Offaly's homework pays off
Wexford forwards held in tight grip in last eight defeat
A contrast of mammoth proportions was witnessed in the Eirgrid Leinster Under-21 football championship quarter-final in Gracefield on Wednesday, and it cost Wexford a place in the last four.
Offaly 1-6 Wexford 0-6
Seven nights earlier they had racked up an impressive tally of 1-18, with all bar two points coming from play, in the course of a facile first round win over Carlow.
However, it was an entirely different story this time around as the Slaneysiders managed to kick a mere six points throughout, with four coming from frees.
After the previous week's win I felt that the benefit of that game would stand to Wexford against an Offaly side coming in cold to the contest.
There was another side to that coin though, and it manifested itself clearly in a game played in tough underfoot conditions and a strong wind although the heavy rain earlier in the evening had thankfully drawn to a close.
The Offaly mentors had the benefit of sitting in the Netwatch Cullen Park stand one week earlier and seeing their rivals' gameplan, and they curbed it to telling effect in this clash.
In particular, they would have noted the threat posed by corner-forward Mikie Dwyer when left in one-on-one situations. And they acted accordingly, crowding the space around the Fethard lad who cut a frustrated figure on a night when the overall team display fell short of expectations.
One of those mentors, James Stewart, was a dashing wing-back on the Offaly side which finally beat Wexford after four memorable Leinster final clashes in this grade in 1988 before going on to All-Ireland glory. And his fingerprints were all over this defensive display which was in his own image and likeness, tenacious in the tackle and very disciplined.
Just four scores were registered in the first-half, and Wexford were extremely lucky to be on level terms at the break.
That was more down to the wasteful finishing of the home side than any inventiveness on their rivals' part. Indeed, by my calculations Wexford only had five kicks at the opposing posts before the interval, picking off two points courtesy of Ian Carty and Tom Byrne (free), and adding two wides from Dwyer and Byrne (free) before a late attempt by Paddy Devereux was safely gathered by netminder Barry Rohan.
And though Offaly also only managed to register two first-half points, several of their seven wides were from favourable positions and they created by far the better chances.
It had started very promisingly for Wexford in the fifth minute, after the first couple of those Faithful county misses, when Ian Carty took a Daire Bolger pass on the run and curled his shot to perfection just inside the right-hand post.
Alas, it wasn't a sign of things to come though, as Wexford would add just one more point from play in the last minute of normal time from substitute Darragh Pepper.
The starting team showed one change from the Carlow game, with unavailable wing-back Conor Firman replaced by Daire Bolger, but Wexford suffered a further blow in defence after eleven minutes when Seán Barden was forced off with an ankle injury and Dillon Redmond came into the fray.
Offaly were still seeking an equaliser at that stage, and it arrived when Shane Tierney availed of a well-placed free into space in the left corner to turn and split the posts.
The locals hit the front for the first time in the 14th minute when Jack Walsh delivered another free into the exact same area, and this time playmaker and captain Rúairí McNamee was the man who gathered possession and picked off a point (0-2 to 0-1).
Wexford levelled just shy of the 18th minute when Tom Byrne knocked over a left-footed free off the ground after Niall Hughes was stopped in his tracks on a run.
That concluded the first-half scoring, with three of the five wides from that point to the break coming from Offaly including a couple of frees.
In addition, a P.J. Daly delivery was fisted into the path of overlapping defender Colm Doyle in extra time, but Wexford netminder Matt Doyle advanced quickly to avert the potential danger.
The visitors had been fortunate too near the end of the first quarter when Shane Tierney squared a handpass to fellow corner-forward Jack Clancy, but it was a shade too high and the chance for a goal disappeared.
The game was most certainly won and lost in the opening 13 minutes of the second period when Offaly added 1-4 without reply in a period of dominance.
Wexford were very slow to get into their stride on the re-start for some reason, and while they did eventually rally it came too late to alter the outcome.
Offaly moved team captain McNamee to centre-forward where his composure was crucial on a difficult night for handling the ball, swapping places with Paddy Dunican who has recent League of Ireland soccer experience as a goalkeeper with Athlone Town and Drogheda United.
The hammer blow was delivered by the midlanders in the 33rd minute when a Ciarán Farrell line ball from the right was spilled by a defender into the path of Shane Tierney. He quickly popped a pass over his shoulder to his left to midfielder Jordan Hayes who had ghosted into a dangerous position and crashed his shot to the net (1-2 to 0-2).
The fun was only just starting for Hayes as he also contributed the next three Offaly points from frees between the 37th and 43rd minutes. The first two came after unforced errors, with a pass intercepted before an overcarrying offence was punished.
Referee Barry Tiernan was particularly strict on this rule but was very consistent in his application, with both sides suffering in equal measure.
There was a danger that the game would drift away completely from Wexford in the 43rd minute when Rúairí McNamee caught Matt Doyle's kick-out after that third pointed free from Hayes and placed Shane Tierney who widened the gap to 1-6 to 0-2.
To be fair though, they rallied and left Offaly anxiously counting down the seconds in almost five minutes of added time played.
Tom Byrne struck the third of Wexford's five second-half wides, from a free, before Niall Hughes landing a booming effort from long range after a foul on the hard-working James Stafford.
That route one tactic was the main method of attack in the last quarter, with Hughes regularly delivering bombs into the danger zone. And while Byrne had spent a decent spell around the middle third in the second-half, Wexford looked most threatening after he moved back inside to the edge of the square.
An Ian Carty '45 was missed before a long line ball by Hughes was caught by Byrne whose head-high shot was parried by goalkeeper Barry Rohan, with a back poking it to safety before substitute Darragh Pepper got a chance to pounce.
Mark Rossiter narrowed the gap to five in the 53rd minute after a foul on Jake Firman, with Hughes off target from a long-range free before Paddy Devereux delivered the ball across the square from right to left but Byrne was agonisingly unable to get a connection.
Darragh Pepper did pick off the second and last point from play seconds later, and there was still hope.
That turned out to be the big goal chance that really needed to be converted though, and the last throw of the dice was a pointed Niall Hughes free over four minutes into added time after an Offaly player touched the ball on the ground.
Wexford: Matt Doyle (Glynn-Barntown); Aaron Murphy (Shelmaliers), Ronan Devereux (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), Seán Barden (Adamstown); Daire Bolger (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown), Naomhan Rossiter (St. Mary's, Rosslare, capt.), Daire Barden (Fethard); Niall Hughes (Kilanerin, 0-2 frees), Paddy Devereux (Crossabeg-Ballymurn); Jake Firman (St. Martin's), Ian Carty (Taghmon-Camross, 0-1), Mark Rossiter (Gusserane, 0-1 free); Mikie Dwyer (Fethard), Tom Byrne (Kilmore, 0-1 free), James Stafford (Glynn-Barntown). Subs. - Dillon Redmond (Starlights) for S. Barden, inj. (11), Darragh Pepper (Starlights, 0-1) for Bolger (39), Glen Malone (Shelmaliers) for D. Barden (48), Martin O'Connor (HWH-Bunclody) for Murphy (55), Tadhg Cody (Rathgarogue-Cushinstown) for Stafford (60), Tim Bowler (Duffry Rovers) for P. Devereux (60+1), also Ben Turner (Crossabeg-Ballymurn), John Roche (Gusserane), Conor Firman (St. Martin's).
Offaly: Barry Rohan; Clint Horan, David Dempsey, Colm Doyle; Adam Mahon, Carl Stewart, P.J. Daly; James Lalor, Jordan Hayes (1-3, 0-3 frees); Ciarán Farrell, Paddy Dunican, Jack Walsh; Jack Clancy, Rúairí McNamee (capt., 0-1), Shane Tierney (0-2). Subs. - Ronan McEvoy for Clancy (48), Luke Dignam for Dunican (60), Mark Abbott for Tierney (60+3).
Referee: Barry Tiernan (Dublin).