Tuesday 12 December 2017

Youths recover to complete double over UCD

Alan Aherne

Centre-half Lee Grace was commanding in the air once again
Centre-half Lee Grace was commanding in the air once again
Ryan Delaney was his usual composed self at left-back in Friday's win
Shane Dunne, who provided the assist for Connor Whittle's equalising goal

Wexford Youths are just one win away from clinching the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland First Division title for the first time ever and gaining automatic promotion to the top flight after completing a superb week with a second successive victory over fellow promotion hopefuls UCD at the Belfield Bowl on Friday.

Wexford Youths 2 UCD 1

The outcome from seven days earlier in Ferrycarrig Park was repeated with considerable style, gusto and character as the visitors had to recover from the concession of an early goal against a side with a lot to play for and boasting recent European experience.

However, the response was magnificent as the equaliser arrived 13 minutes later, and it was no surprise to onlookers when the decisive winner was struck with venom by the phenomenal Danny Furlong midway through the second-half.

This sweet victory means that the title will be claimed two games ahead of schedule if Wexford Youths can continue their run of wins when they entertain Athlone Town on Friday at 8 p.m. There will be no shortage of bite in the contest after their last meeting in the midlands when the Westmeath side punished a rare Youths off day with a 3-1 win, in a game remembered for the high tackle on central defender Stephen Last which ended his season.

Shane Keegan's men have overcome such adversity though as the squad has ample strength in depth, and it was put to the test again on Friday as two key men were unavailable. Winger Andy Mulligan was ruled out with a hamstring injury while Aidan Keenan was serving another suspension after collecting a self-inflicted second yellow card late in the corresponding encounter with the students on the previous Friday.

UCD were without two notable figures also in netminder Niall Corbet and influential captain Robbie Benson, although they did welcome back striker Ryan Swan, the division's second-highest scorer albeit he is a long, long way behind Danny Furlong.

The Youths' attacking ace played a lone role up front in the absence of Keenan, with Chris Kenny and Eric Molloy coming into the starting eleven at central midfield and on the right wing respectively after making appearances off the bench seven days earlier.

Youths forced an early corner after replacement UCD 'keeper Conor Mackey fluffed his lines and Conor Whittle managed to get a tame shot away, but the home side averted the danger.

And their fans were celebrating as early as the eighth minute when Dylan Watts pumped in a shot from all of 30 metres which took a deflection, and this proved enough to beat Graham Doyle as he dived to his right.

This was the ultimate test of Youths' mettle, having to come from behind away from home against the side many close observers felt were best equipped to land the title at the start of the season.

They responded admirably though, and indeed almost grabbed an equaliser less than two minutes later after Danny Furlong cleverly won a free kick for a handball just outside the area. His dead ball attempt cleared the wall, and netminder Mackey had to get down low to his right to parry it away for another fruitless corner.

A third corner was cleared before Mackey intercepted an attempted through ball by Furlong to Conor Whittle. Eric Molloy fired over the bar in the 17th minute while Shane Dunne missed the target moments later, but Youths had settled down and their approach work was encouraging.

And the hard graft was well rewarded in the 21st minute when Dunne passed to 'Speedy' Whittle on the edge of the box. He had two defenders to contend with but worked his way into a scoring position before slotting a low shot to Mackey's left and into the corner of the net.

The goal was no more than the Youths deserved, but they were quickly back in defensive mode as the outstanding Gary Delaney - a rock in the heart of the defence all night - made a timely challenge on Mick Leahy at the edge of the penalty area.

Leahy headed over from a Gary O'Neill corner before Gary Delaney came to the rescue twice again in quick succession, keeping Ryan Swan at bay with a timely tackle which led to another corner and then heading clear from a Daire O Conchubhair cross.

He continued to excel with another couple of vital interceptions before O Conchubhair was well wide from a speculative shot in the 40th minute. Graham Doyle advanced smartly to deal with a through ball from the same player, while Shane Dunne wasn't too far away from scoring for the second game running in the 43rd minute.

The last action of the half saw Eric Molloy almost getting on the end of a Conor Whittle free kick into the box before another setpiece from Danny Furlong was cleared.

The tie resumed with Conor Whittle's free kick saved by Conor Mackey before Gary Delaney cleared another testing cross in the 53rd minute. Chris 'Hopper' Kenny shot wide from distance before Graham Doyle fisted clear from Jamie Doyle's knock-on header.

There was a brief moment of panic when the excellent Peter Higgins diverted a header backwards towards his own goal, but Ryan Swan sent a weak effort wide 40 seconds later.

Conor Whittle was nowhere near the target with a speculative shot in the 67th minute, although the winner arrived just moments later.

The combative Higgins did all of the donkey work as he thundered down the middle in typical fashion before teeing up Danny Furlong, and the club's and division's record goalscorer finished in great style as he thumped his shot to the roof of Conor Mackey's net.

It was all about maintaining composure from that point on, and Youths passed that test with flying colours. There was just one scare when Gary O'Neill struck the crossbar from a free kick seven minutes from the end with Graham Doyle well beaten, but otherwise Youths more than held their own.

Prior to that Doyle had made a couple of saves to deny Ryan Swan while afterwards Mark Langtry shot wide, but Youths finished strongly as a couple of half chances were created but came to nothing.

When the last segment of league fixtures were perused, the final game of the season away to Finn Harps on October 17 was circled and most fans felt that this would be a crunch tie with everything on the line.

However, the Youths have played so well since that they are two games ahead of that schedule and can make the giant leap to the Premier Division against Athlone this Friday.

It's the biggest night in the club's history, so hopefully that will be reflected in a bumper attendance at their family-friendly ground.

Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle (capt.), Craig McCabe, Ryan Delaney, Gary Delaney, Lee Grace, Peter Higgins, Conor Whittle, Chris Kenny, Danny Furlong, Shane Dunne, Eric Molloy. Subs. - Craig Wall for Higgins (89), Willie Tyrrell for Whittle (90), John Peare for Dunne (90+2), also Jimmy Dermody, Dean Broaders, Conor English, Gavin Dowling.

UCD: Conor Mackey, Michael Leahy, Maxi Kougoun, Tomás Boyle, Mark Langtry, Jack Watson, Gary O'Neill (capt.), Jamie Doyle, Dylan Watts, Daire O Conchubhair, Ryan Swan. Subs. - Ryan McLaughlin for Boyle (HT), Conor Cannon for Watson (73), also Seán Coyne, Dan Tobin, Karl Skinner, Eoin Kirwan, Jason McClelland.

Referee: Ben Connolly.

Wexford People

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