Baptism of fire for new-look Wexford
Offaly 3-16 Wexford 0-9
One of the youngest and most inexperienced teams ever fielded by Wexford in Senior football endured a tough baptism before a small crowd of die-hards in an overcast O'Connor Park, Tullamore, on Saturday when Paul McLoughlin's charges fell to a 16-point loss to a slicker-moving Offaly unit in their opening game of the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup.
Storm Dylan was only brewing up for its siege on the northern part of the country at the time, but the visitors were blown away by the concession of three goals in the space of ten first-half minutes which emphatically ended the game as a contest.
It's unlikely to get any easier with the visit of All-Ireland champions Dublin to St. Patrick's Park next Sunday, given that the boys in blue won this particular title with a third string early in 2017.
Yet, some context needs to be put on this heavy defeat, as the Wexford team - with the notable exception of Conor Carty and Michael Furlong (county Minors in 2008 and 2009 respectively) - featured a multitude of newcomers pre-dominantly in their teens and early twenties.
All of the 25 players who togged out were in action at some stage, with the grand total of 16 Senior debutants among them. The youngest of all was 2017 dual county Minor Gavin Sheehan from Gusserane, and he was joined by eight more Under-20s in club colleagues Mark O'Neill and Mark Rossiter, as well as Martin O'Connor, Darragh Lyons and a quartet from the Leinster-winning St. Peter's College team: Cathal Devereux, Barry O'Connor, Quinn Saunders and Dylan Furlong.
Of the nine players with previous Senior experience, only six of them had featured in the 2017 championship: team captain Michael Furlong, Conor Carty, Jim Rossiter, Paul Curtis, Donal Shanley and Conor Swaine.
They were joined by James Stafford, Syl Byrne and Glen Malone whose combined involvement in the top flight thus far has been minimal, so it's going to be a steep learning curve for this very young group.
Three more players who were listed on the teamsheet didn't feature on the match-day squad of 25, namely Tiarnan Rossiter, John Tubritt and Shane Doyle, with the latter's club erroneously given as Starlights rather than Ballyhogue.
The 16 new faces included a late developer in 26-year-old Castletown attacker Donnacha Holmes who is undoubtedly worthy of a chance given his consistency at club level.
Another very interesting addition was Shelmaliers forward Craig McCabe, a member of the county Under-21 team in 2014, who has decided to give Gaelic football his full attention after leaving Wexford F.C. where he was club captain in the second half of the 2017 season.
The remainder of the new faces not mentioned already were drawn from recent under-age teams, namely Glynn-Barntown netminder Matt Doyle and Starlights attacker Darragh Pepper from the 2017 Under-21s; Robert Frayne of Duffry Rovers, a Wexford Under-21 in 2015; Alan Nolan of Taghmon-Camross, whose previous inter-county involvement was with the Minors in 2009; and towering Starlights midfielder Nick Doyle, one of the stars of their championship success who was a Wexford Minor in 2015.
Offaly included a very promising full-forward in Cian Johnson who had scored 2-5 against the Slaneysiders at Minor level in Bellefield last April, and he chipped in with an impressive 1-3 this time around.
Wily team captain Anton Sullivan wasn't concerned with getting on the scoresheet, but his constant accurate passing from the '40 set up chance after chance for the lethal full-forward trio of Bernard Allen, Johnson and Seán Doyle who bagged 1-9 from play between them.
Just 25 seconds had elapsed when Allen blazed over from a goal chance after a high ball deflected off the fingertips of debutant full-back Mark 'Nuggets' O'Neill.
Wexford replied instantly with a fine point, as wing-back Glen Malone claimed a mark before sending a foot pass to club colleague Craig McCabe in the left corner. He in turn found Cathal Devereux who spotted that Malone had continued his run, and the number 7 collected his off-load in full stride and kicked the leveller.
McCabe won a poor Offaly kick-out in the fifth minute - taken by a former Athlone Town soccer opponent, Paddy Dunican - and set up Donnacha Holmes who gave Wexford the lead for the one and only time.
Sullivan and Allen linked up before Johnson kicked the Offaly equaliser, and their opening goal arrived in the 13th minute. Midfielder Craig Dunne beat Donal Shanley to a 50-50 challenge before making ground down the right, playing a one-two with David Dempsey and then squaring the ball to debutant Jordan Hayes who finished low and left-footed to the net.
Hayes had moved immediately to right half-forward in a swap with Shane Nally after contesting the throw-in, and he was destined to rattle the net again before the half was over.
With the experienced Seán Pender rock-solid at centre-back, and the runs of his left wing colleague Cian Donohue not tracked, Offaly settled into a sweet rhythm and quickly put paid to Wexford's bid for a first win under the new management of Paul McLoughlin, Mark Roche and trainer Gordon Ward, like the manager a native of Kildare.
Donal Shanley did pull back a point from a free after Declan Hogan fouled Craig McCabe, but 2-3 without reply was conceded between the 16th and 30th minutes.
Bernard Allen pointed before Seán Doyle found Cian Donohue on the overlap on the left, and he passed to Cian Johnson whose powerful shot struck Matt Doyle on a hand at his near post en route to the net (2-3 to 0-3).
Donohue featured again in an attacking role for the third goal in the 23rd minute. Anton Sullivan, Johnson and Allen were involved too, with the latter's drive saved by Doyle but unfortunately the rebound fell kindly for Jordan Hayes who hammered it home.
Doyle later made an important stop to deny Donohue, but points followed from Allen (free) and Johnson before Wexford at least managed to finish the first-half on a more positive note.
Cathal Devereux kicked high and over with his trusty left boot in added time after a decent burst by Nick Doyle, and a second point for Donnacha Holmes came after good work by James Stafford and Devereux.
Those scores left Wexford trailing by 3-5 to 0-5 at half-time, having chalked up eight wides courtesy of Devereux (two), Holmes, an attempted Martin O'Connor pass, Glen Malone, Donal Shanley (two) and Mark Rossiter.
They added another three in the second period (Devereux, McCabe and Paul Curtis), while Offaly had eight overall. The game featured 51 frees, with 24 awarded to Wexford.
With unlimited substitutes now allowed in this competition, it resulted in a lot of stopping and starting after the break, although the outcome was never going to be in doubt one way or the other.
The other rule change - the requirement for kick-outs to travel not less than 13 metres and outside the 20-metre line before being played by another member of the defending team - only came into play once, in the fourth minute when Paddy Dunican was penalised and a throw-in resulted.
Offaly hammered home their superiority on the re-start with the first three points via Seán Doyle (free and play) and Bernard Allen. Mark Rossiter responded with a fine kick from distance after a Donal Shanley pass in the 43rd minute, but the home team's response was strong as Allen (free), Johnson and Doyle (free) left them clear by 3-11 to 0-6.
Shanley pulled back a brace from frees, with Paul Curtis earning the first before his mis-kick fell into the arms of the St. Fintan's man who was duly impeded.
Five of the last six points went to Offaly as the game petered out to its inevitable conclusion, with the Wexford consolation coming from Conor Carty after a Jim Rossiter pass in the 67th minute.
Otherwise it was all Offaly as Doyle, Shane Tierney, Joey O'Connor, Allen and Bobby O'Dea added scores to ensure their new manager, Stephen Wallace - a Kerryman who was rumoured to be interested in the Model county job at one stage a few years ago - no doubt headed home to Ardfert a lot happier than his Wexford counterpart.
Wexford: Matt Doyle (Glynn-Barntown); Martin O'Connor (HWH-Bunclody), Mark O'Neill (Gusserane), Jim Rossiter (St. Fintan's); Michael Furlong (Adamstown, capt.), Conor Carty (Castletown, 0-1), Glen Malone (Shelmaliers, 0-1); Syl Byrne (Ballyhogue), Nick Doyle (Starlights); Donnacha Holmes (Castletown, 0-2), Donal Shanley (St. Fintan's, 0-3 frees), James Stafford (Glynn-Barntown); Cathal Devereux (Our Lady's Island, 0-1), Mark Rossiter (Gusserane, 0-1), Craig McCabe (Shelmaliers). Subs. - Darragh Lyons (St. James') for Byrne (HT), Paul Curtis (Clongeen) for Stafford (HT), Robert Frayne (Duffry Rovers) for Holmes (44), Gavin Sheehan (Gusserane) for O'Connor (44), Conor Swaine (Horeswood) for M. Doyle (49), Alan Nolan (Taghmon-Camross) for O'Neill (49), Barry O'Connor (St. Martin's) for Rossiter (51), Darragh Pepper (Starlights) for Devereux (59), Quinn Saunders (Our Lady's Island) for Malone (61), Dylan Furlong (Sarsfields) for Shanley (61).
Offaly: Paddy Dunican; Daithí Brady, James Lalor, Declan Hogan; David Dempsey, Seán Pender, Cian Donohue; Jordan Hayes (2-0), Craig Dunne; Shane Nally, Anton Sullivan (capt.), Michael Brazil; Bernard Allen (0-6, 2 frees), Cian Johnson (1-3), Seán Doyle (0-4, 2 frees). Subs. - Bobby O'Dea (0-1) for Hayes (HT), Joey O'Connor (0-1) for Brazil (HT), Barry Rohan for Dunican (44), Gerry Spollen for Nally (49), Shane Tierney (0-1) for Johnson (51), Brazil for Sullivan (51), Jack Egan for Brady (56), Hayes for Donohue (58).
Referee: Niall Ward (Westmeath).