Title race goes down to wire
Depleted Youths on wrong side of referring decisions
It's cruel old game sometimes. Needing just a draw, an injury-pillaged Wexford Youths already had the decks stacked against them heading into their Continental Tyres Women's National League clash with Shelbourne in Tolka Park on Wednesday. The one thing they could not withstand was the lion's share of big decisions going against them.
Shelbourne 3 Wexford Youths 1
Nicola Sinnott's goal had given Youths a lead in the 39th minute. The Wexford defender took Emma Hansberry's free-kick down with her right foot, swivelled and finished to the net with her left as Will Doyle's side put a pinky finger on the trophy.
The biggest decision in the game came five minutes into the second-half. Claire O'Riordan and Rebecca Creagh came together just outside the penalty area and the Wexford striker was stronger, holding off the challenge while the Shelbourne player tumbled.
O'Riordan cracked in a shot off the underside of the bar while referee Paula Brady was in the process of blowing her whistle for a free out. At 2-0, it's unlikely that the Shelbourne comeback would have got off the ground.
The decision to blow was very much in tune with the performance of Brady up to 3-1. Contact was blown, very little was let go, and the Dublin official always looked to attach blame to strong battles that simply didn't need or warrant her interference.
The most infuriating part of the refereeing performance was that at 3-1, suddenly everything was let go.
Youths were physical, desperate to find a way back into the tie, and got away with far more contact in scuffles and broken play down by two goals than they ever did up to that point.
It's difficult to put a finger on the mentality of a referee in that situation. What changes? The only conclusion there can be is that the referee is weak, affected by the flow of the match, the situation, and is simply not competent to officiate in such a big game.
As well as being hampered by Brady, Wexford were hit with the blow of losing Edel Kennedy and Jessica Gleeson from the weekend draw with Galway. Kennedy has been monumental in midfield and was a big loss but Gleeson is completely irreplaceable, and Youths simply don't have another defender with her attributes.
Doyle wisely opted for a back four in Gleeson's absence but Shelbourne sneaked in behind after three minutes when Creagh volleyed over from Rachel Graham's looping ball over the top. Wexford responded a minute later when Aisling Frawley cut in on the left flank and drilled a shot high that Amanda McQuillan tipped over the crossbar.
From the resulting corner Becky Cassin's header found Claire O'Riordan unmarked inside the box, but the Youths striker flashed her shot across goal and wide. A driving Hansberry run and pass out to Frawley saw the winger square for Kylie Murphy to shoot at the goalkeeper in the eleventh minute.
Then the hosts had a really strong ten minutes. Niamh Walsh cracked a volley off the crossbar from the edge of the box, Leanne Kiernan shot wide, and Noelle Murray's free skidded all the way through the Youths penalty area and evaded a telling touch.
But Wexford got their composure back. Claire O'Riordan latched onto a slip by Walsh but shot poorly from the edge of the box when the pressure approached. Youths went ahead from Sinnott's low shot and almost doubled the advantage two minutes later when Cassin flashed wide.
A reaction was a certainty after the break and Youths were warned when Kiernan hared away only to slash her shot wide. That came just before O'Riordan's super finish was nullified by whistle-happy Brady.
Moments after that, Kiernan smashed a low shot inches wide of Tamara Furlong's post. Then Dearbhaile Beirne shot over as the pressure mounted. When Youths failed to properly clear a corner, Siobhán Killeen centred for Niamh Walsh to head in from six yards out.
Wexford were still trying to re-group when Shelbourne scored their second. Kiernan lofted a ball into the box that Creagh controlled and fed across to Killeen. The Shelbourne winger cut inside and shot past Furlong for 2-1.
A vicious, high tackle on Orlaith Conlon saw the Youths defender leave the field injured but the perpetrator only receive a yellow card. Claire O'Riordan's header from a Hansberry free was as close as Youths came between the 56th minute Shelbourne goal and their clincher ten minutes later.
Killeen burst into the box and crumpled under very little arm contact from Ruth Fahy. Brady pointed to the spot and Creagh coolly converted high past Furlong to make it 3-1 with 24 minutes remaining.
A clear aim for Youths was to attack Shelbourne down the left wing through Frawley, with replacement right-back Annie Timoney targeted as the weak spot. Youths peppered that side of the field to try to find a way back into the game but couldn't get a goal to make their hosts nervous.
Fahy was fouled on the edge of the box with 18 minutes left but Hansberry's dead-ball strike was saved by McQuillan. O'Riordan had a couple of efforts that didn't overly trouble the Shels 'keeper and the hosts defended deep to hang on for victory.
The Wexford management team fortunately have over a week to get their side back into things mentally now. Youths players looked crestfallen, a beaten side at the full-time whistle, but still have an opportunity to take the title and that has to be driven home quickly.
After missing the game with a concussion, Jessica Gleeson should be fit to return for the play-off and that will be massive for a side which has lost just two games all season, both when she was absent. Edel Kennedy's injury is still to be evaluated but signs are not good for a recovery in the short term.
The winner-takes-all play-off against Shelbourne will take place on May 22, with Youths disadvantaged by a Dublin venue yet again - this time Tallaght Stadium with a 3 p.m. kick-off.
One thing is for sure, the best available referee, regardless of gender, from outside Dublin and Wexford, should be employed for the biggest game of the year in women's football.
Wexford Youths: Tamara Furlong; Nicola Sinnott, Ruth Fahy, Lauren Dwyer, Orlaith Conlon; Emma Hansberry, Becky Cassin; Linda Douglas, Kylie Murphy (capt.), Aisling Frawley; Claire O'Riordan. Subs. - Aoibhín Webb for Conlon, inj. (62), Rachel Hutchinson for Cassin (78), also Shauna Wall, Jessica Gleeson, Amy Walsh, Meghan Whitty.
Shelbourne: Amanda McQuillan; Annie Timoney, Keeva Keenan, Niamh Walsh, Dearbhaile Beirne; Siobhán Killeen, Rachel Graham (capt.), Rebecca Creagh, Noelle Murray, Sophie Watters; Leanne Kiernan. Subs. (not used) - Niamh Reid-Burke, Niamh Barnes, Megan Lynch, Alex Kavanagh, Fiona Donnelly, Courtney Higgins, Kim Turner.
Referee: Paula Brady (Dublin).