Victory for top versus bottom
SSE Airtricity First Division: Shelbourne 5 Wexford FC 2
If someone with a crystal ball had predicted that Friday's SSE Airtricity First Division clash in Tolka Park was going to end in a three-goal win for Shelbourne, it wouldn't have been greeted with any great surprise.
After all, the reds were 36 points above visitors Wexford F.C. beforehand, top of the table and closing in on a likely title and return to the top flight that brought an expectant 1,081 crowd to the historic Drumcondra venue.
And when they raced into a 3-0 lead by the 34th minute, the small travelling support were probably fearing that the season's biggest loss to date - 6-1 down in Cobh - would be matched at the very least.
Shelbourne did end up winning by that three-goal margin, but the irony was that Wexford made a memorable start to the second-half and played the type of inventive football that they have found so difficult to produce throughout this season.
It could be argued that complacency set in among the home side's ranks, but they were well and truly rocked when striker Danny Furlong pounced for a typically opportunist brace of goals to bring the deficit back to 3-2.
After the Rosslare Strand man scored in Cobh six nights earlier, I suggested that surely he would surpass the now-departed Jack Doherty for the accolade of top marksman for 2019 before the campaign is over.
However, I must confess that I didn't envisage him netting twice away to the champions-in-waiting to bring his haul to eight, but that's exactly what happened.
The first came in the 48th minute when centre-half Daibhid Corish got a near-post header on Shane Griffin's corner from the right, and Furlong was on hand at the back stick to nod home from a matter of inches for a real poacher's goal.
Wexford were buzzing after that boost, and Griffin cut into the box and brought a fine save out of Colin McCabe before a cross-shot by Conor English was covered by the netminder.
There was stunned silence from the locals in the 58th minute when a shot from outside the area by English was fumbled by McCabe, and Furlong was on it like a flash to convert again from close range.
Were Wexford on the brink of an almighty comeback? Unfortunately, the negative answer to that question was provided just under six minutes later when the perfect definition of what an impact substitute should mean was provided by a Shelbourne newcomer.
Money talks at this level of football and, while Wexford lost Jack Doherty to Longford because they could offer him a better package, by the same token Shels had the readies to lure Cobh's two brightest young players, Jaze Kabia and Denzil Fernandes, up to the capital city from Cork.
Kabia had already made his debut off the bench in the 2-1 away win to Athlone Town one week before, but what an impact Fernandes made on his debut.
He had scarcely set foot on the pitch when he skinned Ricky Fox for pace down the left flank before making it to the box and delivering a low cross for his mate Kabia to crash to the Wexford net.
After the final whistle, as the first of the fans made their way back onto the streets of the north inner city, those who remained could be clearly heard singing the praises of their new arrival, with the speedy winger making an instant impression.
In truth, Wexford were never going to recover from going 4-2 behind, although they did have one decent chance in the 84th minute when a long-range Seán Roche shot forced Colin McCabe to get down low to his right and turn the ball around the post for a corner.
Number five for Shels arrived after a corner was only partially cleared, with the experienced Ryan Brennan opting not to shoot but instead lofting the ball towards the back post for Luke Byrne.
He, in turn, rolled the ball to Shane Farrell whose floated cross was met by the head of the unmarked Jaze Kabia to tuck it away, well beyond the reach of netminder Jason McGuire.
It was a tough way to end the contest for Wexford, who had scored two goals in one game for only the fifth time from 22 attempts this season. They haven't managed three thus far, and their concession rate has now risen to 46 as they prepare for the final five games of the campaign.
Friday's side showed two changes from the draw in Cobh, with the unavailable Darragh O'Connor replaced at the back by Andrew O'Connor, with Darryl Walsh moving from left-back to centre-half, while Conor English came in for Danny Doyle on the right wing.
Shelbourne, as expected, set a punishing early tempo and took a deserved lead in the eleventh minute. Captain Lorcan Fitzgerald delivered a deep cross for the vastly experienced ex-Dundalk striker Ciarán Kilduff to head it back in the direction it came from and into the far corner of the net.
Shane Farrell fizzed a first-time shot narrowly over as the pressure continued, while Jason McGuire got his fingertips on a teasing Karl Moore cross at the expense of a corner.
That led to number two in the 26th minute, with Fitzgerald's delivery from the right met with a glancing header from Ryan Brennan who wasn't picked up in a dangerous position.
Emmet Nugent came in for Conor Sutton, with Ricky Fox moving to the left wing, and there was some respite when a long-range Shane Griffin free-kick was parried by netminder Colin McCabe before Karl Moore hacked the break to safety.
A foul on McGuire meant that he was able to pick the ball out of his net to take a free-kick, but on the next occasion it was to re-start the game from the centre circle after Shelbourne made it 3-0 in the 34th minute.
Paddy Cahill was booked for a trip on Shane Farrell on the right edge of the Wexford box. Lorcan Fitzgerald rolled it low and short to Ryan Brennan who was deemed by referee Jason Mannix to have been fouled as he attempted to shoot.
It seemed like a harsh enough call but, after Andrew O'Connor was booked, Kilduff had the chance from the penalty spot and he sent McGuire the wrong way as Wexford's misery continued.
They were fortunate not to concede again before the break as Shelbourne eagerly sought a fourth, but Jaze Kabia sent a glancing header wide before Kilduff also nodded another attempt off target as he sought a first-half hat-trick.
Thomas Croke collected the latest in a long line of yellow cards before McGuire batted away a shot from Shane Farrell, while Kabia had nobody to pick out on the end of a cross in added time.
It looked grim for Wexford at the change of ends but, to give credit where it's due, they were very lively on the re-start and showed that they do pose an attacking threat which is spearheaded, in Danny Furlong, by a man gifted for making the most of any defensive insecurities.
Unfortunately, they lacked the quality to keep it going, but hopefully that good spell will boost confidence ahead of the visit of Bray Wanderers to Ferrycarrig Park on Friday at 7.45 p.m.
One week later, the longest trip in League of Ireland football awaits, as the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium will host the opening FAI Cup clash with Premier Division outfit Derry City.
Wexford F.C.: Jason McGuire; Conor Sutton, Daibhid Corish, Darryl Walsh, Andrew O'Connor; Paddy Cahill (capt.), Shane Griffin; Conor English, Thomas Croke, Ricky Fox; Danny Furlong. Subs. - Emmet Nugent for Sutton (29), Seán Roche for English (73), John Peare for Croke (78), also Danny Doyle, Stephen Lawless, Lee Costello, Corey Chambers.
Shelbourne: Colin McCabe; Daniel McKenna, Oscar Brennan, Luke Byrne, Lorcan Fitzgerald (capt.); Jaze Kabia, Ryan Brennan, Alex O'Hanlon, Karl Moore; Shane Farrell; Ciarán Kilduff. Subs. - Denzil Fernandes for O'Hanlon (63), also Dean Delany, James English, Derek Prendergast, Greg Moorhouse, Seán Quinn, Conan Byrne.
Referee: Jason Mannix (Cork).