Youths deserve credit for mixing it with the big boys
Published 12/11/2016 | 00:00
I imagine it will take the Wexford Youths players a long time to erase the bitter memories of their eventful trip to United Park on Friday.
They had survival in their own hands courtesy of that 2-0 lead from the first leg, only to have it wrestled away from them in cruel circumstances. And sadly one of the side-effects is that the people who have never been fans of the club will apply an 'I told you so' attitude and revel in their return to the First Division.
I was gutted for the loyal players who lined out in Drogheda, because they didn't deserve to have it all snatched from under their feet after giving so much to the cause all season.
This was Youths' tenth year as a League of Ireland club, but it was the first season where I found myself in a position to be able to follow their exploits closely.
There was a simple reason for that: from 2007 all the way up to 2015 I was involved as a mentor with three different teams for spells of three years, five years and one year respectively. As anyone who volunteers for those positions knows, it effectively means that Tuesday and Friday nights are not your own, and that's merely the half of it.
As a result, I was restricted to making brief appearances as a spectator in Ferrycarrig Park over that long period, but this time around it was different as I'm no longer a mentor and never will be again.
Youths played 43 competitive games this season all told across the league (35) and three cup competitions, and I attended 42. The only one I missed was the Monday night trip to Athlone Town for the first round of the Leinster Senior Cup in early March.
Monday fixtures are the devil's creation as far as this job goes, but it didn't prevent me from covering away games on that night afterwards in Carlow I.T., Tallaght, Dalymount Park twice, and Turner's Cross in Cork.
In the process I ticked something off my sporting bucket list, attending all of the League of Ireland grounds that I was heretofore only familiar with via the television cameras.
The 20 away trips brought me to Dublin seven times, Cork and Sligo twice, along with Carlow (albeit for a home game), Limerick, Longford, Dundalk, Derry, Bray, Galway, Ballybofey and Drogheda.
And naturally enough when one invests so much time in following a team, it's tough to take at the end of it all when their dreams are taken away from them.
For the record, I think the players deserve the height of respect and admiration from the sporting public for their efforts. For an amateur team to mix it with the big boys and still be in contention until literally the last minute of their final game says a lot for their character, even if the results rarely went in their favour.
They came up against opponents who are paid to play the game full-time more often than not, while in contrast several Youths players were leaving their jobs early practically every second Friday in order to represent the club all over the country.
I don't like singling out any individual in those circumstances, but someone did ask me who I'd select as player of the year. In my view there was one stand-out candidate, Tipperary centre-half Lee Grace whose composure on the ball and reading of the game was first class. The astute number 5 had a magnificent season.
As for the social media storm that blew up around Lee Chin last week, it was a non-story that grew wings because so many people who knew nothing about it felt entitled to give an opinion. Everyone involved in the club was aware he wouldn't be available on November 4 from day one, and any criticism he received was completely unwarranted.
However, I must say that the departure of manager Shane Keegan to Galway United left a bitter taste in my mouth. It was bad enough that news of the impending move was leaked on the eve of Friday's game.
And it was even worse looking at the western club's Twitter feed on Sunday night and seeing a photograph of Keegan signing his two-year deal. Forgive the crude analogy, but it reminded me of a man who attends his wife's funeral on a Friday and is seen out on the town with his new girlfriend only two days later.
It was too soon, with the wounds from relegation still raw. The players and the club Keegan has now left behind deserved better.