Slater strike rescues point
Wexford F.C. 2 Athlone Town 2
Wexford F.C. began life without an inspiring leader in Ferrycarrig Park on an idyllic Friday evening, and they mixed the good with the bad on the way to a 2-2 draw against fellow strugglers Athlone Town.
Team captain Graham Doyle, the man with the distinction of playing an incredible 151 league games in succession, announced his retirement earlier in the week, with a combination of hip and back injuries prompting him to call time on a distinguished career.
The veteran goalkeeper was an immediate crowd favourite after his arrival from Junior football in his native Kilkenny in 2012, and the tributes to him from colleagues past and present were well merited.
It leaves Wexford shorn of a vastly experienced player for the remainder of the season, but there's no room for sentiment as the show simply has to go on.
The positive from this game was that the side managed by Kerryman Damian Locke scored twice in a league outing for the first time this season.
On the negative front though, they missed out on an opportunity to bridge the six-point gap that still separates them from the midlanders at the foot of the table.
Despite the tonic of an early goal from Thomas Croke, the lead was squandered in very sloppy fashion a mere two minutes later.
Poor communication at the back then contributed to Athlone taking the lead in the 37th minute, but on the plus side Wexford matched them every step of the way thereafter and ultimately earned the point thanks to a Mark Slater goal a mere 48 seconds after the interval.
The coaching staff consigned the flat back three with two wing-halves formation to the dustbin after the 5-0 humiliation in Longford, and the 4-2-3-1 system deployed in the narrow loss to Cobh Ramblers was preferred again for this encounter.
Centre-half Ross Kenny and holding midfielder Thomas Croke were welcomed back from suspension, but full-back Andrew O'Connor was serving part one of his ban after his red card a fortnight earlier.
With striker Lee Duffy leaving the club during the week, it left teenager Danny Doyle to lead the line up front.
The starting eleven showed four changes in all from the Cobh game, with Corey Chambers coming for Graham Doyle between the posts while Ross Kenny and Thomas Croke were direct replacements for Owen McCormack and Craig Wall respectively.
Seán Hurley moved from the left wing to full-back in O'Connor's absence, with Adam Hanlon slotting in down the flank on his return from injury. However, the influential Shane Dunne is still on the treatment table.
There was also a late debut for the club's newest arrival, Aaron O'Connor, a midfielder who last featured in the League of Ireland with his native Waterford.
The game was also notable for the first appearance on the bench by Under-17 netminder Michael Walsh, in the absence of his Under-19 counterpart, Adam Dempsey. With Doyle retired and Corey Chambers set to leave the country on a scholarship in August, the goalkeeping issue is clearly now a primary concern for the management.
Athlone arrived to the south-east with a new manager in the outspoken Roddy Collins, while in-the-news goalkeeper Igor Labuts continued his infuriating habit of wearing an incorrectly-numbered jersey.
He had done the same on their last meeting in Lissywollen which caused confusion and led to an inaccurate identification in my match report, but the notoriety he has gained since made him instantly recognisable on this occasion.
Both sides forced early corners, with Wexford's taken by Mark Slater and ending with a Labuts save from a Ricky Fox shot, while Corey Chambers caught Ryan Gaffney's delivery at the other end.
The home netminder also dealt with a long-range effort from Conor Barry before the Ferrycarrig Park faithful had something to shout about in the eighth minute.
New full-time captain Craig McCabe directed one of his long throws into the box where Thomas Croke was on hand to beat a defender on the goal-line with a downward header.
It was a nice fillip so early in the game, but it was short-lived. Just over two minutes later Ricky Fox fouled David Brookes on the left, and the free-kick was helped on by Walter Invernizzi before Ryan Gaffney nodded it home at the far post.
Conor Barry wasn't too far away from giving Athlone the lead in the 14th minute after Dragos Sfrijan's ball into the box was knocked into his path by big targetman Jason Lyons.
Labuts fisted clear from another McCabe throw before the first of two Wexford corners in quick succession resulted in another blocked shot from Ricky Fox.
Corey Chambers could only look on with relief in the 22nd minute when a Conor Barry shot that seemed destined for the bottom left corner veered inches wide.
Adam Hanlon showed some nice skill just after the half-hour mark on the left, nutmegging a defender before availing of a Mark Slater lay-off to test Labuts with a rising shot that led to a fruitless corner.
Another Hanlon effort was comfortably saved before Slater's corner was a shade too long for Thomas Croke whose glancing header at the back post went wide.
Croke played a key role in the next big moment of the game in the 37th minute, collecting a yellow card for a rash foul on Ryan Gaffney.
Corey Chambers came for Conor Barry's free-kick but didn't get it, with centre-half Cormac Raftery rising highest to head the ball into a gaping net for the lead goal.
It was greeted with a deafening silence, with no Athlone supporters apparently among the attendance of 261, and it left a Wexford side utterly devoid of confidence with a lot of ground to make up.
However, with a little more luck they would have been level before half-time. The lively Mark Slater, enjoying his best game of the season thus far, tested Labuts from a free-kick which led to a fruitless corner, and he went even closer in the 44th minute.
After being fouled on the left, his sweetly-struck set-piece came back off the woodwork and went over via Liam Donnelly from point-blank range, with the right winger unable to adjust his feet in time.
It was a major let-off for Athlone, but the second-half was a mere 48 seconds old when they did relinquish the lead.
Adam Hanlon's cross from the left was initially cut out by Colm Coss but, before he had time to compose himself, Mark Slater latched on to the ball in a flash and directed a low shot to the net to join Thomas Croke as the scorer of two league goals this season.
Wexford were on a high after that leveller and exerted a lot of pressure, with a Slater free-kick and a Hanlon cross cleared before the former was just inches away from finding the latter in the box from another set-piece.
The defence dealt with a couple of Athlone free-kicks, with the visitors having reverted to a back three of Cormac Raftery, former striker Colm Coss and Kirils Grigorovs for the second-half, pushing David Brookes forward into a wing-half role.
And the midlanders threatened to regain the lead in the 60th minute when busy captain Niall Scullion delivered a ball to the far post where Brookes first-timed it back across for Jason Lyons to head over the bar.
Slater swung in a Wexford corner that Ross Kenny directed into the path of Liam Donnelly, but his header was straight at goalie Igor Labuts.
Walter Invernizzi fired over from a Niall Scullion cross before both sides turned to the bench for reinforcements, and the veteran Athlone striker from Uruguay missed the target from another Scullion delivery before they really should have claimed the win.
Just over five minutes of normal time remained when a mis-kicked shot from substitute Ethan Keogh landed invitingly at the feet of Jason Lyons with only Corey Chambers to beat, but he somehow directed it to the left and wide.
The five extra minutes announced rose to ten owing to an injury to Invernizzi who was stretchered off. He had fouled Chambers from a long Labuts free-kick in the 95th minute, with the whistle blown for the infringement before Kirils Grigorovs tapped the ball into the net.
Wexford will be on the road again next Friday, facing Cabinteely in Stradbrook at 7.45 p.m. and hoping to capitalise on the Dubliners' poor form that saw them hammered 3-0 in Waterford last weekend.
Wexford F.C.: Corey Chambers; Ricky Fox, Craig McCabe (capt.), Ross Kenny, Seán Hurley; Conor Sutton, Thomas Croke; Liam Donnelly, Mark Slater, Adam Hanlon; Danny Doyle. Subs. - Eoin Porter for Donnelly (71), Craig Wall for Croke (76), Aaron O'Connor for Hanlon (82), also Dean George, Michael Walsh.
Athlone Town: Igor Labuts; Niall Scullion (capt.), Cormac Raftery, Colm Coss, David Brookes; Conor Barry, Kirils Grigorovs, Dragos Sfrijan, Ryan Gaffney; Walter Invernizzi, Jason Lyons. Subs. - Ethan Keogh for Sfrijan (69), Jose Viegas for Gaffney (75), Federico Hernandez for Invernizzi, inj. (90+10), also Joe Carmody, Joe Dwyer, Conor Gleeson.
Referee: Andrew Mullally (Waterford).