Wexford left to pay penalty

Athlone Town 1 Wexford F.C. 1

Alan Aherne

Mikey Byrne, who conceded a costly penalty in Lissywollen on Friday after an error by Conor Dunne
Mikey Byrne, who conceded a costly penalty in Lissywollen on Friday after an error by Conor Dunne

Wexford F.C. have been rooted to the bottom of the SSE Airtricity First Division table since the third series of games on March 10, but for 20 hopeful minutes in Lissywollen on Friday it looked like they were about to leapfrog fellow strugglers Athlone Town.

It seemed as if the task of updating the table at the foot of this report would finally be a positive exercise after Eoin Porter and Aaron Dobbs combined to put Dean Kelly through for the lead goal in the 59th minute of this basement battle.

However, a moment of defensive madness gave Athlone the opportunity to grab an equaliser from the penalty spot, with the outcome ensuring that the midlanders remain one point above Wexford with five rounds of games left to play between now and October 7.

Full-back Conor Dunne, playing against one of his former clubs, raced back towards his byline in a bid to keep the ball in play and prevent a corner.

He inexplicably played it across into the penalty box though where substitute Peter Walsh - introduced less than two minutes earlier - nicked it away from Mikey Byrne whose tackle led to the spot kick.

The much-travelled Enda Curran, a recent acquisition from Longford Town, made no mistake with a powerful shot low to the left corner as Wexford debutant Danny Bolger went the wrong way.

The Carlow netminder was one of four changes from the side which lost 2-0 to Cobh Ramblers, replacing the Stateside-bound Corey Chambers and becoming the third goalkeeper to line out this campaign, and the fifth to feature in a match-day squad.

The suspended Mark Slater was also missing, while injuries to Andrew O'Connor and Adam O'Rourke meant they were kept in reserve on the bench. A.J. Lehane, Dean Kelly and Seán Hurley came into the team on a night when Shane Dunne also missed out through suspension, while club captain Craig McCabe was back in the squad too after recovering from his knee injury.

The stopwatch was only on the 58-second mark when the visitors created a gilt-edged chance. Eoin Porter floated the ball across goal from the right and Seán Hurley knocked it into the path of Dean Kelly from the far post, but his first-time shot from close range lacked power and was kept out by Igors Labuts. It eventually broke to top scorer Thomas Croke who fired to the left and wide, leaving Athlone a relieved outfit.

The home side played in a somewhat unusual formation, without a centre-forward which meant that Owen McCormack and Ross Kenny didn't have any direct man-marking duties. Roddy Collins played two front men, the tricky Ethanda Nkololo and Dragos Sfrijan, as out-and-out wingers, with the plan being for midfielders to arrive at pace in the box to get on the end of their crosses.

Nkololo posed lots of problems for A.J. Lehane but over-hit his first delivery in the fourth minute.

A Rob Spelman free-kick from the left was then safely gathered by Danny Bolger before Mikey Byrne lost possession, leading to a strong run and low cross from Nkololo, but there was nobody to avail of it in the danger zone.

Bolger's swift advance from goal narrowed the angle for Dragos Sfrijan after Enda Curran played a good ball down the left channel in the 16th minute, and it ended up going wide.

The best Athlone chance thus far arrived from a familiar source as captain Niall Scullion gave Nkololo another opportunity to run at, and beat, Lehane down the right. This time his cross had a target at the back post but Sfrijan's first-time volley flew over the bar.

Ross Kenny tried to alleviate the pressure with a strong run into the opposition half which ended in a free-kick, but Dean Kelly's delivery was too long and went wide at the far post.

Conor Dunne headed clear from an Enda Curran set-piece at the other end before Thomas Croke picked out Aaron Dobbs with a pass in the 30th minute. The Enniscorthy teen's control gave him a yard of extra space to work in, but he shot to the right and wide from outside the box.

Athlone couldn't capitalise on the game's first two corners, with Owen McCormack's vital clearance leading to the second after an error by Dunne gave Seán McGrane the sniff of a chance.

Wexford went on to force four corners in the last twelve minutes of the half, with the first three cleared before Seán Hurley headed over from the last one 45 seconds into the one added minute.

Prior to that an attempted through ball by Thomas Croke for Eoin Porter was a fraction too long, while Wexford were very fortunate that referee Paula Brady failed to apply the advantage rule in the 40th minute.

Substitute Ryan Gaffey was fouled but still played the ball through for Ethanda Nkololo, only for the play to be strangely called back for a fruitless free-kick.

Nkololo tried to shake off his frustration with a neat piece of close control and cross for Sfrijan whose glancing header went to the left and wide.

And Athlone were even closer to a breakthrough in the 42nd minute after Dean Kelly was booked for a foul on Sfrijan.

Stephen Walsh's delivery into the box was met first time by Enda Curran whose shot came back into play off the post in a real let-off for the visitors.

However, Wexford had their equal share of misfortune at the other end less than 40 seconds later when the woodwork came to their rivals' rescue.

Eoin Porter's cross was met by the head of Thomas Croke whose quest for a fifth league goal of the season was only denied by the crossbar.

Wexford were under pressure for the first ten minutes on the re-start, conceding two corners from an overall second-half count of 7-1 in favour of the locals.

A weak Ross Kenny header from a Dean Kelly free-kick was the only respite, but otherwise Athlone were on top.

Owen McCormack cleared a dangerous early cross from Niall Scullion, while Danny Bolger advanced swiftly to cut out a one-two between Ryan Gaffey and Liam McCartan before diving low to his left to knock an Ethanda Nkololo shot out for a corner.

Mikey Byrne cleared the danger, and Bolger showed what he is capable of once more in the 55th minute when he tipped a well-struck left-footed free-kick from Stephen Walsh over after Ross Kenny fouled Gaffey.

In the circumstances, the Wexford goal came somewhat against the run of play, but it was extremely well worked.

Aaron Dobbs looked threatening when given the chance to run hard at the opposing defence, and Eoin Porter's release facilitated that in the 59th minute.

Dobbs' pass to the right was perfectly weighted and timed for Dean Kelly who rolled it calmly into the far corner of the net for a well-taken goal.

Wexford were on a high, and Dobbs tried to hammer home their new-found advantage on the next two attacks. His strong run and cross was defended by Stephen Walsh before another attempted pass to release Kelly was over-hit.

There was one big flashpoint in the 63rd minute when a crunching midfield exchange left Thomas Croke eager to show referee Paula Brady the stud marks left on his neck.

Various players weighed in with their views, but thankfully the cooler heads prevailed and the action continued after yellow cards for Mikey Byrne and Athlone duo Enda Curran and David Brookes.

Owen McCormack's subsequent free-kick was dropped by Igors Labuts but he was awarded a free-kick, and Seán Hurley's strike from the break was blocked at any rate.

Liam McCartan shot low across Bolger's goal and wide from a Curran pass in the 67th minute as Athlone upped the ante, while McCormack redeemed himself with a clearance after needlessly conceding a corner.

Aaron Dobbs was stopped on a strong run by a cynical Niall Scullion foul which led to a booking, but Dean Kelly's free-kick missed the head of Ross Kenny by a matter of inches.

Enda Curran glanced a header wide from Cormac Raftery's delivery, while Wexford successfully defended three corners in quick succession as the pressure mounted.

When the equaliser came it was an undoubted sickener, particularly in the cheap manner it was conceded.

However, two and a half minutes later Wexford were left cursing their own luck again when the woodwork intervened for a second time to save Athlone.

Dobbs played the ball down the left flank for Seán Hurley who touched it past the advancing Igors Labuts, with the netminder left in no man's land. The Arklow man crossed for substitute Danny Doyle whose header came ever so close to giving him a first-ever senior goal, glancing the crossbar and going over.

The sole Wexford corner of the half followed, with Dean Kelly's delivery from the right poorly dealt with by the defence. The ball fell just outside the box for Dean George, introduced less than a minute earlier, and he beat one man before shooting over.

Athlone had to play the three added minutes a man short after Niall Scullion collected his second yellow card for a body check on George.

Danny Bolger advanced to take the free-kick from the left but A.J. Lehane couldn't get any power behind his header and it was cleared.

There was one late scare for Wexford when a Stephen Walsh set-piece flew across the goalmouth and was deflected for a corner, but that was cleared and the game ended with honours even.

The focus turns to the first round of the Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup this Friday at 8 p.m., with Ferrycarrig Park the venue for the meeting with Crumlin United from the Leinster Senior League, one of the main feeder clubs in Ireland for Nottingham Forest.

Given the dismal nature of the league campaign, it would be a real tonic to go on a cup run, or at least win this round and possibly attract a big name to Ferrycarrig Park in the draw.

As for the league, Wexford and Athlone look like battling it out for the dubious honour of not finishing last from now until the end of the season. Next up for Damian Locke's side will be Cabinteely at home on August 18.

Wexford F.C.: Danny Bolger; Conor Dunne, Owen McCormack, Ross Kenny (capt.), A.J. Lehane; Mikey Byrne; Eoin Porter, Thomas Croke, Dean Kelly, Seán Hurley; Aaron Dobbs. Subs. - Danny Doyle for Croke (77), Dean George for Hurley (84), also Michael Walsh, Craig McCabe, Andrew O'Connor, Adam O'Rourke, Conor Sutton.

Athlone Town: Igors Labuts; Niall Scullion (capt.), Cormac Raftery, Stephen Walsh, David Brookes; Enda Curran, Rob Spelman, Liam McCartan, Seán McGrane; Ethanda Nkololo, Dragos Sfrijan. Subs. - Ryan Gaffey for Spelman (29), Claudio Silva for McCartan (71), Peter Walsh for McGrane (76), also Conor Gleeson, Jason Lyons, Joe Carmody, Owen Folan.

Referee: Paul Brady (Dublin).

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