Sunday 19 November 2017

Wexford are tickled pink by promotion

Wexford Youths 3 Athlone 0

Wexford Youths captain Graham Doyle celebrates with his team-mates after winning
promotion to the League of Ireland, Premier Division
Wexford Youths captain Graham Doyle celebrates with his team-mates after winning promotion to the League of Ireland, Premier Division

The biggest night in the short history of Wexford Youths stuck to the script. Premier Division clubs will have a new journey to plan for 2016.

They will visit Ferrycarrig Park to encounter a team dressed in pink that are led by the league's youngest manager, 33-year-old Shane Keegan.

Barring a dramatic change of circumstances, they will also have to cope with Danny Furlong who returned from a brief stint at Cork City to send his local side to the promised land by scoring a 28th goal of the season to set a new First Division scoring record.

That header just after the hour mark settled the nerves and late strikes from Eric Molloy and Aidan Keenan allowed a jubilant crowd to relax and really enjoy a win that seals the title and promotion.

It is a giant step for an operation that joined the First Division in 2007 with modest ambitions and a clear philosophy. They would be an amateur club that paid their players expenses and nothing more.

Chairman and guiding force Mick Wallace has endured his fair share of ups and downs in the intervening period. The developer's millions built a venue that is now in receivership as the TD had used it for security against business loans that came into play during the economic crash.

As it stands, an arrangement to hand over the ownership to the FAI and the Wexford League is being thrashed out. There is optimism it can work. It has to.

Since Wexford arrived on the scene, regional clubs Kilkenny City, Kildare County and Monaghan United have gone to the wall. The latter departed in dramatic circumstances midway through a Premier Division season. For the other pair, the drudgery of life in Ireland's graveyard division was too much to bear.

Domestic football in Ireland has always been stuck in a dilemma. To capture the national imagination, it requires expansion into fresh territory.

But the problem newcomers face is that they have to start off in the second tier, a division where the standard is moderate and travelling support is small. Essentially, they are exposed to the unattractive face of League of Ireland football.

Interest levels in Wexford perked when they gained membership and made a League Cup final a year later. Since then, however, they have ploughed away in obscurity - finishing no higher than fourth until this year.

The facilities are excellent yet they are located a 15 minute drive from Wexford Town, in a remote location where a bit of local knowledge is required before the signposts are found. It is a venue for the committed as opposed to the casual fan, and turn-outs in the low hundreds are the norm.

But the curious came out last night to swell the gate to 1,321 and join the boisterous hardcore who enlivened this nervous game by keeping the volume levels up throughout.

The road ahead will be difficult. Now, they have a winter to figure out how they can compete with the big boys and fully grab the attention of the county. In certain areas, they have a way to travel. In others, they are ahead of established forces.

Wexford Youths have already been represented in Europe this season by their women's side, the current league champions, and they have a strong under-age section that predates the Airtricity League years.

Their veteran goalkeeper Graham Doyle, who at 37 is four years older than Keegan, hails from Kilkenny and used the match programme to respond to pundits who feel they are doomed to a similar fate as the Cats.

"There seems to be this idea that Kilkenny failed because there wasn't a need or desire for senior football," he wrote. "It failed because the club was badly run and didn't interact with local junior clubs or local fans. Wexford has a massive soccer community.

"All clubs have to start somewhere. No club starts with 5,000 or 6,000 fans coming through the gate every week."

This achievement is a sweet reward for Keegan, Wallace, and the staff, players and volunteers that have made it possible. But their work has only just begun.

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