11 to 0-8).
Slowly but surely, the visitors were eating into Louth's advantage although the conditions started to deteriorate with light rain. Shanley was fouled moments later after an ill-advised short kick-out, and when he knocked over the free it left Wexford with 22 minutes to get their noses in front.
Another free from 45 metres was sent narrowly wide before Derek Maguire had a bad miss at the other end. And Wexford were lucky to escape in the 53rd minute when Declan Byrne fed Conor Grimes whose shot cannoned off the post and went out for a line ball in the right corner.
Eoghan Nolan came in for Colm Kehoe and this allowed Brian Malone to push forward, but he kicked a wide shortly after his switch to midfield. Kieran Butler replaced Michael O'Regan just before Louth made the inspired decision to bring on Ryan Burns, with the gap down to one after Malone fed Ciarán Lyng who made it 11-10 in the 58th minute.
The injured John Tubritt left the scene for Seán Ryan before a long run by Simon Donohoe led to another chance for Malone, but his first-time kick off the ground went high and wide.
Another miss followed from Donal Shanley, but it looked like Wexford were in a position to push on after P.J. Banville's equaliser in the 67th minute.
That didn't happen though, and their unwanted spell in Division 4 will stretch into a second year at least as a result. Even if Louth lose to Antrim on Sunday, and if Wexford beat Carlow, it won't be enough since the Wee county would get the verdict on the head-to-head rule.
It will lead to a damp squib curtain-raiser in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday, with the emphasis now turning to the championship against Kildare on May 21 and the race to earn places on the starting 15.
Wexford: Anthony Masterson; Jim Rossiter, Naomhan Rossiter, Joey Wadding; Brian Malone (capt.), Syl Byrne, Simon Donohoe; Colm Kehoe, Daithí Waters; Adrian Flynn (0-1), Donal Shanley (0-6, 4 frees), Ben Brosnan; P.J. Banville (0-2), Michael O'Regan, John Tubritt (0-1). Subs. - Ciarán Lyng (0-1) for Flynn (HT), Eoghan Nolan for Kehoe (55), Kieran Butler for O'Regan (56), Seán Ryan for Tubritt, inj. (60), Shane Roche for Brosnan (70).
Louth: Craig Lynch; Pádraig Rath (capt.), Patrick Reilly, Kevin Toner; Derek Maguire, Darren McMahon, Keith McLoughlin; James Stewart, James Califf (0-3, 1 free); Anthony Williams, Jim McEneaney (0-1), Tommy Durnin; Declan Byrne (0-3), Conor Grimes (0-3), Cian Doyle (0-1). Subs. - Ryan Burns (0-1) for Doyle (57), Conal McKeever for McLoughlin (57), Colm Judge for McEneaney (64), Gerard McSorley (0-1) for Califf, black card (70+1), McEneaney for Durnin (70+5).
Referee: John Hickey (Carlow).