Youths bounce back in style
Character shown as Longford lose basement battle
A team's true mettle in sport only becomes evident in the face of adversity. That was certainly the case in a wind-lashed Ferrycarrig Park on Friday when Wexford Youths responded to their heaviest home defeat of the season one week earlier with an absolutely crucial 2-0 victory over bottom side Longford Town in this must-win SSE Airtricity Premier Division clash.
Wexford Youths 2 Longford Town 0
Shane Keegan's troops had shipped criticism, and rightly so, in the wake of that second-half collapse to Sligo Rovers, but to their eternal credit they came up with the best possible answer in the form of a well-deserved victory over a side which hasn't won since day one of the season in March at the same venue.
The outcome stretched the gap between the teams at the basement to eight points, but unfortunately it didn't see Youths leap out of the promotion/relegation spot against the Division 1 runners-up thanks to Bray Wanderers' unexpected 2-1 win over high-flying Dundalk in the Carlisle Grounds two nights earlier.
Youths now have a nine-game run-in (after last night's trip to Shamrock Rovers), and it's going to test the squad to its very limits. And while a very tough road still lies ahead, Friday's result provided confirmation if ever it was needed that these players have the spirit and the stomach for the key battles to come.
Three changes in personnel were made from the side which capitulated against Sligo, with Aidan Keenan enjoying his first start of the season on the left flank while Eric Molloy returned from injury on the right.
Craig McCabe also returned at left-back with Conor O'Keeffe continuing on the right, while Andy Mulligan, Chris Kenny and Shane Dunne dropped down to the bench. A key positional switch saw Lee Grace go from left-back to central midfield, while Paul Murphy was back playing off Danny Furlong up front after the experiment of starting him on the flank was dropped.
Longford for their part were much changed from that 2-0 win at the same venue on March 4, parading their new French signing in towering centre-half Yann Mvita Nkelu, while another recent arrival from Fleetwood Town, Eddie Dsane, featured in their attack. A second newcomer from France, Gaius Makouta, came off the bench during the third quarter, but this game was all about Youths and their bright response to a poor performance.
While their game-clinching second goal didn't arrive until deep into stoppage time, their territorial dominance was reflected in the corner count of 12-1 in their favour. Longford's didn't arrive until the 94th minute, with Youths earning seven in the second-half alone even though they were playing into the stiff wind blowing towards the Ferrycarrig end.
The elements contributed to a lot of 'hoof it high' football as defenders on both sides didn't stand on ceremony and adopted an understandable safety first approach. However, most of the creative play came from the home side and they were well rewarded, meaning Longford are now the only club they have beaten twice in the campaign after a 4-2 success in City Calling Stadium on May 10.
Youths threatened to take the lead as early as the fifth minute when Conor O'Keeffe fired in a lovely cross from the right and Danny Furlong's firm connection forced Ryan Coulter into a very good save.
It was an encouraging sign of intent from the team playing with first use of the wind, and Coulter had to claim a Paul Murphy cross shortly before the first Youths corner from Jonny Bonner was headed away by Philip Gannon.
A Murphy shot was blocked and led to another Bonner setpiece that was cleared, before Graham Doyle was called into action for the first time in the 13th minute with a comfortable save from Mark Hughes.
Gary Delaney got his head on Bonner's third corner, only to be penalised for a push, while a partial block on an Eddie Dsane effort at the other end took the sting out of the ball and led to an easy take for Graham Doyle.
Stephen Last directed a header into the arms of goalkeeper Ryan Coulter from a Bonner free-kick in the 21st minute, before Yann Mvita Nkelu saw yellow for a rash challenge on Aidan Keenan which prevented a breakaway. Paul Murphy's free-kick was deflected before the offside flag was raised, with Youths still seeking a goal as the game moved into the second quarter.
And, given the strength of that wind, it was felt that a goal before the break was vital in the quest for victory. Another Bonner free-kick was dealt with before Paul Murphy's corner from the left saw Gary Delaney just fail to get a decent connection on the back post.
Graham Doyle fisted a long free-kick from Yann Mvita Nkelu clear before the breakthrough arrived in spectacular fashion in the 35th minute.
Aidan Keenan was fouled on the right edge of the box, and it was the perfect position for a left-footer like Jonny Bonner. However, at first it seemed like the setpiece hadn't panned out as planned, as Danny Furlong stepped over the ball and darted into the box before throwing his head to the heavens when it wasn't played into him quickly.
Bonner knew exactly what he was doing though, picking the perfect time for his first league goal of the season as he directed a beautiful strike into the far top corner of Ryan Coulter's net.
It was a fully-deserved goal on the general trend of play, but Youths couldn't afford to relax and Aidan Keenan had to be alert to intercept an attempted pass to Don Cowan in his own box before being fouled.
Longford Town captain Conor Powell blocked an Eric Molloy shot, while Yann Mvita Nkelu headed clear from a Keenan cross. Youths threatened again in the 43rd minute when a Danny Furlong shot was deflected over from a scramble after a Craig McCabe throw-in.
Paul Murphy's corner located the head of centre-half Stephen Last who thumped it narrowly wide, although Longford also created a decent chance in stoppage time when Eddie Dsane got a firm strike on a David O'Sullivan cross at the near post.
Andy Mulligan came on at the break for Eric Molloy who is still not fully back to match fitness and seemed to pick up a knock just before the interval. Longford brought in Kevin O'Connor for Mark Hughes and moved Eddie Dsane to the left flank in a straight swap with Kaleem Simon who now partnered O'Sullivan up front.
Aidan Keenan collected an early booking but the free-kick which arose was headed clear by Stephen Last. Youths resumed on a positive note though as good play between Paul Murphy, Mulligan and Danny Furlong forced a corner, with Murphy unable to get a strong header on Jonny Bonner's delivery after it was missed at the near post by Longford Town's Philip Gannon.
Don Cowan entered the referee's notebook for a challenge on Craig McCabe before Mulligan had a shot saved after good work by Keenan, although the offside flag was raised at any rate.
Youths forced another two corners in quick succession, with Paul Murphy working very hard up front, with a Stephen Last header tipped over in the first instance before Mulligan got a touch on the near post but the ball was cleared.
The midlanders did create a chance in the 63rd minute when substitute Kevin O'Connor picked out Eddie Dsane, but he shot high and over as Graham Doyle raced out.
Gary Delaney cleared a dangerous cross from David O'Sullivan before O'Connor's delivery was too long for Kaleem Simon to connect with in the box.
It was a brief spell of Longford dominance, but it quickly ended as a Conor O'Keeffe throw-in found Jonny Bonner who tested Ryan Coulter to the full with a diving save at his near post at the expense of a corner.
Paul Murphy was caught by the offside trap after a super through ball from Aidan Keenan, and then picked up a yellow card, but he continued to lead the charge and earned a free-kick on the right in the 75th minute.
Jonny Bonner's delivery was cleared by Yann Mvita Nkelu, while Andy Mulligan cut in from the wing and shot over before a Murphy corner was nearly touched in by Gary Delaney after a fumble by the netminder.
Two more Youths corners came to nothing before Stephen Last blocked and cleared a Kaleem Simon shot. Eddie Dsane was booked for a foul on Bonner before Youths nearly doubled the lead in the 87th minute.
Andy Mulligan did very well to beat Conor Powell before crossing for Danny Furlong whose header was narrowly wide. It was Furlong's last act before being replaced by Aidan Friel, while Chris Kenny had come on a few minutes earlier for Aidan Keenan as preserving the lead was clearly the top priority.
However, there was time for a dramatic finish and a breakaway goal from the home side. Jonny Bonner played a through ball that Yann Mvita Nkelu couldn't control, and that was enough for Paul Murphy to take full advantage.
He bore down one-on-one on Ryan Coulter who took him out of it as he jinked to the left, with the inevitable red card following. Murphy then had to deal with Longford gamesmanship before the penalty, with the visitors taking their time in telling Yann Mvita Nkelu to go in goal, before the big man had to be helped to put on the goalkeeper's gloves by his captain, Conor Powell.
All the while Murphy was standing with his hands on his hips waiting patiently, but he remained ice-cool and calmly tucked the spot-kick into the bottom left corner to take the mantle of top league goalscorer for the season thus far with five in total. It was the perfect ending to an excellent night for Youths.
Sligo Rovers will return to Ferrycarrig Park for the third round of the FAI Cup this Friday (8 p.m.), and it has also been confirmed that the Leinster Senior Cup final against Bohemians will be played in Dalymount Park on Monday, August 29, at 7.30 p.m., just four nights before the sides meet at the same venue in the Premier Division.
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle (capt.); Conor O'Keeffe, Gary Delaney, Stephen Last, Craig McCabe; Eric Molloy, Lee Grace, Jonny Bonner, Aidan Keenan; Paul Murphy, Danny Furlong. Subs. - Andy Mulligan for Molloy (HT), Chris Kenny for Keenan (85), Aidan Friel for Furlong (89), also Gavin Dowling, Peter Higgins, Shane Dunne, Shane Dempsey.
Longford Town: Ryan Coulter; Jamie Mulhall, Yann Mvita Nkelu, Noel Haverty, Conor Powell (capt.); Don Cowan, Mark Hughes, Philip Gannon, Kaleem Simon; Eddie Dsane, David O'Sullivan. Subs. - Kevin O'Connor for Hughes (HT), Gaius Makouta for Cowan (63), Kealon Dillon for Gannon (87), also Paul Skinner, Pat Flynn, Rhys Gorman, Karl Chambers.
Referee: Ben Connolly (Dublin).