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Monday 21 May 2018

Wexford in seventh heaven

Soccer SSE Airtricit First Division Series 9: Wexford FC 7 Athlone Town 0

Alan Aherne in Ferrycarrig Park

Liam McCartan in action against George Mukete of Athlone Town
Liam McCartan in action against George Mukete of Athlone Town

What's rare is wonderful, and the small but loyal band of Wexford F.C. die-hards had the unusual pleasure of seeing the net bulging in Ferrycarrig Park on Friday as the first home win in the SSE Airtricity First Division since August 18 last year was annexed with an emphatic 7-0 crushing of a frankly awful Athlone Town side.

The team had only collected one point in five outings since beating Cabinteely on the road on the opening night of the league two months ago, and in truth this victory was to be expected given the midlanders' struggles in recent seasons.

However, the margin was a pleasant surprise, even though Athlone had already conceded seven to Shelbourne, six to Drogheda, five to Longford, and four apiece to Galway and Cobh respectively.

And just to give it some context, the scoring statistics since the formation of Wexford F.C. are quite revealing.

Thirty-nine games in total had been played across league and cup competitions since early 2017 prior to Friday.

And remarkably, the Ferrycarrig Park outfit had never scored three goals or more in one game, only managing two on four occasions, one in 16 outings, and drawing a blank in the other 19.

The first 'double' had come in Damian Locke's debut game as manager, a brace of Andrew O'Connor penalties in a 4-2 Leinster Senior Cup loss away to Shelbourne in mid-February last year.

Two goals followed in three league games last summer - a 2-2 home draw with Friday's rivals, a 2-1 win away to Shels, and that last home victory over Cabinteely (2-0) in August.

I had checked those facts before the visit of Athlone in anticipation of that two-goal barrier being finally breached, although I never expected the figure would rise to seven.

Still, my taking on that task in the first place is indicative of the fact that the Westmeath side are the division's whipping boys once again, and it's sad to see a club with such a proud history in complete disarray.

It seems hard to believe that Athlone once held the mighty AC Milan to a scoreless draw in the UEFA Cup in their old St. Mel's Park base back in 1975. Frankly, they would be better off withdrawing from the league altogether at this stage rather than sullying those famous deeds of the past.

In fairness to Wexford, the old cliché that you can only beat what's in front of you has to be applied.

The opening half was actually reasonably competitive as, given that the division's two bottom sides were in action, it looked like both had targeted this as an eminently winnable encounter.

A third goal in as many games for Aaron Dobbs in the 39th minute completely knocked the stuffing out of the visitors though, and their second-half defending was of the Ragbag Rovers variety as the floodgates opened.

There was a 13-minute hat-trick for Shane Barnes, the first-ever from a Wexford F.C. player, before Dobbs completed his double.

And then Dean George marked his arrival for the last 17 minutes with another brace, claiming - like Barnes - his first goals for the club in the process.

In truth, it could have been double figures by the end, but Wexford were more than happy with the margin of seven to cancel out the 8-1 hammering versus Drogheda United in the goals for and against columns.

Suspended captain Ross Kenny and his unrelated namesake, Chris, were replaced from the previous week's 4-1 loss away to Galway United by Liam McCartan and Thomas Croke respectively, with the latter, who was ill for that trip west, given the armband.

A.J. Lehane pushed into centre-half with McCartan operating at full-back for the first time, having appeared further upfield on the right flank in his two previous starts.

And the diminutive newcomer was one of the big success stories of the night, as large patches of vacant green grass appeared in front of him regularly, and he was only too pleased to race into them and get attacks in motion.

Indeed, it was from one of his deliveries that Wexford opened the scoring six minutes before half-time. He aimed his long ball for Aaron Dobbs, and it wasn't controlled by a defender which meant the Enniscorthy teenager seized upon the chance.

It's amazing what scoring will do for a striker's confidence, because he fairly well billowed the net with a powerful strike to register his third goal in successive outings. After drawing blanks in his first 14 appearances (13 league and one cup) since arriving on loan from Shamrock Rovers last summer, now the dam has finally burst and he can't stop.

Indeed, he had almost given Wexford the lead in the ninth minute when he stretched to get on the end of a lovely low delivery from the left by Seán Hurley, but he got under the ball and it flew over the bar from point-blank range.

Dobbs went to ground under a tackle from Ger Smith in the 18th minute, but referee Jason Mannix wasn't interested in the penalty appeals from the home bench.

And the first Wexford corner from an overall 9-4 count in their favour nearly yielded the opening goal too, as Dean Kelly's inswinger from the left in the 28th minute was headed over by Thomas Croke.

Dobbs then had a free header after Mark Slater delivered a deep cross from the right, but he couldn't keep his effort down and the quest for the first goal continued.

The breakthrough did arrive just over four minutes later, and Shane Barnes then showed a few signs that he was in the mood for scoring leading up to the break.

He was caught offside after a good move featuring Liam McCartan and Aaron Dobbs, and also collected the game's first booking for driving his shot wide after the whistle had sounded.

Midfielder Mikey Byrne then lofted the ball over the top for the former Bray Wanderers under-age player, but his shot was blocked by Craig Shortt.

Athlone didn't threaten Kealan Gaffney's goal in that opening half, although Shane Stokes did have one decent attempt from a free-kick in the 13th minute but it went left and wide.

The Wexford lead was doubled in the 53rd minute after a good long ball by Thomas Croke showcased the other big attribute in Aaron Dobbs' game apart from finishing ability, namely his upper body strength.

The goal was very much on after he shook off a defender in the race for possession, and he squared it from the right for Barnes who calmly tucked away his first for the club since arriving a few months ago.

Less than eight minutes later the I.T. Carlow student made it 3-0, side-footing home from the edge of the box after the ball sat up nicely for him following some poor control from an opponent.

And after substitute Owen McCormack - returning from suspension - headed low and wide from a Dean Kelly corner, Barnes was on hand to complete his 13-minute hat-trick on the next attack.

Aaron Dobbs and Mark Slater linked up before the latter supplied the final pass, and there was a composed finish from the 20-year-old who represented the club on the international stage recently with the Irish Colleges and Universities versus Scotland in Dundalk.

There was a deserved ovation for Barnes when he was replaced in the 73rd minute, and the new arrival wasted no time in leaving an impact.

It was the tenth of Dean George's twelve league appearances to come via the bench, and he was only part of the action for three minutes when he grabbed his first Senior goal for the club.

A long ball from Mark Slater found fellow substitute Ryan Nolan who rolled it back into his path, and in truth his shot should have been saved by netminder Michael Fogarty but it squirmed under his body for a 5-0 lead.

George also had a big role to play in the sixth, as he slotted a great ball into the path of Aaron Dobbs who was taken down in the box by Cormac Raftery.

And the unhappy memories of a missed spot-kick last season were laid to rest by the number nine as he picked himself up and drove the ball to Fogarty's right to double his own tally, make it 6-0, and edge past Barnes as leading league goalscorer at present with four.

That goal arrived in the 68th minute, and it was seven less than 70 seconds later. Dean George had a lot of work to do to bring Liam McCartan's long ball under control, but he carried it out with aplomb, knocking it over his marker before firing home with his left for what was the best goal of the night in terms of technique.

George nearly joined Barnes with a hat-trick, heading over in the 83rd minute and later having one shot blocked and another saved at the second attempt.

While it was an excellent win, it still made no difference to the table as Wexford remain in ninth spot, albeit a full six points above Athlone now and just one below Cobh Ramblers.

And the squad and backroom will encounter reality once again after this bizarre clash in the form of a promotion-chasing U.C.D. in the Belfield Bowl on Friday (8 p.m.).

Wexford lost there last season by 2-0 and 1-0 margins respectively, and the students are arguably the best team to pass the ball and retain possession in this league. The table-toppers also have a deadly striker in Georgie Kelly, so the visitors will be travelling to the capital as underdogs.

Wexford F.C.: Kealan Gaffney; Liam McCartan, A.J. Lehane, Seán Kelly, Seán Hurley; Mark Slater, Mikey Byrne, Thomas Croke (capt.), Dean Kelly; Shane Barnes, Aaron Dobbs. Subs. - Owen McCormack for Lehane (65), Ryan Nolan for D. Kelly (73), Dean George for Barnes (73), also Colum Feeney, Aaron O'Connor, Chris Kenny, Danny Doyle.

Athlone Town: Michael Fogarty; Craig Shortt, Ger Smith, Cormac Raftery, Ian Fletcher; Jake O'Connor, Steven Grogan (capt.); George Mukete, Ryan Gaffey, Shane Stokes; Martin Walshe. Subs. - Ollie Hamzat for Walshe (HT), Aaron Brilly for Smith, inj. (53), Rory McCullough for Gaffey (68), also Aaron Williams, Rob O'Leary, Darren Kavanagh, Nathan Murphy.

Referee: Jason Mannix (Cork).

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