League hopes die
Much-improved Youths still miss out
The performance was excellent, energy levels were high, there was bite in the tackle and closing down in midfield was the norm.
Shelbourne 1 Wexford Youths 0
The tactics were spot on too, the referee put in a competent performance, and even the lights stayed on. Everything came together for Wexford Youths in Morton Stadium on Saturday but it still added up to a defeat.
That's just the way it is at the moment. Youths needed to put in a performance to see where they really stood. The league was a long-shot anyway but it was important to know what could be achieved with a proper showing.
The answer was clear: Shelbourne are currently a bit better, but there isn't a chasm that clever tactics and hard work cannot overcome.
It probably took Wexford a little too long to wake up to the fact that they needed to change a tried and tested system to compete with the best.
In truth, the league season was pretty much over when the north Dublin side came to Wexford and sauntered away with the points against open and startled hosts. That result came after the draw with UCD and loss to Peamount, mini-daggers themselves.
Maybe it was naivety, or maybe it was the belief within the group of players, but it took a few setbacks to embrace being underdogs again. A 5-0 drubbing in a televised national cup final can clearly have that kind of impact on a team.
Wexford were better for it. There was no cowering in a corner, no worrying about what might go wrong or getting through the fixture without a repeat dose. From the first minute the visitors unsettled their hosts. Claire O'Riordan set the tone, drilling Seána Cooke with a kick worthy of a yellow card in the ninth minute.
If ever there was a good/bad yellow that was it. Cooke was no danger at all, in her own half out on the left, but Youths needed to stand up for themselves. O'Riordan put down the marker that was so painfully absent in the Aviva showpiece.
There was little by way of goalmouth action in the first 15 minutes. Sophie Lenehan comfortably saved a Noelle Murray free at one end while Linda Douglas did solid work to win a corner that eventually came to nothing at the other.
Then both sides got a bit of luck in the same move. Shelbourne got theirs first when Alex Kavanagh's nothing effort ricocheted to an unmarked Gloria Douglas on the edge of the area. Wexford got theirs when the American attacker thumped the crossbar with her resulting shot in the 17th minute.
The hosts had more of the ball, especially in the Youths half, but it was fairly comfortable for a more compact, deeper Wexford. Lenehan claimed a soft Douglas header and Murray fired wide from outside the box as the game crept past the half-hour mark.
With the way Gary Hunt set up his side, Wexford were not going to have that many chances themselves and they needed to take them when they arrived.
The Wexford manager probably wouldn't have cherry-picked Aisling Frawley to land his side's best opening, given the choice.
But that's the way it happened. The Waterford native made a fantastic run in from the left wing, arriving on cue for Kylie Murphy's superbly-weighted ball.
She took her time and shot past the recovering defender. The strike was heading for the corner but Amanda McQuillan, off-balance, just got her foot to it to stop Frawley's shot hitting the net.
Gloria Douglas fired into the side-netting from a tight angle on the right and Murray barely tested Lenehan with a long-range shot as the half wound down.
Scoreless at the break, Wexford must have been thrilled with how the game was going.
Tails up, Youths continued to press, hassle and harry after the interval. The pressure was telling on Shelbourne, who are used to having it all their own way. Pearl Slattery, just booked for a foul in midfield, produced an outburst that referee Paula Brady couldn't ignore and the captain was sent-off.
Against anyone else in the league, Youths would likely have made their numerical advantage count but Shelbourne didn't lose an attacking threat. Due to the flow of the game, Slattery wasn't as big a loss as she might have been and, initially, little changed.
Wexford had a half-chance when O'Riordan just couldn't convert Kylie Murphy's cross from the right, but soon after Shelbourne took the lead. Big officiating mistakes have cost Youths players and points in the last couple of years but it was a smaller error that started the ball rolling on the goal.
The visitors should have had a throw-in after Aisling Frawley knocked the ball off Siobhán Killeen's instep over the sideline. The assistant gave it the other way. Killeen threw the ball into Rachel Graham who floated the cross perfectly between two defenders to Gloria Douglas.
The Shels attacker pulled the ball back to Leanne Kiernan on the edge of the area. She cut across the face of goal, made herself a yard of space and fired low to Sophie Lenehan's net to give her side the lead.
There was a change to a more adventurous Wexford set-up after the goal, as there clearly had to be.
Neither Kylie Murphy nor Claire O'RIordan could trouble McQuillan with shots shortly after the Shelbourne breakthrough.
A fumble from a long Murray free by Lenehan meant that Nicola Sinnott had to clear a Leanne Kiernan shot off the line in the 68th minute. The Wexford stopper then made a tidy save from another Kiernan strike.
While Shelbourne still looked dangerous on the break, Wexford had more of the ball.
O'Riordan just missed a header from Hansberry's cross, and then the Youths attacker dinked a lovely ball into the penalty area that was just inches away from Murphy's toe.
Youths' best chance came and went when Jess Gleeson kneed Hansberry's right-wing free-kick over the bar from six yards out with seven minutes remaining. A long ball by the Wexford defender nearly got O'Riordan away with two minutes left but the Limerick native dragged her shot wide.
Right until the end Wexford went at their hosts. Linda Douglas forced a cross in from the right in added time but O'Riordan couldn't find the telling touch. Despite being a hard defeat for Wexford to take, in reality it wasn't this performance, or game, that cost them their title.
Youths still have two home matches to play, first on Wednesday week against Peamount and then three days later versus Cork. Two wins may well be enough for second spot, not a bad return considering the trials and tribulations of the longest of short seasons.
Wexford Youths: Sophie Lenehan; Nicola Sinnott, Jess Gleeson, Orlaith Conlon, Lauren Dwyer; Linda Douglas, Kylie Murphy (capt.), Emma Hansberry, Aisling Frawley; Aoibhín Webb; Claire O'Riordan. Subs. - Chelsee Snell for Dwyer, inj. (58), Maria Delahunty for Webb (75), Amy Walsh for Frawley (75), also Tamara Furlong, Becky Cassin, Clare Conlon, Sinéad Gaynor.
Shelbourne: Amanda McQuillan; Rachel Graham, Niamh Walsh, Seána Cooke, Courtney Higgins; Pearl Slattery (capt.), Alex Kavanagh; Siobhán Killeen, Noelle Murray, Leanne Kiernan; Gloria Douglas. Subs (not used). - Fiona Donnelly, Kate Mooney, Lynn Craven, Chloe McNamee, Sophie Watters, Sarah Rowe, Shauna Newman.
Referee: Paula Brady (Dublin).
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