Flat Youths suffer setback
Five-game winning sequence halted by Athlone Town
Losing to one of the teams in the bottom half clearly wasn't part of the plan, but a flat performance from high-flying Wexford Youths was punished in the Athlone Town Stadium in Lissywollen on Friday when the visitors squandered the chance to regain top spot in the SSE Airtricity First Division from Finn Harps.
Athlone Town 3 Wexford Youths 1
It brought a five-game run of straight wins to an abrupt halt, and it makes the trip to Tolka Park to face Shelbourne all the more important given that the Dubliners have availed of U.C.D's recent postponed fixtures to move into third position.
That run of victories for Youths had started in Ferrycarrig Park on June 9 when they saw off Athlone Town 2-0 in the re-fixed game after the floodlights failed in their previous encounter. Successes followed away to Finn Harps and Cabinteely, home to Waterford United and away to Cobh Ramblers, so Friday's outcome against the side now placed fifth certainly wasn't expected.
Perhaps the lack of a competitive game the week before - owing to U.C.D's involvement in Europe - could go some way towards explaining the lack of energy and drive from the Youths in this contest, although they did taste some action in the form of a home friendly with Premier Division Bray Wanderers which they lost 3-2.
Whatever the reason, Shane Keegan's charges were in trouble from an early stage on Friday. While early pot-shots from Athlone Town duo Robbie Gaul and Aidan Friel posed no threat to netminder Graham Doyle, the tone had been set as central midfielders Chris 'Hopper' Kenny and Craig Wall found themselves chasing rather than creating.
Friel shot tamely wide again for the locals, but the breakthrough wasn't far away. It came in the ninth minute when Philip Gorman's knock-on with his head found Daniel Purdy whose left-footed strike beat Graham Doyle's despairing efforts to keep it out.
And it went from bad to worse for Youths just under three minutes later when Gavin Boyne gained possession to the right just outside the penalty area and was given the time to crash the ball to the net via a slight deflection from a stretching Stephen Last.
The shell-shocked visitors created their first half-chance in the 14th minute when Paul Cahillane played a clever free-kick from the left into space, but Danny Furlong hooked his instinctive shot across goal and wide.
The tension rose on and off the field in the 16th minute when goalscorer Purdy caught centre-half Stephen Last with a raw challenge which enraged the Youths bench. At first it looked like referee Michael Connolly was in two minds about the course of action to take, and he seemed to take guidance from the fourth official before brandishing a straight red card to the fury of the Athlone Town sideline.
Last, whose season has been dogged by injuries, had to retire with Jimmy Dermody slotting in to his usual left-back slot while Ryan Delaney moved into the middle.
A Craig Wall header was comfortably saved by netminder Patrick Dunican in the 20th minute, while the first corner for the visitors early in the second quarter came to nothing.
Ryan Delaney's strong header cut out a threatening cross from Derek Doyle while Gavin Boyne forced Graham Doyle into a good save, with Athlone Town continuing to pose a serious threat despite their numerical disadvantage.
Indeed, only the crossbar saved Youths in the 35th minute when Aidan Friel took aim, but Athlone didn't have to wait long to add to their lead. Once again Friel played a key role, with his cross from the right to the near post headed home by Philip Gorman as the visitors scored a third goal in a competitive league game for the first time since March 27.
Danny Furlong did have the ball in the net in the 41st minute, but the linesman's flag was raised for offside before he took aim when a long ball sat up nicely and invited a strike. The lack of penetration throughout the half had been very disappointing, with Athlone Town netminder Patrick Dunican enjoying an easy time.
There was promise of much better to come when the Youths resumed on a more positive note, with early crosses from Craig McCabe and Andy Mulligan testing the Town defence. One of McCabe's specialist long throws from the right presented a half-chance for Danny Furlong in the 50th minute, but the ball was trapped under his body as he fell and it was quickly cleared.
Craig Wall entered the referee's notebook for a foul on Robbie Gaul before Youths introduced Shane Dunne who was recently re-signed by the club after a spell with Drogheda United in the Premier Division. He added energy to the midfield sector and should be an asset for the remainder of the season, with a lot of his best work done from positions on the right.
A Gary Delaney header was knocked out for a corner which Paul Cahillane whipped in, but Ryan Delaney's effort cleared the crossbar.
However, Youths did hit back in the 57th minute when Andy Mulligan's pinpoint cross from the left was headed home by Danny Furlong via the goalkeeper's fingertips.
There was still time for the visitors to salvage something as they now bossed the possession stakes, with Athlone Town restricted to rare breakaways.
Unfortunately, they created precious little in the way of decent chances, whereas the leaders nearly added to their tally in the 62nd minute when Gavin Boyne's shot for the far corner was expertly kept out by Graham Doyle.
A Furlong effort from a Gary Delaney delivery was saved by netminder Dunican in the 79th minute and, while Youths forced five second-half corners in all, none of them were productive.
A couple of probing balls from Shane Dunne were just too long for Furlong to win, while centre-half Gary Delaney was pushed forward in a last throw of the dice but couldn't make the most of one slight chance from a decent Jimmy Dermody cross which struck his chest and was safely gathered by Dunican.
The defeat, while unexpected, will focus the minds ahead of the crucial trip to Tolka Park this Friday night.
Youths won there 4-2 on their last visit in April, and more of the same would keep their title ambitions firmly on course despite this midlands setback.
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle (capt.), Craig McCabe, Ryan Delaney, Gary Delaney, Stephen Last, Chris Kenny, Andy Mulligan, Craig Wall, Danny Furlong, Paul Cahillane, Eric Molloy. Subs. - Jimmy Dermody for Last, inj. (20), Shane Dunne for Kenny (54), Conor English for Wall (74).
Athlone Town: Patrick Dunican, Brian Shortall (capt.), Stephen Dunne, Conor Dunne, Aidan Collins, Robbie Gaul, Aidan Friel, Gavin Boyne, Philip Gorman, Daniel Purdy, Derek Doyle. Subs. - Daniel Molloy for Shortall, inj. (52), Sam O'Connor for Doyle (80).
Referee: Michael Connolly.