Late goal spoils long trip north for Wexford
Wexford's quest to make an immediate exit from Division 4 of the Allianz Football League was rendered a little more difficult when they succumbed to fellow promotion-chasers Antrim in a cold and wet Corrigan Park, Belfast, on Sunday.
Antrim 1-8 Wexford 0-7
It was another tight finish for the second week running, but this time around David Power's charges came out on the wrong side of the result after a dour struggle.
Both teams performed better against the wind, and Wexford were pushing hard for the draw their second-half efforts deserved when they narrowed the gap to 0-8 to 0-7 with a third successive converted free from Donal Shanley with just over 15 minutes of normal time left.
Antrim hadn't scored for almost quarter of an hour, with their policy of keeping a minimum of 13 players behind the ball at all times actually drawing their opponents on to them rather than creating breakaways to exploit.
Shanley had another chance from a favourable position in the 60th minute when an Antrim defender was penalised for over-carrying, but unfortunately he slipped a split second before taking one of his trademark frees off the ground.
The ball took deflections off a back and goalkeeper Chris Kerr before substitute P.J. Banville guided an outstretched boot towards it, but a wide accrued and Antrim were let off the hook.
Shortly afterwards Ben Brosnan dropped an effort short as Wexford's frustration grew, although Antrim suffered a similar fate on a rare foray downfield when Michael McCann's free was gathered by Anthony Masterson.
Brian Malone was punished for overcarrying after Wexford worked a promising move with five minutes to go, and then another Shanley free into the wind after a foul on Simon Donohoe hung in the air before being safely gathered by Chris Kerr under his crossbar.
Unfortunately, a major stroke of good luck surrounded the Antrim goal as netminder Kerr had no options for a short pass when he readied himself to take a free since the Wexford forwards and midfielders had pushed up effectively.
He was reduced to an old-style 'kick it as far as you can' effort down the left flank where substitute Mark Sweeney somehow managed to re-cycle possession close to the sideline despite being on the ground. Martin Johnson made ground before parting to Michael McCann who picked out fellow play-maker Kevin Niblock, with Wexford stretched as they struggled to funnel back in time.
And when team captain Niblock played a quick, short pass to Matthew Fitzpatrick, the St. John's clubman emerged as the match-winner on his home pitch as he calmly slotted a low shot to the net out of Anthony Masterson's reach. Wexford were unable to create any chance of note in the last 90 seconds of normal time plus three added minutes, leaving them looking up to the top of the table where Antrim, Louth and Wicklow lead the way on four points.
And while their third clash, at home to London on February 28, will be the next focus along with the Leinster Under-21 championship meeting with Longford four days earlier, even at this early stage it looks like the visit to Drogheda to take on Louth will be a real six-pointer in the promotion battle.
The Wexford starting 15 was unchanged from the Leitrim game as wing-forward Paul Curtis had recovered from his knee injury. It was an attritional encounter on a ground fully exposed to the elements on a bitterly cold day, with generally light but persistent rain starting to fall from around the 20th minute onwards.
The free count of 27 for Wexford and 26 for Antrim underlines the nature of the game, while the sides also shared the twelve wides and in truth the four-point gap was a little flattering on the victors in a very even contest.
Antrim appeared to win the toss and opted to play into the wind, and no Wexford player managed to get a touch on the ball before Conor Murray had the locals' first missed chance after 47 seconds.
There was an early let-off for the visitors when the creative Kevin Niblock and Tomás McCann combined to fashion a goal chance for Niall McKeever in the second minute, but he hooked his shot low and wide.
Antrim did open their account though when McCann slightly over-hit a pass in the right corner to overlapping wing-back James Laverty, but he improvised well with a first-time kick off the ground over Anthony Masterson's bar.
Wexford were struggling to break out of defence as Michael McCann dropped a shot short before Tomás McCann doubled Antrim's lead in the sixth minute. However, they did pull a point back midway through the first quarter when Donal Shanley split the posts from a 45-metre free after a foul on Kevin O'Grady.
Justin Crozier chalked up the third Antrim wide before Niall Hughes cut in from the right to fist the equalising point in the 13th minute after Paul Curtis retrieved possession when a rival defender fumbled on his endline (0-2 each).
Kevin Rowe kicked the first Wexford wide before Antrim lost centre-back Crozier to a hamstring injury, although they quickly regained the lead when Tomás McCann won a free which he duly popped over.
Colm Kehoe screwed a kick to the right and way off target before Antrim's advantage was doubled in the 21st minute, with Simon Donohoe losing the ball in a tackle and Conor Murray setting up Kevin Niblock to make it 0-4 to 0-2.
Rowe was replaced up front by P.J. Banville shortly after his second wide, but in between Adrian Flynn pumped a long-range free straight between the posts after Colm Kehoe was impeded.
A needless foul on Michael McCann gave his brother, Tomás, the opening to make it 5-3 in the 29th minute, and Niall McKeever quickly added another before Antrim's free-taker struck a wide.
Wexford's last point of the half in the 34th minute was a good effort from P.J. Banville after playing a one-two with Adrian Flynn. They conceded again though before the break as a crossfield Kevin Niblock pass left Tomás McCann one-on-one with Robbie Vallejo, and he blazed over the bar with a goal on his mind (0-7 to 0-4).
Kevin O'Grady missed the target from a free just before the interval, but the pattern of the team performing into the elements having more of the play continued on the re-start.
Daithí Waters was introduced at midfield for the second week running, with attacker Paul Curtis making way as Adrian Flynn pushed up and Niall Hughes reverted to the left wing, and he made an impact again.
One of the benefits of the three-week break is that he will surely be considered fully match fit and ready for 70 minutes rather than 35 from now on.
Antrim did show a little ambition in the early stages of the second-half as Tomás McCann registered a wide and dropped a free into Anthony Masterson's hands. Donal Shanley was out of range from a free before the home side extended their lead to 0-8 to 0-4 in the 41st minute when John Carron caught their own kick-out, and Kevin Niblock and Matthew Fitzpatrick were on the ball before former Australian Rules player Niall McKeever kicked a neat point.
From that stage on though the leaders retreated back into their shell and went into full-on defensive mode. While Wexford had a monopoly of the possession, a lot of the passing was lateral as they struggled to break down the mass of bodies in front of them.
They did have a half-chance for a goal in the 42nd minute when Brian Malone delivered the final handpass to Kevin O'Grady to the left of the posts after a long move, but he fumbled in the slippery conditions and the ball deflected off advancing goalkeeper Chris Kerr for a '45 which Donal Shanley dropped short.
The rules-makers erred badly when not including head-high tackles in the list of fouls punishable by a black card, and this was clearly shown midway through the third quarter when John Carron saw yellow for a dangerous challenge on Brian Malone.
Nearly two minutes later the gap was narrowed to three when Shanley scored from a free which was brought forward for dissent, and then he quickly added another from 43 metres (0-8 to 0-6).
Anthony Masterson intercepted a long Michael McCann punt which was aimed for Niall McKeever on a rare Antrim attack before Wexford upped the pressure even more. Ben Brosnan landed a shot into the goalkeeper's arms but Shanley made it 8-7 when he punished a cynical trip on Colm Kehoe in the 55th minute.
A further 18 minutes were played with just that sole score added - Antrim's crucial goal - but it might have been a different outcome if Wexford had managed to draw level.
In all likelihood they would have held on for a share of the spoils, but it wasn't to be on a day when the bench was emptied with the regulation six substitutes used in a bid to unlock dogged opponents. Unfortunately, Wexford were very sluggish in the first-half for the second week on the trot, and this simply must be rectified for the visit of Ciarán Deely and his fellow exiles on the last Sunday of the month.
Wexford: Anthony Masterson; Robbie Vallejo, Naomhan Rossiter, Rob Tierney; Brian Malone (capt.), Simon Donohoe, Kieran Butler; Adrian Flynn (0-1 free), Colm Kehoe; Kevin O'Grady, Niall Hughes (0-1), Paul Curtis; Kevin Rowe, Donal Shanley (0-4 frees), Ben Brosnan. Subs. - P.J. Banville (0-1) for Rowe (25), Daithí Waters for Curtis (HT), Tiarnan Rossiter for Hughes (51), Jim Rossiter for Butler (56), Michael O'Regan for O'Grady (59), John Tubritt for Brosnan (66).
Antrim: Chris Kerr; Paddy McAleer, Seán McVeigh, Conor Burke; James Laverty (0-1), Justin Crozier, Kevin O'Boyle; John Carron, Niall McKeever (0-2); Conor Murray, Kevin Niblock (capt., 0-1), Dermot McAleese; Matthew Fitzpatrick (1-0), Michael McCann, Tomás McCann (0-4, 2 frees). Subs. - Niall Delargy for Crozier, inj. (17), Mark Sweeney for McAleese (35+1), Martin Johnson for T. McCann (51), Patrick McBride for Murray (66).
Referee: John Gilmartin (Sligo).