Glory for Youths as Premier Division awaits
A momentous piece of soccer history was made before 1,321 partisan and appreciative fans at a buzzing Ferrycarrig Park on Friday when the wonderful Wexford Youths captured the SSE Airtricity First Division title and qualified for the top flight for the first time with a commanding win over Athlone Town.
Wexford Youths 3 Athlone Town 0
The midlanders were the last team to inflict defeat on Shane Keegan's charges in Lissywollen on July 24, but the newly-crowned champions have been simply magnificent ever since and they did the business once again in this pressure cooker atmosphere to create club history.
This was their seventh straight victory after a somewhat fortuitous away draw with Shelbourne, remarkably the only share of the spoils so far with 26 games played. And while it was feared during the summer months that Youths might face a do-or-die trip to Ballybofey on the final weekend of the campaign, now they can travel safe in the knowledge that Premier Division action awaits in 2016.
Three second-half goals were greeted with absolute joy by supporters on Friday, and the after-match scenes were something special as the players celebrated this magnificent achievement.
There was one change in personnel from the side which beat U.C.D. 2-1 in Belfield seven days earlier, with Chris Kenny vacating his midfield role as Aidan Keenan returned from suspension to join ace predator Danny Furlong up front.
There was an understandable tension among the crowd and caginess on the pitch until Furlong broke the deadlock with a header in the 61st minute, but after that a carnival atmosphere prevailed as the Youths put on a memorable show of crisp first-touch football.
The home side attacked in the second minute when a Furlong pass was nicked off Aidan Keenan's boot, while Lee Grace made a timely block to deny Sam O'Connor at the other end.
Keenan headed a corner away from the danger zone before Furlong drove a scooped Shane Dunne pass over the crossbar in the eleventh minute, but the flag was raised for offside one way or the other.
Furlong's first half-chance to break the all-time goalscoring record for the division arrived in the 16th minute, but his touch was heavy after Eric Molloy squared the ball and Athlone netminder Paddy Dunican gathered safely.
Youths forced a corner moments later after Furlong applied the pressure, with a downward header by Keenan cleared to Molloy who was fouled. Furlong wasn't too far away from the free-kick, while Molloy had the best chance yet in the 21st minute when he latched on to a long free by Gary Delaney in behind the right-back.
The winger's shot was parried by goalkeeper Dunican, and unfortunately the rebound struck him and the ball ended up going harmlessly wide. A Stephen Dunne set-piece for Athlone went out for a corner off Graham Doyle which came to nothing, before Sam O'Connor became the first of five visiting players to enter the notebook of referee Andrew Mullally when he refused to retreat for a free-kick.
Conor Whittle didn't test Dunican from a set-piece before Aidan Friel joined his team-mate on a yellow card, and Youths pressed again in the 35th minute.
Shane Dunne directed another free to the far post where Ryan Delaney hooked it back across the box, and the stretching Danny Furlong wasn't too far away from getting a touch.
Athlone Town then threatened from two frees, the second awarded harshly against Gary Delaney, but Graham Doyle made a comfortable save from the first while Daniel Purdy directed the second over the bar.
Two successive Youths corners nearly forced an opening, with both taken by Conor Whittle and the second effort from the left landing on the head of Danny Furlong whose glancing effort was saved by Paddy Dunican.
A yellow card for Athlone's Stephen Dunne was the last action of a half that promised more than it delivered, but it seemed like only a matter of time before the deadlock would be broken given that Youths were playing with admirable composure all over the field.
Early pressure on the re-start yielded a corner before Conor Whittle had a shot saved with his feet by the impressive Dunican after one of Craig McCabe's trademark long throws.
Whittle didn't test the number one from a weak free-kick, but Eric Molloy's shot in the 43rd minute was deflected into Dunican's path with Danny Furlong ready to pounce.
A foul on the all-action Peter Higgins led to another yellow and a Furlong effort which flew over the bar, while the woodwork came into play in the 59th minute. Shane Dunne's free to the far post was knocked back by Furlong to Ryan Delaney whose looping header went over via the crossbar.
Three minutes later the deadlock was finally broken as Youths fans roared their approval. Peter Higgins was fouled once more, and when Shane Dunne whipped in the free-kick there was a record-breaking finish as Danny Furlong's downward header earned him his 28th goal of the season.
Youths were brimming with confidence as Whittle tested the netminder after playing a one-two with Aidan Keenan. Athlone did have a brief spell where they bossed possession, but Graham Doyle made an easy save from a cross before the ball broke away from Sam O'Connor when Philly Gorman tried to play him through.
Daniel Purdy was the fifth visitor booked before Craig McCabe also entered the notebook, while Gorman went close from a tight angle in the box after 72 minutes. Lee Grace blocked another effort from the same player at the expense of a fruitless corner, but Youths lifted the siege as Conor Whittle whizzed a near-post effort just wide.
Gorman headed over for Athlone before Conor English was introduced for Whittle with just over ten minutes left. And it was very nearly 2-0 less than 60 seconds later when a desperate lunge by Stephen Dunne near his own line kept out an Eric Molloy shot after Craig McCabe's throw wasn't dealt with.
There was quality written all over the match-clinching second goal when it arrived in the 84th minute. A Lee Grace clearance found Aidan Keenan who quickly transferred the ball crossfield to the pacey Molloy. He cut inside the nearest defender before beating Dunican with a vicious low drive, and the title was in the bag.
Chris Kenny replaced Peter Higgins in the midfield engine room and quickly got into the action as he blocked a shot by Daniel Purdy.
The first chants of 'campeones' rent the air with the stopwatch reading 42 minutes and 25 seconds, and Youths responded to the joy around the perimeter of the pitch with a third goal in added time.
This time Danny Furlong did the donkey work on the right wing, and when he crossed to the far post there was a cool finish from Aidan 'Rox' Keenan as he sidefooted calmly to the net.
Eric Molloy also had a couple of efforts on either side of that goal as the champagne football which has been produced in recent months continued. And when Andrew Mullally's final whistle arrived, the stewards had a job keeping the ecstatic fans off the pitch as the realisation dawned: Wexford Youths will be playing Premier Division football next season for the first time since the club joined the League of Ireland in 2007.
There is still one chance for fans to show their appreciation in Ferrycarrig Park as they will meet a Shelbourne side fighting neck-and-neck with UCD for a play-off spot on Friday week, October 9.
Then it will be off to Ballybofey eight nights later to bring the curtain down on a season to savour.
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle (capt.), Craig McCabe, Gary Delaney, Lee Grace, Ryan Delaney, Conor Whittle, Peter Higgins, Shane Dunne, Eric Molloy, Danny Furlong, Aidan Keenan. Subs. - Conor English for Whittle (80), Chris Kenny for Higgins (85), Craig Wall for Dunne (89), also Willie Tyrrell, Jimmy Dermody, John Peare, Gavin Dowling.
Athlone Town: Paddy Dunican, Aidan Friel, Aidan Collins (capt.), Conor Dunne, Stephen Dunne, Adam Kelly, Daniel Purdy, Derek Doyle, Cian O'Sullivan, Sam O'Connor, Philly Gorman. Subs. - Tom Mulroney for Kelly (40), Marco Chindea for Collins (54), Danny Molloy for O'Sullivan (85), also Ian Fletcher, Brian Shortall.
Referee: Andrew Mullally.
FIRST DIVISION TABLE