Monday 20 January 2020

Much-changed side defeated

SSE Airtricity First Division: Athlone Town 3 Wexford FC 1

Thomas Croke, who returned to the starting line-up after suspension in Lissywollen on Friday
Thomas Croke, who returned to the starting line-up after suspension in Lissywollen on Friday

Alan Aherne in Lissywollen

Wexford FC started the last of the three nine-game sequences in the SSE Airtricity First Division on a losing note before a tiny crowd in Lissywollen on Friday, going down to fellow strugglers Athlone Town by a two-goal margin despite drawing level early in the second-half.

It was a much-changed side from the loss to Cabinteely seven nights earlier, and the club must have created a record of rather dubious provenance by fielding a starting eleven featuring no goalscorer in the current season.

Lone striker Seán Roche did go on to open his league account on his first start after six appearances off the bench, having also netted in the EA Sports Cup loss to Bray in early March.

However, the main tale from this game was focused, unfortunately, on the players Wexford were missing rather than those who gave their all for the cause.

Checking the latest news on the club website can be a fraught experience at this time of the season, and so it proved Friday morning when it emerged that Jack Doherty - top scorer with six goals and the only man to start all 18 league games thus far - had been re-signed by one of his former clubs, Longford Town.

He was one of just four league marksmen this season, and the second to depart after Owen McCormack left for personal reasons some months ago.

And with the other goal-scoring duo, Danny Furlong (five) and Emmet Nugent (three), also conspicious by their absence, it left manager Brian O'Sullivan extremely short on options.

To make matters worse, Seán Callan's loan spell from Shamrock Rovers has expired and he has returned to Tallaght, although the centre-half would have missed this game regardless owing to suspension.

With captain Chris Kenny recovering from groin surgery, and recently-returned fans' favourite Andy Mulligan still a long way short of match fitness, there was precious little of a positive nature to report.

Five changes were made in total from the Cabinteely defeat, with Callan, John Peare, Emmet Nugent, Doherty and Furlong replaced by Lee Costello, Thomas Croke (back from suspension), Nika Arevadze, Danny Doyle and Seán Roche.

There was a late debut off the bench for Daibhid Corish, a native Dubliner with very strong family roots in Wexford, who impressed as one of four trialists in the 1-0 friendly defeat to A.F.C. Wimbledon six days earlier.

Although primarily a defender, the tall newcomer with previous experience on the non-league scene in Dublin, and in Vancouver in Canada, came on to join Seán Roche up front in the last ten minutes as the visitors went for broke after falling 2-1 in arrears.

Andrew Farrell was named as an official substitute, but it appeared that he wasn't actually on the bench. Shane Griffin, who joined the club on loan from Waterford F.C. earlier in the week, was present but ineligible for this game.

Athlone Town hadn't won a home match since beating Wexford 4-2 on the first night of the season on February 22, although their recent form had been encouraging, with three draws garnered from the previous four outings.

A win for the visitors would have narrowed the margin between them at the bottom to just one point, but instead the midlanders have opened up a gap of seven.

And not alone that, they have also climbed one spot up the table to eighth, two points ahead of Wexford's next opponents, Galway United, who will visit Ferrycarrig Park on Friday.

Any potential sting in this basement battle was taken out of proceedings very early in the shape of an Athlone goal, and it led to a dull and dreary contest up to half-time before a considerably more eventful second period.

Corey Chambers wasn't tested by a long-range shot from Dean Casey that bounced in front of him, but he was picking the ball out of his net in the sixth minute.

Kealan Dillon sought out Casey with a high delivery that Ricky Fox knocked out for a corner on the left.

The vastly experienced Darren Meenan - later named man of the match - delivered an inch-perfect set-piece and, with nobody rising to challenge centre-half Paddy Kelly, he billowed the net with a meaty header from close range.

Wexford were deflated to such an extent after this concession that they didn't manage a shot until the 48th minute when Paddy Cahill - captain in the absence of Chris Kenny - fired one left and wide.

The remainder of the opening half was forgettable in every sense, with precious little of interest to garner attention from the paltry crowd.

Lee Costello cleared a potentially dangerous cross after an overlap down the right by Athlone captain and full-back Aaron Brilly, while ex-Wexford player Shane Dunne headed over from a Meenan free-kick in the 33rd minute.

A foul on Danny Doyle had led to a Ricky Fox set-piece being cleared from the box, and there was a brief chance for a lucky goal when another cross by the Enniscorthy all-rounder was dropped by netminder Aaron Myles in the 35th minute.

The ball broke towards the byline and Nika Arevadze managed to hook it back over his head with Seán Roche as the intended target, but an Athlone defender got in the way and the danger was averted.

Chambers was called upon to save a tame side-footed effort by big striker Evan Pierce in the 43rd minute after Jamie Hamilton - a new arrival from Bohemians - initially sprayed the ball wide for Darren Meenan to deliver a cross.

Danny Doyle tried to play Seán Roche through with a hopeful long ball just before the break, but goalkeeper Myles was alert to the threat and hared off his line to clear from outside the box.

Ryan Nolan came on for Nika Arevadze at the interval, and Wexford's best spell was in the 20 minutes on the re-start when they went toe-to-toe with the leaders, drawing level and having enough of the ball in promising areas to suggest that a second wasn't beyond their capabilities.

Nolan partnered Cahill in central midfield, with Conor Sutton dropping to right-full and, in the most prosperous move of all, Ricky Fox going to the left wing where he posed a constant threat.

Wexford gained control of the middle third in that period, with Thomas Croke also influential playing in front of Nolan and Cahill, and their decision to press Athlone higher up the field yielded plenty of rewards.

After that first shot from Cahill finally arrived on the re-start, the visitors forced the first of just two corners (Athlone had four) before the equaliser came in the 51st minute.

Fox delivered a deep cross beyond the far post where Danny Doyle put pressure on a defender, and his touch back across his own goal fell at the feet of Seán Roche who calmly slotted the ball home from close range.

Although Wexford did give as good as they got in the 15-plus minutes after that equaliser, they didn't create anything of note whereas Athlone came up with a succession of chances.

Lee Costello denied Dean Casey a likely goal with a fine block, Paddy Kelly had a header from a corner deflected over, Chambers stood up well at his near post to keep out a Jamie Hamilton shot, while a glancing header by Evan Pierce wasn't too far away from the top left corner of the net.

Gradually Athlone regained midfield control, with Ferrycarrig Park old boy Shane 'Ducksie' Dunne a key figure in that regard with his constant supply of the ball to their main threat, right winger Darren Meenan.

The home side regained their lead in the 74th minute, and it came in frustrating circumstances for Wexford - a second concession from a corner-kick.

The quickly-taken set-piece from the right seemed to take the defence by surprise, and Evan Pierce was on hand to rise highest and direct the ball beyond Chambers to make it 2-1.

There was a quick chance to equalise when Danny Doyle sent a deep cross towards the far post, but Ricky Fox was penalised for a foul before Thomas Croke got an opportunity to latch on to the breaking ball.

Athlone should have wrapped it up then in the 81st minute when Pierce challenged Chambers from a Meenan cross and it fell kindly for Jamie Hamilton, but he volleyed over the bar with the goal at his mercy.

Darragh O'Connor, who had stayed in the opposition box after a Ricky Fox free-kick was initially cleared, headed over from a John Peare cross, while shortly afterwards the former's knock-on from a Ryan Nolan throw almost found Andrew O'Connor, only for an Athlone defender to get there first and concede a fruitless corner.

It was left to another ex-Wexford player to hammer the final nail into the coffin. Dean George hasn't got much of a look-in since moving to the midlands at the start of the season, but his initial touch after coming off the bench delivered that first home victory since February.

He pounced in the 88th minute, with Dean Casey sending the ball wide left to Jamie Hamilton whose first-time cross was met by George and, although Chambers got his hands to the shot, he couldn't keep it out.

Wexford did come close to a consolation goal in added time, with Daibhid Corish playing the ball forward to Seán Roche who in turn picked out Ricky Fox on his right.

However, his shot was saved by Aaron Myles and, as a matter of interest, by the time the team bus got back to Wexford afterwards, July 6 would have arrived - exactly one year to the very day on the calendar since the team's last away win, against Cabinteely in Stradbrook.

Galway United now lie directly above them on the table, five points ahead, and the westerners will travel to Ferrycarrig Park on Friday more than four months after recording a 4-0 win at the same venue.

Wexford F.C.: Corey Chambers; Ricky Fox, Darragh O'Connor, Lee Costello, Andrew O'Connor; Conor Sutton, Paddy Cahill (capt.); Danny Doyle, Thomas Croke, Nika Arevadze; Seán Roche. Subs. - Ryan Nolan for Arevadze (HT), John Peare for Croke (76), Daibhid Corish for Doyle (80), also Jason McGuire.

Athlone Town: Aaron Myles; Aaron Brilly (capt.), Ciarán Grogan, Paddy Kelly, John Morgan; Jamie Hamilton, Shane Dunne; Darren Meenan, Kealan Dillon, Dean Casey; Evan Pierce. Subs. - Rhys Gorman for Dillon (76), Dean George for Pierce (86), also Garmondah Ta-Uway, Eoghan Morgan, Callum McKelvey, Oisín Duffy, Byron Martin.

Referee: Paula Brady (Dublin).

Wexford People

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