Saturday 7 December 2019

A step in the right direction

GAA, Allianz Football League Division 4 Round 5: Wexford 0-12 Wicklow 0-9

Conor Devitt is tackled by Wicklow’s Darragh Fitzgerald during Saturday’s derby in Aughrim
Conor Devitt is tackled by Wicklow’s Darragh Fitzgerald during Saturday’s derby in Aughrim

The only way for players and mentors to respond to criticism is to produce a positive result at the next available opportunity, and in that regard the Wexford Senior footballers must be praised for restoring some pride with a gutsy three-point win which ended the slim promotion chances of neighbours Wicklow in this Allianz League Division 4 clash at a rain-sodden and gloomy County Grounds in Aughrim on Saturday.

It would be foolish to assume that the problems are no more after one success against mediocre opposition but, by the same token, there was a lot of pressure on the visitors to perform and they came up with the goods.

Granted first use of the wind blowing towards the dressing-room end, they found themselves ahead by 0-11 to 0-4 at half-time after some encouraging shooting from distance, with only three wides chalked up before the break.

It then boiled down to whether a seven-point gap would be sufficient to preserve that lead, but Wexford's use of the ball was better than it had been at any other stage in the league.

They worked it repeatedly towards the left wing in particular, where Eoghan Nolan was a very effective performer, while Niall Hughes gained ground time after time too with his hard running from midfield.

And while the rangy Kilanerin performer accounted for his side's sole second-half point in the 51st minute, they remained fairly comfortable despite facing the elements before surviving one late scare.

A team going through such a rough patch deserved some stroke of luck, and it arrived at the end of the third added minute, just 28 seconds from the final whistle, when the woodwork denied Wicklow a draw they wouldn't have deserved.

The experienced James Stafford had been brought on at full-forward at the end of the third quarter but, apart from one long punt from Darragh Fitzgerald that carried wide with the wind, his outfield colleagues hadn't attempted to give him any supply whatsoever.

That looked like changing when Pádraig O'Toole planted the ball in on top of Stafford as Wicklow finally chose to go for broke, but the substitute could only turn his flick on to the post and a relieved Wexford ended up being awarded a free.

Just two changes were made to the winners' team from the loss to Waterford, with Mark O'Neill coming into to a re-shuffled defence in the absence of hamstring victim Martin O'Connor, while Barry O'Connor was preferred to John Tubritt in attack.

And one of the key moments actually happened before the game started, because when captain Michael Furlong emerged from the toss with wind advantage secured, it provided an opportunity to establish early superiority.

It was a gradual process, but Wexford did enough to lead by 0-8 to 0-1 after 29 minutes before the last two scores of the half preserved that seven-point gap after Wicklow had improved nearing the interval.

The home side opened the scoring when Conor Healy supplied Daniel Keane, but they didn't register again for almost 27 minutes as Wexford - playing with a maximum of two inside forwards and sometimes just one - relied on kicking from distance for the majority of their points.

Niall Hughes landed the leveller from outside the 45-metre line after a crossfield Kevin O'Grady pass, and the first of four converted Jonathan Bealin frees gave them an advantage they didn't relinquish thereafter in the ninth minute.

Barry O'Connor and O'Grady had combined to feed Ben Brosnan for a shot on goal in the lead-up, but he was pushed before Robert Lambert kept out his shot, with referee Seamus Mulhare duly awarding the free.

A foul on Eoghan Nolan was punished by Bealin before wides from O'Grady and Brosnan were followed by the free-taker's third score, after Nolan intercepted a David Devereux handpass and fed Barry O'Connor who was impeded (0-4 to 0-1).

Brian Malone's mark from the kick-out (after Wicklow had won three from Lambert's re-starts earlier via the hard-trying Dean Healy with two and Darragh Fitzgerald), led to a Conor Devitt point, and the home side were struggling to get any worthwhile possession at this stage.

They did lift the siege when Jamie Snell was fouled after joining the attack in the 19th minute, but Conor McGraynor didn't get hold of his free off the ground and it drifted out for their sole first-half wide.

A needless push on Brian Malone in the left corner led to a beautiful inswinging point from Bealin who judged the wind to perfection, and the margin swiftly rose to 0-8 to 0-1.

Barry O'Connor beat two men on the right flank before firing over, and Conor Devitt then added his second from a tight angle following an off-load from Malone who, along with Daithí Waters, provided the leadership and guidance required from the most experienced players throughout.

Wicklow were clearly in need of a few scores to leave themselves with any chance after the break, and their supporters were relieved to see captain Dean Healy curling a kick over the bar after a one-two with Chris O'Brien in the 30th minute.

Devitt fed Brosnan to make it 9-2, but Wicklow then managed two successive points for the first time as McGraynor converted a brace of frees.

The first was earned by the busy Healy, while the second was an easy tap-over from 20 metres after the referee spotted something amiss on Wexford's part when the big Avondale man took a more difficult placed ball from close to the left sideline (0-9 to 0-4).

All of a sudden, the lead didn't look all that convincing, but Wexford atoned during the four added minutes before half-time, despite missing their best goal chance in the process.

Ben Brosnan kicked a fine long-range point from a Niall Hughes pass and, when Eoghan Nolan dispossessed a defender after the kick-out, his quick release put Kevin O'Grady through on goal but he blazed over (0-11 to 0-4).

Wicklow introduced Jody Merrigan and Stephen Duffy to their attack for the second-half, and it didn't bode well for the home side when it took them almost eleven minutes before the former sent over a '45 to narrow the gap to six.

They had kicked two of their five wides after the break beforehand, and dropped a free short, but it also took a good reaction save at his near post by Matt Doyle to keep out a Darragh Fitzgerald shot in the lead-up to that point after Wexford coughed up possession.

The pressure started to mount on the leaders when Fitzgerald fed Mark Kenny to make it 11-6, before Dean Healy sent a long ball down the left flank for Chris O'Brien who turned and kicked between the posts in one swift movement.

Wicklow didn't attack with enough speed or conviction to seriously trouble the Wexford defence, though, while the visitors never left themselves exposed to the breakaway moves that ruined them against Waterford.

That sole Wexford second-half point arrived in the 51st minute, with the impressive Niall Hughes on target with his left after a strong run and a one-two with Brian Malone (0-12 to 0-7).

There was still more than enough time for Wicklow to respond, but the fact that they didn't score from play thereafter highlights their attacking woes.

They were restricted to a brace of pointed frees from Stephen Duffy in the 53rd and 72nd minutes, and it would have been a point stolen in truth if James Stafford's last-gasp effort had hit the net rather than the post.

They weren't helped by a black card for Jody Merrigan in the 59th minute and, just as he returned, Wexford were forced to play the concluding stages with 14 after Jonathan Bealin received the same punishment.

Given the difficult conditions, the winners' handling of the ball and general use of possession against the wind was laudable, with no unforced errors that Wicklow were able to punish.

They spread the ball from one wing to the other with patience, and when the hard yards had to be made they were normally secured by Niall Hughes, Eoghan Nolan, Daithí Waters and Brian Malone in particular.

Thankfully, that unwanted tag of being 32nd out of 32 contestants only lasted six days, because that simply didn't paint an accurate picture of Wexford football as we know it.

The victors now have two games left to be used for championship preparation, with Limerick visiting Innovate Wexford Park on March 16 before the long journey to Owenbeg to face already promoted Derry eight days later, although efforts are being made to bring that one forward by 24 hours now that it has no bearing on that particular issue.

Both sides kicked six wides on Saturday, with Wexford awarded 24 of the 45 frees. And apart from those black cards for Merrigan and Bealin, yellows were shown to Wexford's Ben Brosnan plus Wicklow duo Dean Healy and Ross O'Brien.

Wexford: Matt Doyle; Michael Furlong (capt.), Mark O'Neill, Gavin Sheehan; Glen Malone, Brian Malone, Conor Carty; Daithí Waters, Niall Hughes (0-2); Conor Devitt (0-2), Barry O'Connor (0-1), Eoghan Nolan; Kevin O'Grady (0-1), Jonathan Bealin (0-4 frees), Ben Brosnan (0-2). Subs. - Tiarnan Rossiter for Brosnan, inj. (52), Tom Byrne for O'Connor (63), Eoin Porter for O'Grady (70).

Wicklow: Robert Lambert; Oisín Manning, Ross O'Brien, Eoin Murtagh; David Devereux, Jamie Snell, Darragh Fitzgerald; Conor McGraynor (0-2 frees), Dean Healy (capt., 0-1); Darren Hayden, Pádraig O'Toole, Conor Healy; Daniel Keane (0-1), Chris O'Brien (0-1), Mark Kenny (0-1). Subs. - Jody Merrigan (0-1 '45) for McGraynor (HT), Stephen Duffy (0-2 frees) for Healy (HT), James Stafford for Keane (49), Gearóid Murphy for C. O'Brien (59), Saoirse Kearon for Hayden (62).

Referee: Seamus Mulhare (Laois).

Wexford People

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