Fox's rocket a consolation
Athlone hold on for win despite super second-half goal
Right-back Ricky Fox considerably brightened a miserable night at Ferrycarrig Park on Friday with a stunning second-half goal, but it wasn't enough to inspire an all-out comeback from Wexford F.C. as the new club's first home game ended in a 2-1 defeat to surprise early-season joint table-toppers Athlone Town.
Wexford F.C. 1 Athlone Town 2
The locals had left themselves with a great deal to do at the break in this SSE Airtricity First Division encounter watched by 323 spectators when they trailed 2-0, having conceded for the second time just before the interval.
However, they were an altogether more threatening unit on the re-start and gave themselves real hope of coming from behind and perhaps snatching a second successive draw when that deficit was halved in spectacular fashion in the 62nd minute.
Left winger Seán Hurley played a pass across field on the deck that was perfect to be hit first time, but it was still a tall order to get it on target given the teeming rain and difficult underfoot conditions.
Versatile Enniscorthy sportsman Ricky Fox was more than equal to the task though, connecting with the ball on the run and then looking on with satisfaction as it arrowed its way into the top right-hand corner of the net.
It was the first goal of the new season in Ferrycarrig Park, and it will be difficult to be bettered in fairness. Ultimately though, it was the sole bright aspect of a generally disappointing night, as Wexford couldn't add an equaliser against the midlanders who had caused the first big surprise of the season on the opening night when they beat the newly cash-rich Waterford 1-0 in Lissywollen.
Damian Locke made two changes from the side which drew 1-1 away to Cobh Ramblers six days earlier, with late goalscorer Lee Duffy preferred to Craig Hayes up front, while Mark Slater started in place of Liam Donnelly on the right flank.
Adam Hanlon was back in the match-day squad after missing the trip to Co. Cork due to work commitments, while vice-captain Craig McCabe was on the bench for the first time in the campaign too after recovering from a calf injury.
Wexford played with Duffy as the lone frontman while Slater and Seán Hurley hugged the right and left touchlines respectively. And one of the key figures was Shane Dunne who operated from a deep defensive midfield role just in front of the back four, making full use of his impressive passing range.
There was a cosmopolitan look to the visiting line-up, with two Latvians, two Portuguese and a Romanian in their starting eleven. However, they played second fiddle in the early stages although chances were in very short supply.
Wexford's Thomas Croke hung a high cross in the air which was safely gathered by Latvian number one Igor Labuts in the seventh minute, while there was nobody to get on the end of a teasing low cross from the left by Seán Hurley after a neat flick into his path from Lee Duffy.
Midfielder Craig Wall made an interception and embarked on a strong run in the 14th minute, only to take a heavy touch as he made his way into the box.
Athlone first threatened shortly afterwards when Colm Coss played a good ball to right winger and captain Niall Scullion, who looked lively from the off. His cross got caught under the feet of centre-forward Jason Lyons, and netminder Graham Doyle was able to safely gather the ball.
Wexford earned the sole corner of the first-half in the 18th minute when a Seán Hurley cross was met by a defender's head, but the set-piece was wasted.
Scullion was well off target for the visitors before a speculative effort from long range by Dragos Sfrijan wasn't too far over the bar.
Wexford created a good chance in the 28th minute, with Lee Duffy initially releasing Mark Slater on the right. Seán Hurley laid the ball off for a Duffy flick into the path of Thomas Croke whose shot was charged down.
A foul on Croke saw Sfrijan enter the notebook before Athlone pounced for the lead goal in the 34th minute. It came out of nothing really, with Kirils Grigorovs delivering a ball from the right into the penalty area which was well read by Portuguese left winger Jose Viegas, ghosting in behind the defence to poke it first time well out of Graham Doyle's reach.
Consecutive crosses by Ricky Fox and Seán Hurley were cleared as Wexford sought a quick response, but they were rocked even more by the concession of that second goal in the 45th minute.
Val Feeney released Niall Scullion down the right once more, and his cross to the near post was met with a meaty header by Colm Coss - scorer of the winner against Waterford one week earlier - which went in off the underside of the crossbar.
While the margin between the teams at the break may have been a little harsh on Wexford, at the same time they hadn't seriously troubled opposing netminder Igor Labuts even once, while Athlone had made full use of their two good chances.
Graham Doyle had to be alert to dive at the feet of Jason Lyons and avert early second-half danger before Mark Slater finally forced Labuts into making a decent save in the 48th minute.
Val Feeney couldn't make the most of a half-chance for Athlone before Wexford forced the first of no fewer than eight corners after the break, after the slightest touch from Labuts stopped Owen McCormack from getting on the end of a dangerous curled free-kick from the left by Shane Dunne.
Adam Hanlon came in for Mark Slater on the right wing and directed a header from a Dunne cross wide as Wexford gradually grew into the game playing into the clubhouse end.
And their more creative attacking approach paid off in the 62nd minute with that cracking goal from Ricky Fox which had home supporters on their feet.
There was still plenty of time for more goals, and while Wexford ultimately fell short it certainly wasn't for the want of trying.
Seán Hurley forced a corner which led to a bout of head tennis and some unconvincing Athlone defending before a Lee Duffy shot was blocked by a defender.
That led to another corner which was partially cleared, but only to Adam Hanlon whose low shot forced Igor Labuts into an important save.
John McKeown replaced Craig Wall in midfield, with Wexford continuing to press as Shane Dunne directed a free-kick into the goalkeeper's arms after a foul on Duffy.
Athlone moved to curb the growing threat of Hurley down the left by taking off full-back Frederico Hernandez and pushing captain Niall Scullion back in a new marking role.
Defender David Brookes was booked for petulantly kicking the ball away after the referee's whistle was blown, but the visitors did manage to lift the siege briefly and earn a couple of corners.
The ball broke from the first after a scramble to Cormac Raftery who drove his shot low to the left and wide, while Andrew O'Connor dealt with the second.
Adam Hanlon didn't trouble the goalkeeper with an 80th-minute effort before Wexford went for all-out attack as Craig Hayes was introduced to play off Lee Duffy up front. Owen McCormack was sacrificed as the home side reverted to a three-man defence, and this left them vulnerable to quick breaks although it was the right option to take as the chance of at least snatching a draw remained.
Thomas Croke was booked before Athlone's Jose Viegas shot over from a Conor Barry pass, while the last Wexford corner led to a free out and some breathing space for the leaders.
David Brookes and Jason Lyons combined quickly for Athlone just as we moved into the three added minutes, but Ross Kenny got back to nick the ball off Val Feeney's toe.
A low cross by Craig Hayes was cleared after good play by Ricky Fox who was very lively and inventive down the right during Wexford's brighter spells, not to mention that cracking goal.
That was effectively the last chance for a leveller, even though those three extra minutes announced turned to five after Athlone introduced a late substitute, Ryan Gaffney, who tested Graham Doyle with a shot before the end.
The outcome leaves Wexford in the bottom half of the table at this early stage of the campaign, but they will be hopeful of securing that eagerly sought-after first win when they travel to Stradbrook to face Cabinteely, the only side yet to pick up at least one point, this Friday at 7.45 p.m.
They will be at home to UCD on St. Patrick's night, and then the first south-east derby of 2017 will take place at home on Tuesday, March 21, when Wexford host Waterford in pool 1 of the EA Sports Cup first round at 8 p.m.
Wexford F.C.: Graham Doyle (capt.); Ricky Fox, Owen McCormack, Ross Kenny, Andrew O'Connor; Shane Dunne; Mark Slater, Thomas Croke, Craig Wall, Seán Hurley; Lee Duffy. Subs. - Adam Hanlon for Slater (58), John McKeown for Wall (66), Craig Hayes for McCormack (81), also Liam Donnelly, Craig McCabe, Jamie Fox, Corey Chambers.
Athlone Town: Igor Labuts; Frederico Hernandez, Kirils Grigirovs, Cormac Raftery, David Brookes; Niall Scullion (capt.), Colm Coss, Dragos Sfrijan, Jose Viegas; Val Feeney, Jason Lyons. Subs. - Conor Barry for Hernandez (69), Ryan Gaffney for Feeney (90+3), also Ian Dempsey, Aaron Brilly, Jason Molloy, Ethan Keogh, Conor Gleeson.
Referee: Tom Dempsey.