Wexford crowned champs for third time
Wexford Youths 2 Peamount United 0
A season that started as a complete mess, ended with a third Continental Tyres Women's National League crown for Wexford Youths in Ferrycarrig Park on Saturday.
Who would ever doubt this squad of players? Time and again they have proven how big their heart is. They've battled through roadblocks, self-imposed and otherwise, and come out the other side as winners.
It takes a special mentality to keep going, it's something that cannot be coached or trained. No matter how disjointed the football got, they kept fighting all the way, in every single game. Nothing was a lost cause, nothing was impossible.
That mentality comes directly from the captain, as without Kylie Murphy leading this side who knows where they would be. Invariably, throughout the season, she has known the correct time to scold, to encourage, to fly into a tackle.
Leaders usually lead by example and Murphy is the epitome of just that. She's the reluctant heroine. Others will stick their heads above the parapet and get the lion's share of the praise but unassumingly this is her team.
There was a huge moment in this game that set the tone. With just nine minutes on the clock Murphy went hurtling into a sliding challenge. With feet flying the yellow card was inevitable, but it marked the Peamount card. This is Ferrycarrig Park.
The visitors looked like a team of youngsters after that. They didn't look like league leaders, they struggled to impose their will, they struggled to get Amber Barrett into the game, and they got smothered by Wexford, by the occasion.
Peamount will come back stronger for this. While young players need time to develop their skills, they also need time to learn how to win big games. They have been fantastic this season and, while their squad isn't as packed with quality as Wexford's, they made it one hell of a fight.
They have played to their strengths while trying to hone their skill set and, while it's of little consolation now, it will stand to them in the long run. They just need to take that next step, and it will come if they can keep their squad together.
In fairness to Wexford boss Laura Heffernan, she seems to have learnt her lessons from early season aberrations. Personal aspirations dictate that it was a job she always wanted, that's natural, but the board threw her under the bus by appointing her.
There were too many pre-conceived ideas to have a clear view of what was needed. Playing Jess Gleeson in midfield for eight games almost derailed the whole season from the start.
It was something Wexford clearly worked on all pre-season, and hung with it through two cup exits, all the while failing to keep the ball and heaping unbelievable pressure on their defence. Heffernan saw the light just in time to prevent a league meltdown.
Given the overall weakening of the league and the strengthening of the Wexford squad, in truth, this title race should never have gone to the final weekend. It would have been an absolutely disastrous season had they lost it.
Heffernan does deserve huge credit for two decisions in particular. Going with and eventually sticking with Sophie Lenehan in goal was one, as there's only upside with the teenager and long-term she has the chance to be a 'keeper of international quality.
The second and maybe her biggest call of the season was starting with Rianna Jarrett in the last two games. The oft-injured Wexford striker has clearly regained full fitness in the last couple of months and it shows.
She is a handful from start to finish. The skill Jarrett possesses that only the top, top players do is the ability to make a nothing ball into something special. Take the second Youths goal in this game.
How many times this season has Linda Douglas got possession on the right and thumped a diagonal ball into the penalty area from a position that would make coaches cringe? She did it again in the 66th minute and, lo and behold, Jarrett beat Naoisha McAloon and scored.
Who knows how good Jarrett could actually get with an injury-free run? She has all the attributes to be the best striker in the league and a regular on the international stage, and with the Ireland manager in attendance her performance couldn't have gone unnoticed.
It was Murphy and Emma Hansberry who combined well twice in the opening three minutes of this game. The Sligo native flashed wide with her first chance and stung the hands of McAloon with her second from the edge of the area.
Aoibhín Webb almost slipped Jarrett through a short time later as Wexford continued to look lively. Little did anyone in the big attendance know that the first Amber Barrett sighting would turn out to be her best chance.
She took possession on the inside left, beat Orlaith Conlon for pace around the outside but stubbed her left foot shot wide of goal. Wexford did still have a couple of nervy moments to survive in their own box.
The first came when Douglas kicked the ball up onto her own hand, never a penalty but always a heart in mouth moment. They might have been a little luckier to escape when there appeared to be contact on Heather Payne when she went down in the area in the 20th minute.
Edel Kennedy curled an effort wide of the target in the 25th minute before Lauryn O'Callaghan escaped on the right and stung Lenehan's hands with a sharp strike. Murphy slipped a pass to Orla Casey and she got the ball out of her feet superbly before flashing a shot wide as the game moved towards the interval.
There looked little on when Rianna Jarrett fed wide to Hansberry in first-half added-time, but her right boot should never be doubted. She curled in an effort that had McAloon beaten the minute it left her foot. It airmailed the Peamount 'keeper and nestled in the net.
Jarrett tested McAloon from Becky Cassin's cross shortly after the resumption but Peamount soon upped the tempo and had a decent spell. Payne's angle was tightening when she flashed over from Barrett's feed in the 57th minute.
When the same winger was fouled, Megan Lynch curled in a devilish free-kick that evaded a rush at the back post and drifted harmlessly wide. That was as close as they would come to finding an equaliser.
Kennedy saw a shot deflected wide and Jarrett burst through but was denied by McAloon as the tide began to turn. The Wexford attacker headed in from Douglas' punt into the box in the 66th minute and it proved to be her final piece of action of the game.
If evidence was needed of the strength of the Wexford squad, on came international striker Claire O'Riordan and she threw herself about for the final 23 minutes plus added time.
Barrett almost stole in on Niamh Farrelly's through-ball in the 68th minute but Lenehan came out to clear the danger. At the other end Kennedy's shot was saved by McAloon after she was picked out by another substitute, the league player of the month for July, Aisling Frawley.
The Peamount fight slowly seeped away as the game moved into the final ten minutes. The longer it went on, the less they looked like finding a way back into the game, and the only excitement of the last few minutes came when O'Riordan bulldozed Chloe Moloney to the ground off the ball.
Wexford played out the five minutes of added-time predominantly in the Peamount half of the field and, unsurprisingly, wild celebrations greeted the final whistle. The victory puts Wexford Youths at the top of the Continental Tyres WNL roll of honour with three titles.
Wexford Youths: Sophie Lenehan; Linda Douglas, Jess Gleeson, Orlaith Conlon, Lauren Dwyer; Edel Kennedy, Kylie Murphy (capt.); Orla Casey, Aoibhín Webb, Emma Hansberry; Rianna Jarrett. Subs. - Becky Cassin for Gleeson, inj. (25), Aisling Frawley for Casey (53), Claire O'Riordan for Jarrett (67), also Katrina Parrock, Jenny O'Keeffe, Sadbh McCarthy, Nicola Sinnott.
Peamount: Naoisha McAloon; Lauryn O'Callaghan, Niamh Barnes, Chloe Moloney, Lauren Kealy; Lucy McCartan, Niamh Farrelly; Megan Lynch, Eleanor Ryan-Doyle, Heather Payne; Amber Barrett (capt.). Subs. - Sarah McKevitt for Lynch (68), Louise Masterson for Kealy (81), Claire Kinsella for O'Callaghan (88), also Monica McGuirk, Jade Reddy, Emma Byrne, Doireann Fahey.
Referee: Michelle O'Neill (Wexford).