Ledwith saves, Molloy scores
High dram as Youths end Dubliners' giant-killing run
I was an avid reader of 'Roy of the Rovers' as a child, but I cannot recall a storyline to match the real-life drama that unfolded in a rain-soaked Ferrycarrig Park on Tuesday as Wexford Youths qualified for the Leinster Senior Cup final for the first time in a game that had just about everything.
Wexford Youths 3 Collinstown 2 (AET)
The small crowd witnessed five goals, including a winner in added time of extra-time, plus a magnificent penalty save from an outfield player. There was a straight red card apiece, a hat-trick for Eric Molloy, and the unfortunate sight of referee Brian Fenlon being flanked by stewards after the final whistle as frustrated Collinstown players made their feelings known.
The finish to normal time had so many twists and turns that it was nearly impossible to keep up. The well-organised Leinster Senior League side had deservedly taken the lead just before the break and doubled their advantage on the re-start.
And while Molloy gave Youths hope with his first goal in the 55th minute, there was no lying down from the Clondalkin-based giant-killers despite the introduction of heavy hitters Jonny Bonner, Aidan Friel and Andy Mulligan in a bid to unlock their defence.
It looked like Collinstown might hold out as time ticked away, despite losing Dean Ebbe to a red card in the 83rd minute when he retaliated after a challenge by young defender Owen McCormack.
However, the breakthrough finally came in the 87th minute when Bonner's probing left-wing cross from distance to the far post was met with a powerful downward header by Eric Molloy.
Youths had earned their lifeline and extra-time beckoned, or so we thought. However, it wasn't quite as straightforward as the visitors had a glorious chance for a last-gasp winner when Irish amateur international Daniel Matthews slipped the ball through to Dylan Clarke.
The midfielder jinked to his right and was taken down by the outstretched leg of netminder Matt Connor who really had no option in the circumstances. The inevitable red card followed, but Youths were presented with a dilemma before the penalty as they couldn't introduce Graham Doyle to face it with all three substitutes already used.
The poisoned chalice in the form of the goalkeeper's jersey was handed to Danny Ledwith who was on a hiding to nothing as he prepared to face Daniel Matthews' spot kick. He pulled an incredible save right out of the top drawer though, diving low to his left to keep out a shot destined for the bottom corner.
It was a remarkable finish to the 90 minutes that nobody could have envisaged, and both teams approached extra-time with markedly different outlooks. Collinstown were naturally deflated and, despite those heroics from Ledwith, no doubt they would have been happy for the game to go to penalties at that stage to pile the pressure on the stand-in.
Youths, in contrast, were intent on getting a winner to lessen the pressure on their saviour and they probed constantly, creating a lot more chances in the first added period. Conor English struck the side-netting from an Andy Mulligan cross, while shots from Eric Molloy (two) and Shane Dunne were saved.
Collinstown did earn the only corner in that 15-minute spell but substitute Luke Fitzpatrick headed wide at the near post from Dean Carpenter's delivery. And they also forced Danny Ledwith into making one good save as first-half goalscorer Ian McNeill tried to double his tally.
The play resumed after the last break with Shane Dunne's dangerous ball across goal not getting the touch it needed. Collinstown's one opportunity fell to Daniel Matthews on a breakaway, and his shot only cleared the crossbar by a matter of inches.
It was all Youths in the last ten minutes, but Conor English couldn't make the most of a couple of opportunities while Owen McCormack fired a shot well wide. Given the drama that went before it, there was no real surprise when the game finished with another major talking point.
One extra minute had been announced, and 23 seconds of that time had elapsed when Andy Mulligan delivered an inch-perfect low cross from the left for Eric Molloy to dispatch to the net from close range.
The Carlow man's hat-trick completed a remarkable recovery from Youths and set up a final clash with either Bohemians or UCD. The home side took their time celebrating the goal in the clubhouse corner before play resumed, and Collinstown weren't happy with referee Brian Fenlon when he sounded the full-time whistle with the stopwatch reading 16 minutes and 53 seconds.
One of their mentors had already been ordered off the sideline in the 62nd minute following the intervention of fourth official Seán Grant. And his presence in the on-field huddle before extra-time got under way had prompted Grant to approach him again before the chief steward also had a few words in his ear.
It all added to the drama on a night when Youths also had two early second-half goals disallowed before finally kick-starting their revival.
Manager Shane Keegan stuck with the policy that served him well in the earlier-round extra-time wins over Athlone Town and Longford Town, giving fringe players a chance while introducing some more established performers from the bench as the opposition started to tire.
Collinstown were clearly the better side throughout the first-half, inventive from setpieces and very solid at the back. It was clear to see how they had lowered the colours of Shamrock Rovers and Bray Wanderers in the earlier rounds as they forced five corners with just one in reply before the break.
Matt Connor got down low to save from Dylan Clarke in the 29th minute, and a series of half-chances were created both before and after that incident. Youths didn't test netminder Derek O'Connor at the other end, and they found themselves in arrears when Collinstown's productive play was finally rewarded in the 43rd minute.
Their lead goal was a real peach too, with a short corner finding Daniel Matthews who squared the ball for right-back Ian McNeill who fancied his chances from outside the box. His long-range shot was as sweet as they come, and the non-leaguers duly took a 1-0 lead into the break.
Youths had the ball in the net just 37 seconds into the new half after Conor English slotted home Conor O'Keeffe's pass, but it was the first of an incredible six offside calls against the home side in the second-half when linesman Darren Ennis was kept very busy.
That was a blow to Youths, and they were hit even harder in the 49th minute when Karl Laffan passed on the right to Dillon McKeever who floated a beautifully-measured strike into the far top corner of Matt Connor's net.
Youths really had a battle on their hands now, but it didn't take them long to reply. They had to endure another disallowed goal first though, after John Peare forced a corner with a good shot from distance. Conor Whittle took it, but the whistle was blown for a free to Collinstown before captain for the night Stephen Last finished the ball to the net.
Youths did pull a goal back in the 55th minute after a Danny Ledwith free-kick from the right was only partially cleared before being returned to the box. Eric Molloy reacted quickest and got a touch on the ball which eluded advancing netminder Derek O'Connor before he finished it into a gaping net.
Frustration grew among both sides on and off the field midway through the half, with that Collinstown mentor dismissed while Youths weren't happy with some of the offside calls against them. It was enough for referee Fenlon to call both captains together for a brief word in a bid to calm the protagonists.
The home side significantly increased the overall threat they posed with Bonner, Friel and Mulligan on the field, but they left it late before reeling Collinstown in. And even at that, it took a Gordon Banks-type intervention from the unlikely figure of Danny Ledwith to add another twist to the tale. It truly was one of those nights!
Wexford Youths: Matt Connor; Conor O'Keeffe, Owen McCormack, Stephen Last (capt.), Paul Brennan; Conor Whittle, Shane Dunne, Danny Ledwith, John Peare; Eric Molloy, Conor English. Subs. - Jonny Bonner for Brennan (59), Aidan Friel for Whittle (74), Andy Mulligan for Peare (74), also Graham Doyle, Craig McCabe, Ryan Delaney.
Collinstown: Derek O'Connor; Ian McNeill, Kenneth Flood, Dean Carpenter (capt.), David Long; John Cleary; Karl Laffan, Daniel Matthews, Dylan Clarke, Dean Ebbe; Dillon McKeever. Subs. - Christopher Barbour for Cleary (63), Shane Murphy for McKeever (69), Luke Fitzpatrick for Laffan (81), also Gareth Kenna, Ross Costigan, Mark Brogan, Ian Green.
Referee: Brian Fenlon (Wexford).