Young guns come up short
Wexford's quest to grab a place in the semi-finals of the Eirgrid Leinster Under-21 football championship semi-finals for the first time since 2013 ended in a frustrating defeat in a bitterly cold St. Patrick's Park, Enniscorthy, on Wednesday when Westmeath pounced for a late winning point, just as it looked like extra-time was on the cards.
Westmeath 1-5 Wexford 0-7
The advantage seemed to lie with the home side at the interval when they only trailed by 1-2 to 0-3 after conceding a giveaway goal, and two points inside six minutes of the re-start added further to the belief that they would advance.
However, over-elaboration around the middle third of the field played into Westmeath's hands as the lack of quick deliveries to the inside forwards greatly reduced the number of scoring opportunities.
And while Wexford were in contention right up to the bitter end and had a chance to equalise from a difficult late free, Donal Shanley's attempt sailed to the right of the posts and the Westmeath celebrations began in earnest on the kick-out.
Conditions were deplorable, with a strong, swirling wind blowing towards the dressing-room end. The elements don't appear to confer a great advantage on teams these days though, given the preference for short-passing and retaining possession at all costs.
Certainly, the Wexford defence coped easily with the best Westmeath could offer in an attacking sense before the break, and roles were revered on the re-start when it was the turn of the visitors' backs to show their capabilities.
Westmeath won the toss and opted to use the elements first, and just under two and a half minutes had elapsed when their most dangerous forward, Paddy Fagan, latched on to a Daire Conway pass and kicked the opening point.
It wasn't a sign of things to come in the scoring stakes though as, for the most part, play was centred around the midfield sector and moves from both sides broke down regularly around the 40-metre mark.
The Wexford defenders were quick off the mark and dealt well with the best Westmeath could throw at them, but they were hit with a real sucker punch in the eleventh minute.
For once the obsession with short, crossfield passing favoured by both teams was forgotten and, lo and behold, it led to the game's only goal after Simon Donohoe lost possession 45 metres from the opposition posts.
Westmeath centre-back Andrew McCormack pumped in a long ball from the right which bounced in front of Wexford netminder Ben Turner, but he was beaten to the touch as he advanced by corner-forward Paddy Fagan who guided it over his head and into the net for a 1-1 to nil lead.
It was a cruel blow but it drove Wexford on all the same as their first scoring attempt followed in the 13th minute when Donal Shanley missed a free for their sole wide of the opening half. Seán Ryan was short with another effort before Shanley got his side off the mark in the 17th minute after Bryan Power was tripped.
Westmeath's three wides before the break came around that spell too as full-back Israil Ilunga over-hit a pass before the ever-dangerous Paddy Fagan - operating in a two-man full-forward line with Darren Giles - was off target twice in quick succession.
With Ben Turner getting good distance into his kick-outs and Eoghan Nolan (twice) and Tom Byrne making good catches from re-starts, Wexford were well in contention.
Still, they conceded another point in the 24th minute when Sam Duncan didn't score after being fouled, and the play was called back for Darren Giles to slot over the free (1-2 to 0-1).
Wexford replied smartly with the first of just three scores from play, with Ian Carty getting a hand to an attempted pass as Westmeath tried to clear their lines. The ball was transferred quickly to Donal Shanley and he did the rest with an accomplished finish.
Carty shot into goalie Kevin Fagan's arms but redeemed himself with his role in the third Wexford point which arrived in the last minute of normal time. He picked out Bryan Power to his left with an astute handpass and, when the Fethard man was fouled, Shanley stepped up to make it 1-2 to 0-3.
Westmeath kicked the first of their two second-half wides on the re-start from Paddy Fagan before Shanley made it a one-point game after Ian Carty was impeded.
Simon Donohoe misjudged a long pass in the wind and Tom Byrne then kicked wildly for the posts before Shanley levelled in the 26th minute after Westmeath's speedy Linus Sayeh threw the ball and referee Davy Moore - who awarded 24 frees to Wexford and 22 to the visitors - brought it closer to goal for dissent.
The introduction of Jamie Carty for Eoin Roche provided the home side with a big targetman with fresh legs, but the option of placing him on the edge of the square and pumping long deliveries into his area wasn't taken.
Instead, most of the play continued around the centrefield area with a lot of application but little in the way of penetration from the two sides. Donal Shanley kicked wide from a free he earned himself while Tom Byrne was short with another attempt, while a Paddy Fagan kick was gathered safely at the other end by Ben Turner before Westmeath regained the lead.
It arrived in the 43rd minute when Shane Corcoran, Theo Watts and Paddy Fagan featured in a move which ended with recently-introduced substitute Jack Quinn picking off a point (1-3 to 0-5).
The fourth of Wexford's six wides after the break followed from Ian Carty before Tim Bowler came on for Tom Byrne, with Eoghan Nolan moving to midfield. And Nolan provided the assist for the Wexford leveller, shipping a shoulder which left him on the ground but still managing to handpass to wing-back Daire Barden who drove the ball between the posts.
Just under three minutes later the Westmeath lead was restored though as the Wexford backs were guilty of ball-watching from a free. Darren Giles directed it from the right wing to an unmarked Robert Hickey, and the half-time substitute duly made it 1-4 to 0-6.
Westmeath corner-back Ronan Wallace was summoned to take a free which he sent wide before James Stafford replaced Bryan Power in Wexford's half-forward line and quickly collected a yellow card.
A dangerous Donal Shanley line ball from the left was cleared before Simon Donohoe's handpass found Jamie Carty in space after he drifted outfield in the 57th minute, and his booming kick over the bar heightened the prospects of extra-time at the very least.
It wasn't to be though, as Donohoe was yellow-carded for a foul on Theo Watts just inside the 'D' after a crossfield Darren Giles pass. Robert Hickey took a lot of time over the free via the ground but it fell short, only to rebound off the hands of a defender into the path of Daire Conway who turned instinctively on to his left and hooked over the winner (1-5 to 0-7).
There was one last chance for Wexford to force extra-time, after a Shane Doyle pass bounced wide. A Westmeath back committed a technical foul under pressure and Donal Shanley stepped up to a free to the right of the dressing-room end posts between the 20- and 45-metre lines.
It wasn't easy, especially in the windy conditions, and the ball flew wide on the near post before the final whistle was sounded on the kick-out.
Wexford: Ben Turner; Robbie Vallejo, Jim Rossiter, Simon Donohoe (capt.); Shane Doyle, Naomhan Rossiter, Daire Barden (0-1); Niall Hughes, Tom Byrne; Ian Carty, Eoghan Nolan, Bryan Power; Eoin Roche, Donal Shanley (0-5, 4 frees), Seán Ryan. Subs. - Jamie Carty (0-1) for Roche (36), Tim Bowler for Byrne (44), James Stafford for Power (51).
Westmeath: Kevin Fagan; Linus Sayeh, Israil Ilunga, Ronan Wallace; Gavin Murray, Andrew McCormack, Daire Conway (0-1); Theo Watts, Sam Duncan; Anthony McGivney, Rúairí Cunningham, Shane Corcoran; Darren Giles (0-1 free), Neill Mitchell, Paddy Fagan (1-1). Subs. - Ronan O'Toole for McGivney (24), Robert Hickey (0-1) for Cunningham, Jack Quinn (0-1) for Mitchell.
Referee: Davy Moore (Laois).