Shamrock Rovers recorded a comfortable 3-1 victory over Wexford Youths on a sunny Monday evening at Tallaght Stadium. The victory puts Stephen Bradley's young Rovers within four points of second place and perhaps even gives them an outside shot of returning to the title race.
The game started fairly evenly as both teams began to test each other. Rovers lined up with a 3-5-2 formation, Simon Madden and Trevor Clarke flanking the centre-half trio of David Webster, Robert Cornwall and David O'Connor. Bradley elected to make two changes to his team from the 3-2 loss at Sligo on Friday with Gary McCabe and Dean Clarke coming in for Stephen McPhail and Gary Shaw.
Wexford went with a traditional 4-4-2 formation, and manager Shane Keegan also made two changes from the 2-0 victory over Longford Town, with Andy Mulligan coming in for the injured Eric Molloy and Shane Dunne for Aiden Keenan. Paul Murphy partnered Danny Furlong up front and it was the former who earned a penalty in the 19th minute for the latter to step up and score to put Youths into an unexpected lead.
Although Rovers had started the game quite well, the goal seemed to spur them into greater urgency. Gary McCabe kept working the ball wide and looking to use the width of the pitch, while Brandon Miele looked more direct in working the ball forward. Sean Boyd was causing Gary Delaney a lot of trouble in the box and was doing his best to link the play up. It was he who won a free kick inside the D from a Delaney foul that led to the equaliser.
Gary McCabe stepped up to the dead ball opportunity, and with the wall almost on the six-yard line, McCabe managed to perfectly curl the ball over the wall and into the top right corner. A great strike, which Doyle did all he could do to stop. The tide was turning.
Since the goal, Wexford had already begun to become far too defensive. Paul Murphy was dropping back into midfield as soon as Wexford lost the ball, and all ten outfield players were often getting behind the ball when possession was lost. The equaliser seemed to shake the Wexford belief and it was only a few minutes later before they were behind.
Since Wexford were offering more space to Rovers to come forward, Webster came forward from defence with the ball. He played it to Miele who quickly turned and passed the ball into the box for Sean Boyd who was in a bit of space. As Miele continued his run, Boyd laid it off to him and Miele hit it first time into the top left corner. A wonderful move and outstanding strike. Rovers had turned the game around inside four minutes, and went into the break deservedly in the lead.
The second half was only a few minutes old before the momentum was clearly in Rovers favour. Their gameplan did not change and Wexford Youths were resorting to long hopeful balls up towards Murphy, Furlong and Mulligan. Desperate defending led to yellow cards for Stephen Last and Mulligan within the first fifteen minutes of the second half.
A ball forward was knocked down by Boyd to Miele. Miele controlled the ball, delayed the pass as he saw Boyd make a run into the box and expertly laid it into his path. Boyd used his strength to beat his defender and get a shot away at goal, only for it to cannon off the post.
A minute later, Stephen Last played an awful back pass straight into the path of Dean Clarke. He ran towards goal and one on one with Doyle a heavy touch let him down and Doyle was able to get down low to gather the ball. The warning signs were clear. The Wexford defence was struggling to clear its lines and Rovers were in complete control.
The clinching goal came midway through the second half. Another poor clearance resulted in Rovers attacking again. Trevor Clarke put in a wonderful cross from the left and Boyd rose high to elegantly guide the ball into the bottom left corner of the net, as Doyle was rooted to the spot. A deserved goal for the young striker.
Boyd would have another chance to score, but he couldn't connect with another great Trevor Clarke cross. This came either side of a five minute period where Delaney saw two yellow cards and thus was sent off. The second booking came after a dangerous tackle on the substitute James Doona just outside the box. Delaney knew he was off and began walking as captain Doyle remonstrated with the ref and earned a yellow card himself for his efforts. Gary McCabe reconstructed a carbon copy of his goal scored from the free kick in the first half, but this time the crossbar denied him.
Shane Keegan made three substitutions after the sending off, perhaps to rest the legs of his players, knowing the game was done. However, perhaps it was already too late to try and change the game. The game began to slow down in the final 10 minutes as Rovers kept control of the play, came close to adding a fourth, but ultimately had already won it with three.
Both teams now turn their attention to the FAI Cup third round this Friday. Shamrock Rovers make a trip to the midlands as they face Athlone Town, while Wexford Youths have the opportunity to avenge the heavy 5-0 home loss they suffered against Sligo Rovers a few weeks ago, by hosting Sligo once again. Youths will have to put this result behind them quickly, while Rovers can build some momentum after putting to bed two straight defeats.
Shamrock Rovers: Craig Hyland; Simon Madden, Robert Cornwall, David O'Connor, David Webster, Trevor Clarke; Gary McCabe, Pat Cregg, Brandon Miele (James Doona 77); Sean Boyd (Aaron Dobbs 77), Dean Clarke (Gary Shaw 70).
Subs Not Used: Barry Murphy, Killian Brennan, Gavin Brennan, Stephen McPhail.
Yellow Cards: Sean Boyd (37).
Wexford Youths: Graham Doyle; Conor O'Keefe, Craig McCabe, Gary Delaney, Lee Grace,, Stephen Last; Andy Mulligan, John Bonner (Shane Dempsey 80), Shane Dunne (Chris Kenny 80); Danny Furlong (Peter Higgins 81), Paul Murphy.
Subs Not Used: Danny Ledwith, Conor Whittle, Andrew O'Connor, Gavin Dowling.
Yellow Cards: Stephen Last (55), Andy Mulligan (58), Gary Delaney (73, 78), Graham Doyle (78).
Sent off: Gary Delaney (78).
Referee: Adriano Reale.
Attendance: 1,300 (estimate).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Brandon Miele (Shamrock Rovers).