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Wednesday 20 June 2018

Wexford's extra-time agony

GAA Leinster Senior Football Championship First Round: Laois 2-21 Wexford 1-18 (AET)

Alan Aherne in Innovate Wexford Park

James Stafford shakes off Kieran Lillis, whose extra-time goal left no way back for Wexford. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
James Stafford shakes off Kieran Lillis, whose extra-time goal left no way back for Wexford. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The entertainment levels were off the charts in this Leinster Senior football championship first round clash before a very small crowd in Innovate Wexford Park on Saturday, but ultimately the home side were left to rue what might have been after squandering a ten-point interval lead and bowing out after extra-time to Laois.

There was high drama from start to finish, particular in the third of four additional minutes announced at the end of normal time when John Tubritt picked out Brian Malone who was swept out of it for a penalty by Laois captain Stephen Attride.

The sides were level (1-14 each), so the options were clear: take a point and try to defend a potential last Laois attack, or go for goal and end the tie in a blaze of glory.

Donal Shanley no doubt took instructions from the sideline before tapping the ball over the crossbar, and at that stage all eyes were on referee Martin McNally.

It had taken just under 70 seconds between that foul on Malone and the spot kick to be taken, so the four added minutes were always going to rise to five as a result.

A strong dose of cynicism was needed at that stage, just like Dublin at the end of last year's All-Ireland final, but Wexford were either too naive or simply hadn't anything left in the tank to pull down an opponent in the Laois half of the field and kill the contest.

Instead, the midlanders worked the ball towards the town end, with corner-back Gareth Dillon popping up around 35 metres from goal to grab the precious equaliser with his left boot. The final whistle sounded on the kick-out, 20 seconds later, after a half lasting 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, Wexford never looked like winning in extra-time, with Laois lasting the pace a lot better and outscoring their rivals by a decisive 1-6 to 0-3.

And the vital goal came from a man with close Slaneyside links, as the run of midfielder Kieran Lillis - nephew of a Blackwater stalwart and former Wexford selector, Senan - wasn't tracked in the third minute and he slotted a low shot past the outstanding Conor Swaine.

All Wexford could muster in that first extra period was a pointed free from Donal Shanley who had an exceptional evening from placed balls, with Stephen Attride making one great interception to cut out a John Tubritt pass when a goal looked a possibility.

Darren Strong, Trevor Collins and Attride picked off the points that left Laois clear by 2-18 to 1-16 at the last break, while Swaine made one of his many fine saves to deny Collins a goal.

The long ball tactic to Daithí Waters and Nick Doyle around the square was a last-ditch attempt to secure goals on the re-start, but the Laois defenders swarmed around them and it never looked like paying off.

Instead, points from the influential Kingston brothers, substitute Paul (two) and Donie, saw Laois safely through to a quarter-final meeting against Westmeath, with two Wexford consolation scores coming from Donal Shanley (free) and Darragh Pepper.

It had been a different story entirely in a memorable first-half from the home side.

The tone was set from the throw-in when giant-hearted captain Daithí Waters - a doubt beforehand with an injury to his right knee - grabbed the ball and played a one-two with fellow veteran midfielder Brian Malone before picking off the first point at the town end.

Wexford had initial use of the wind and they made the absolute most of it, holding Laois scoreless from play while bursting into an impressive 1-10 to 0-3 half-time lead.

John Tubritt was on fire up front, kicking three of his five points from play, while all three half-backs got on the scoresheet and contributed 1-2 between them.

And with netminder Conor Swaine utterly defiant any time Laois threatened a goal, it was a lead that really ought to have secured outright success.

Alas, Wexford surrendered control to such a degree in the second period that only some incredible misses from the visitors ensured that extra-time would be required to decide the outcome.

The home side registered a mere four wides in that very bright opening half, but their cause wasn't helped by injuries to attacker Paul Curtis early on, and full-back Jim Rossiter who appeared to do serious damage to his knee close to half-time.

The loss of the St. Fintan's man was a particularly significant blow given that Wexford couldn't handle the aerial prowess of Donie Kingston who was chiefly responsible for dragging Laois back into contention from full-forward.

In a scenario that nobody could have predicted, Wexford led by 0-8 to nil by the 22nd minute after points from Waters, Tubritt (three), Glen Malone and Shanley (three frees).

It was Conor Swaine's best game thus far in his brief career between the posts, and he was seen at his brilliant best for the first time in the twelfth minute when he made a super stop to deny David Conway after good work by Stephen Attride and Ross Munnelly.

Laois may have felt they had stopped the rot when their first point, from a Gary Walsh free in the 23rd minute, was followed by a second from a Munnelly set-piece.

However, Wexford struck for a well-worked team goal in the 26th minute, with centre-back Naomhan Rossiter joining the attack and exchanging passes with his big brother, Tiarnan, on the left before forcing the ball to the Laois net (1-8 to 0-2).

It was 1-10 to 0-3 by half-time, with James Stafford (from a clear goal chance) and Shane Doyle adding to the lead and the sole reply coming from another Munnelly free.

Swaine saved brilliantly from Kieran Lillis and Conor Carty smothered Donie Kingston's rebound, while the goalkeeper also kept out a less threatening attempt from John O'Loughlin.

Munnelly had a hard-to-credit miss from a 14-metre free on the re-start, but the game swung completely in favour of Laois who deployed Graham Brody as a fly goalkeeper throughout with a lot of success.

It may have been a risky move, but he never misplaced a pass on his regular forays upfield.

Wexford were slow to react to the threat posed by Donie Kingston who had moved to full-forward in the first-half and was regularly left one-on-one with the physically smaller Michael Furlong.

The more imposing Naomhan Rossiter moved on to him at a later stage, but all of the momentum was with Laois at the time as they were cleaning up around the middle third of the field.

Their opening score from play was finally supplied by captain Stephen Attride in the 38th minute, with David Conway and Kingston (free) adding points before Graham Brody kept out a goal-bound Tiarnan Rossiter shot at the expense of a '45.

That was a key moment in the game as a green flag at that stage would have been a massive tonic for Wexford, but they still led by 1-13 to 0-11 entering the last quarter after the excellent Tubritt and Shanley (free) supplied further points.

One of those Laois scores came after another Swaine save, this time from Damien O'Connor, and they got to within two points by the 59th minute (1-13 to 0-14) after unanswered efforts from Paul Kingston, Ross Munnelly and Donie Kingston.

Poor handling cost them another goal chance in that spell, and O'Connor followed with a terrible miss when he fired right and wide in a one-on-one situation after a Munnelly pass.

A Shanley free was caught under the crossbar before Tubritt's fifth point from play left Wexford leading by 1-14 to 0-14 in the 68th minute.

Just over 30 seconds later, Niall Donoher went down at the other end and referee McNally awarded a rather soft penalty, with Donie Kingston tucking it low into the left corner to bring Laois level for the first time.

There was still time for that spot kick at the other end, and the debate will rage for a long time as to whether the Wexford sideline erred in opting for a point rather than trying for a goal.

It was the classic case of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't', just one of many talking points from an eventful game that simply couldn't have been scripted.

Wexford: Conor Swaine; Michael Furlong, Jim Rossiter, Conor Carty; Glen Malone (0-1), Naomhan Rossiter (1-0), Shane Doyle (0-1); Brian Malone, Daithí Waters (capt., 0-1); James Stafford (0-1), Ben Brosnan, Eoghan Nolan; Paul Curtis, Donal Shanley (0-8, 6 frees, 1 '45, 1 pen.), John Tubritt (0-5). Subs. - Tiarnan Rossiter for Curtis, inj. (11), Alan Nolan for J. Rossiter, inj. (35+2), Eoin Porter for Brosnan (45), Nick Doyle for Stafford (56), Barry O'Gorman for S. Doyle (69), David Shannon for T. Rossiter (78), Stafford for O'Gorman, inj. (78), Darragh Pepper (0-1) for A. Nolan (HT ET).

Laois: Graham Brody; Rúaidhrí C. Fennell, Mark Timmons, Gareth Dillon (0-1); Trevor Collins (0-1), Colm Begley, Stephen Attride (capt., 0-2); John O'Loughlin, Kieran Lillis (1-0); Alan Farrell, Donie Kingston (1-6, 1-0 pen., 0-3 frees), Damien O'Connor; Ross Munnelly (0-5, 3 frees), David Conway (0-1), Gary Walsh (0-1 free). Subs. - Benny Carroll for Walsh (HT), Niall Donoher for Farrell (47), Paul Kingston (0-3) for Fennell (51), Darren Strong (0-1) for Conway (61), Tom Shiel for Munnelly (67), Finbarr Crowley for O'Connor (75), Denis Booth for Dillon (85), David Holland for Collins (87).

Referee: Martin McNally (Monaghan).

Wexford People