Wicklow share spoils
HARRY MURPHY sent out a largely experimental team against DCU on Sunday at Greystones, his sights set on preparing for the league up ahead rather than the O'Byrne Cup.
So coming away with a lucky draw was not the end of the world by any means; casting a slide rule over as many players as possible in anticipation of the big battles to come was what really counted.
Wicklow will be playing in the higher Division 3 in 2012, having won long-sought promotion last year, and Harry and his backroom boys are looking to have a team capable of holding on to their new position by the February start to the league.
With over 40 players in his squad at the moment, he fielded less than half of seasoned players, examining the rest to see what emerging new talent may be available to him to freshen up his team for the season in front.
And there were a few promising straws in the wind at Greystones on Sunday. James Kelly at fullback looked good, goal-scoring corner-forward Brendan McCrea is an exciting prospect for the future, while St. Patrick's Matty Byrne did himself no harm as he scored five points, four from his accurate free-taking, and he might well have increased his total had he taken his courage in his hands when he had the freedom to take a pot.
Best news of all was the return of Paudge McWalter to the county jersey. It was feared that he might never play again following his knee injury against Carlow in 2010 and even more so when his attempt at a comeback in 2011 did more damage.
But on Sunday the 29-year-old schoolteacher was giving a lesson in how smart football should be played. Football is as much if not more about using your brain as well your hands and feet, and McWalter brought the total package to Sunday's game as he added something special to Wicklow's defence with a near-perfect performance from start to finish.
DCU fielded without 12 of their Sigerson Cup team, the absentees including Donegal's Michael Murphy and last year's eight points match winner Dean Rock, and they looked to be somewhat out of their depth in the first-half as they drifted 1-7 to 0-4 behind by the break.
However, twice in the first ten minutes, Peter Dooney and lively corner-forward Jack McCarron cancelled out lead points for Wicklow by midfielder Anthony McLoughlin and Matty Byrne from a free. DCU beat us by a point at Baltinglass in 2012 and initially we wondered what was in store this time.
Wicklow fielded without last year's league-winning captain Leighton Glynn, sharpshooter Seánie Furlong and Stephen Kelly, all carrying injuries, and the team was upset even further before the off.
Alan Byrne, selected in his usual corner-back position, had to cry off after being hit with a bout of ‘flu, while his replacement, Mick McLoughlin, pulled his hamstring in the warm-up and his place was taken by Bray's Luke Benson.
Mayo man Austin O'Malley also did not take his place at corner-forward again due to ‘flu, making way for St. Patrick's free-taker Matty Byrne, who grabbed the chance with both feet.
After DCU's early flurry, Harry Murphy's men took control of the exchanges for the remainder of the first-half, applying most of the pressure despite playing up hill and apparently against the breeze.
James Stafford and Anthony McLoughlin were giving Wicklow the pull at midfield, with the Blessington man showing impressively while behind them McWalter was hoovering up almost every ball in a tour-de-force display that was reminiscent of the St. Patrick's man at his brilliant best.
Matt Byrne pointed the home side back into the lead for a third time with another converted free. Anthony McLoughlin and Dean Healy, who was picked out with a precision cross-field ball from Stafford, stretched that lead to 0-5 to 0-2 at the end of the first quarter.
Dean Healy was cast in a new role in this match as an attacker instead of a wing-back, and he scored two delightful points as well as repeatedly tracking back to help out in defence. As the saying goes, he bent almost every blade of grass on the pitch in support of the cause.
James Kelly was a commanding presence at fullback, Ciarán Hyland effected some timely interceptions, and Stephen ‘Bruiser’ Byrne was bounding forward.
DCU did respond and in a three-minute spell effective centre-back Michael Quinn and wily corner-forward Donal Smith banged over points to narrow the gap to a point (0-5 to 0-4) after 22 minutes, with Quinn's score a mighty effort from long range.
Still it was Wicklow who were ticking most of the boxes in the opening 35 minutes. As usual, Paddy Dalton worked hard alongside Dean Healy, Matt Byrne was on song, but full-forward Paul Earls had a quiet afternoon by his high standards.
Far too often he was a victim of the short hand- passing game that has become part and parcel of the modern football game. He drifted out to the halfforward line to try to get involved in the action and then when the ball was eventually kicked into the goalmouth there was no one there to take advantage.
On one occasion we counted eleven handpasses between players from the half-forward, midfield and half back-lines before we had a kick of the ball; some players involved a number of times in the move to gain a miserly ten to 15 metres.
Carnew's Brendan McCrea, who was given a start at corner-forward, made his mark on this game before half-time, but his positive performance throughout earmarked him as a bright prospect for the future.
McCrea kicked a fine point on 23 minutes before being fed with a well-placed long ball by Stafford and he drilled to the net for a terrific goal. Matty Byrne added a point from play, but Paddy Dalton saw his well-struck '45 drift narrowly wide on the right, leaving Wicklow comfortably ahead by 1-7 to 0-4 at the break after a good first-half display.
Apparently Anthony McLoughlin aggravated a recurring injury in the first-half and he had to retire for the second-half. He was a huge loss at midfield where he had been doing so well.
DCU took full advantage and they got more and more on top as the second-half progressed, gaining complete control of the middle of the park.
Jack McCarron raised a white flag for the Dublin students inside a minute, but Rory Finn responded with a good point from a free on the right.
Donal Smith landed the second of his three points for the college students, and then the Dubliners stormed back into the game with two goals in the space of three minutes.
Substitute Jack Brady punched the first goal moments after he was introduced to the fray in place of John Quinn, who had been making no impression at full-forward against a rampant James Kelly for Wicklow. Kelly showed speed and flair in his play and was not shy in bounding forward to get involved in attacks.
DCU had drawn level with Wicklow (2-6 to 1-9) after 44 minutes.
Conceding the midfield ground, Wicklow found themselves more and more on the back foot. The students took the lead for the first and only time as Donal Smith split the posts once more.
Matty Byrne converted a free on 48 minutes to tie up the teams for a fourth time.
Even though he may have faded in the secondhalf, James Stafford kicked a vital point on 51 minutes and Dean Healy stretched Wicklow's lead to two three minutes later (1-12 to 2-7).
Ominously, though, it was DCU who were now setting the pace. Wicklow were fortunate that the students were not reaping full benefit from their constant sorties, their wides total starting to mount.
Wicklow man Conor McGraynor, who lined out for the students at centre-forward before switching to the wing, did not have a fruitful afternoon, failing to get on the scoresheet and being called ashore in the fourth quarter.
A second Wicklow player also lined out for the students. William Hender-Phillips manned the goal and he could not be faulted for Brendan McCrea's well-taken goal from a clinical finish.
DCU kept pounding the Wicklow ramparts. Under pressure, Stephen Coen spilled possession in front of his own posts, a free ensued, and Jack Brady foraged a point from the placed ball.
Wicklow's Matty Byrne had a couple of openings in the closing stages and might have struck crucial points had he taken his courage in his hands.
Jack Brady pulled wide of the target but Brian Donnelly made no mistake from a pass from Pete Dooney and the sides were level for a fifth and last time.
Harry Murphy sprung Darragh O'Sullivan from the bench but there was little time left to salvage a victory. Jack McCarron missed with another chance, while Paul Earls was also off beam from a long ball from Stafford.
At times the Wicklow posts enjoyed a charmed life. DCU had the more chances of victory but Wicklow will be thankful to take one point into the second O'Byrne Cup against Carlow tonight (Wednesday) night at Bray.
Scorers for Wicklow: Matty Byrne (0-5, 4 frees), Brendan McCrea (1-1), Anthony McLoughlin (0-2), Dean Healy (0-2), Rory Finn (0-1 free), James Stafford (0-1).
DCU: Jack McCarron (1-2), Donal Smith (0-3), Peter Dooney (0-1), Brian Donnelly (0-1), Michael Quinn (0-1), Jack Brady (1-1).
Wicklow: John Flynn; Ciarán Hyland, James Kelly, Luke Benson; Stephen Byrne, Paudge McWalter, Paul Cunningham; James Stafford, Anthony McLoughlin; Dean Healy, Rory Finn, Paddy Dalton; Matty Byrne, Paul Earls, Brendan McCrea. Subs. - Eoin Keogh for A. McLoughlin, Stephen Coen for L. Benson, Rory Nolan for S. Byrne, Ian Sheerin for P. Cunningham, Darragh O'Sullivan for P. Dalton.
DCU: William Hender-Phillips; Kieran Sheridan, Conor Daly, William Lowry; Eamonn Doherty, Michael Quinn, Michael Concarr; Fionáin O Curraoin, Peter O'Hanlon; Colin Compton, Conor McGraynor, Pete Dooney; Donal Smith, John Quinn, Jack McCarron. Subs. -Jack Brady for J. Quinn, Brian Donnelly for P. Dooney, Cathal Ellis for M. Concarr, Shaun Carey for C. McGraynor, and there was another sub, Paul Flynn.
Referee: John Hickey (Carlow).
Goalscorer Brendan McCrea tries to get away from defender Conor Daly.