Shelbourne saunter back into contention
Shelbourne 3 Wexford Youths 2
Holding the door themselves, with the ability to slam it shut in their faces, Wexford Youths allowed Shelbourne to saunter through and right back into the Continental Tyres Women's League title race in the A.U.L. on Wednesday.
Youths sat six points ahead of their Dublin rivals, with a game in hand, after a poor start to the season saw the depleted defending champions win just five of their first eleven games. Needing to win out, they are going about it the correct way.
Yet, there are reasons why Shelbourne have struggled against teams with quality this season. They look to penetrate down the wings with Leanne Kiernan and Niamh Prior playing so high they effectively make it a front three with central striker Kate Mooney.
Mooney is young and not a real threat in the middle. However, undoubtedly dabbling in mind games, Shelbourne announced the re-signing of Gloria Douglas just before kick-off with the American going through a light session before the game, despite only arriving in Ireland earlier that morning.
Throw her in with the wide players who gave the Wexford full-backs a torrid time and they are a dynamic attacking outfit. Youths didn't have to deal with Douglas and failed to quieten the wide players like other sides have managed this season.
There are two viable options when playing against Shelbourne but Wexford did neither successfully. The first would have been to double-up outside and give Nicola Sinnott and Lauren Dwyer the help they needed. That never happened and the hosts easily won those exchanges.
The second option was to allow Shelbourne their one-on-ones out wide and exploit the space their attacking formation invariably gives. Their system is like an egg-timer, top and bottom with width but they narrow in the middle, so it gives opponents a chance to get at them out wide.
There was acres of space for Wexford to exploit on the wings but they failed to do it with anything like enough consistency. The visitors' first failure was to re-schedule the fixture when they were going to miss a starting winger in Linda Douglas, someone who could exploit that space.
At times during the game Aoibhín Webb stood out on the right wing, with Courtney Higgins tucking in to solidify a weak back four, in 25-30 yards of space. Often her team-mates just didn't want to get the ball out there, and when they did the Carlow native looked to play the square ball too often.
For 74 minutes this went on, crying out for someone to take the game to the hosts in the wide areas. Minutes ticked away, then raced away, with the odd half-chance appeasing the Wexford management against a team with the worst back four of any of the title challengers.
Then, way too late, on came Emma Hansberry. Within minutes she waltzed to the byline, chipped a perfect ball into the six-yard box and Claire O'Riordan nodded home to make it 3-1. It was the Sligo native's corner that caused pandemonium in the box seven minutes later too as Gleeson made it 3-2.
It doesn't matter if Hansberry is going to be playing her football in Galway, Guam or another galaxy next season, she needed to be on the pitch. In fact, the kiddy gloves need to come off Edel Kennedy too, as her calmness in midfield is sorely missed when she's warming the bench.
The tone was set for the game in the first few minutes as Wexford worked the ball out wide right to Webb. The crosses, in the best positions she took up all evening, weren't great but the visitors then went back to trying to pick out Rianna Jarrett in low percentage situations.
Jarrett snapped one half-volley high and wide after it fell to the Wexford attacker from Jess Gleeson's thump forward. Moments later she caught another shot sweetly but it cannoned off Jamie Finn to safety.
Shelbourne took the lead in the twelfth minute and it was way too easy. Fear creates panic and when Amanda McQuillan launched long, Kiernan's pace was clearly in Lauren Dwyer's mind. She would usually chase it down and knock it out but instead she tried some sort of overhead kick and completely missed the ball.
With Dwyer flat on her back, Kiernan was gone, and she cut in untouched and shot back to the corner from which she came to open the scoring. Jarrett drilled over from Frawley's ball in the 16th minute but largely Wexford struggled after the goal.
Kiernan should have made it two when Sinnott gifted her the ball with a woeful backpass, but Lenehan did enough to force her wide and the Shelbourne youngster made a mess of the opportunity.
Rachel Graham saw her shot deflected wide in the 34th minute but her side didn't have to wait long for a second. With Wexford stretched, Alex Kavanagh fired long into the left channel for Prior who beat Sinnott and squared for Kiernan to tap in at the back post.
Frawley found Jarrett on the edge of the area, and she turned her marker, broke in on goal and forced McQuillan into a tidy save. The same duo combined five minutes later but Jarrett's volley was easy for the Shelbourne stopper, as it was when Dwyer got forward and found her shortly after.
With no change to the gameplan, the response from Wexford after the break was laboured and limp. Frawley put in a nice cross from the left but there was no telling touch. At the other end Kiernan fired a good chance over the crossbar.
The only time Wexford cut through the centre with a passing move, in the 56th minute, they should have scored, with Claire O'Riordan clanking the post after Kylie Murphy fed her into the clear.
Just seconds later, as the ball was worked out of the danger area, Becky Cassin sent it back with venom and saw her shot clatter the crossbar. Kennedy came on for Jarrett and it made no difference because Youths continued to struggle with the basics.
Kylie Murphy saw her deflected shot from Webb's cross easily held in the 72nd minute. Finally, Emma Hansberry added life to the game, and her influence could have proved vital, especially had it came earlier.
It might still have been impactful had, just moments after she tipped Kavanagh's shot over the crossbar, Sophie Lenehan not sent Niamh Prior's corner spinning through her hands and into her own goal.
Just seconds later Hansberry sauntered to the byline, chipped the perfect ball to O'Riordan and she nodded Youths back into the game at 3-1. Kiernan narrowly missed the target on the counter and Roma McLoughlin clipped the crossbar from the edge of the area as Shels went close to ending the contest.
O'Riordan squared across the penalty area for Casey to bring a fine save out of McQuillan. The 'save of the season' as Wexford manager Laura Heffernan later described it, made little difference to the outcome as Jess Gleeson scored with a deflected effort from the resulting Hansberry corner.
The only half chance Wexford managed to create in the final two minutes of normal time, plus the five referee Oliver Moran added, was a Cassin cross that Nicola Sinnott weakly headed and McQuillan comfortably caught to cement the win
Wexford Youths: Sophie Lenehan; Nicola Sinnott, Jess Gleeson, Orlaith Conlon, Lauren Dwyer; Becky Cassin, Kylie Murphy (capt.); Aoibhín Webb, Claire O'Riordan, Aisling Frawley; Rianna Jarrett. Subs. - Edel Kennedy for Jarrett (58), Emma Hansberry for Webb (74), Orla Casey for Dwyer, inj. (76), also Katrina Parrock, Sadbh McCarthy, Jenny O'Keeffe, Amy Wilson.
Shelbourne: Amanda McQuillan; Lynn Craven, Jamie Finn, Seána Cooke, Courtney Higgins; Roma McLoughlin, Rachel Graham (capt.), Alex Kavanagh; Leanne Kiernan, Kate Mooney Niamh Prior. Subs. - Mary Waldron for Mooney (65), Siobhán Killeen for Higgins (79), Pearl Slattery for Kavanagh (82), also Fiona Donnelly, Chloe McNamee, Sophie Watters, Allanah McEvoy.
Referee: Oliver Moran (Dublin).