For the majority of League of Ireland followers eight consecutive seasons in the second tier of Irish football would be considered an unimaginable nightmare.
However, when you look at Wexford Youths, who were only founded in 2007, it makes their story this season all the more incredible.
The early signs were promising for the Leinster based club with their first ever league game ending in a 2-2 draw away to Monaghan United, while the Youths first game at Ferrycarrig Park resulted in a 1-0 triumph over Cobh Ramblers.
Despite finishing second bottom in their first season of League of Ireland football, the foundations for a long term stay in the national league had been well and truly planted. Recalling memories of that first ever league campaign, die-hard Youths fan Gary Doyle looks back on it with pride
Well to be honest, my memories of Wexford Youths first ever season are related to hearing about them on the Radio and bits and bobs in the media. I am a County Wicklow native, and only moved to Wexford in 2007, coincidentally, the year Youths LOI team was founded.
I remember being incredibly impressed by what I was hearing about the Youths, and the way in which Mick Wallace was building an infrastructure of grass roots football, from underage, right the way up to League of Ireland.
I recall saying at the time, ”I must go down and check out this Wexford Youths team”, but never got round to it for the 1st couple of seasons.’
For many, supporting a side not even as old as themselves seems strange and it’s often a stick used to bash followers of clubs, such as Gary, what it was that initially drew him to this newly formed club
I went to watch Bray Wanderers while I lived in Wicklow…..Not very often mind you. Three or four times a season I used to go to the Carlisle Grounds to see Bray play. The thing with Bray was, I never felt connected to them, or that I was a real ‘fan’.
I was just going there, to watch football. Being from Wicklow Town, Bray felt more like a South Co. Dublin club to me, and I just never forged an affinity or loyalty towards Bray as a kid.
Year-on-year positional improvement under the management of Mick Wallace, as well as a famous League Cup final appearance, seemed to suggest the Wexford Youths project was well and truly on the rise.
However, as is often the case with Irish clubs the initial crowds started to dwindle, results started to become stale, and only a couple of seasons ago rumours began circulating that the demise of this infant football club may soon be on the horizon.
A local superstar by the name of Kevin Doyle was allegedly on hand with a donation of goodwill to keep the show on the road at Ferrycarrig and that is an (alleged) gesture that will never be forgotten by the loyal support base of Wexford, as Gary explains –
That’s a funny one, because nobody is 100% sure (well, apart from Mick Wallace) exactly what Kevin Doyle has done for Wexford Youths over the years.
I remember one time in particular, we played Longford Town away and there was a big write up that morning in the Irish Mirror about how Kevin Doyle had donated €100,000 or something to Wexford Youths (reports that were later denied by the club I might add).
But to be honest, I think everyone knows that Mick Wallace and Kevin Doyle are great pals, and if there is anything Kevin can do to help us out every now and again, like he does on a yearly basis with the ‘Wexford Youths golf Classic’, then that’s perfect.
Credit must also go to the supporters of the Youths in recent seasons as well, using the power of social media campaigns such as #DoubleTheAttendance have seen the average crowds rise at Ferrycarrig Park even before the success of this season became apparent.
Despite this, it’s still proved a struggle to encourage new faces to appear at the home of the Wexford Youths. as Gary explains –
It’s a constant struggle, as I’m sure yourself and all LOI supporters are aware. Getting people through the door to come to the games is hard bloody work. I recall when I first started going, the figures were pitiful. One day during a particularly boring game with Mervue United, I was able to physically count the number of people at the game, which was 96.
It was after that game that we really started to ramp up the social media campaigns, and it has had success. Recently, in a crunch game V Finn Harps we had about 750 at Ferrycarrig Park.
Following the departure of Mick Wallace from the technical area to the world of politics, Noel O’Connor took the reigns at the South East club, however, it is the arrival of former FC Carlow boss Shane Keegan that will be looked back on in years to come as the real turning point for this football club.
For many years in Irish football circles, FC Carlow had been earmarked as a potential new addition to the League of Ireland family and took part in the now defunct ‘A’ championship.
It was at that level and through some impressive FAI Cup performances against league position that made Keegan his name and his arrival at the Wexford Youths in 2012 produced an instant impact.
A thumping 6-0 derby day win over Waterford United was a sign of things to come for both clubs as the Youths went on to record their highest ever league finish in fourth position, while Waterford have continued on that downward spiral in recent years (despite reaching the play-off final that season) to currently find themselves rooting around in the bottom two of the First Division.
Still sung about to this very day, Gary recalls his immediate reaction to that Derby day triumph and his early analysis of Shane Keegan –
The 6-0 was just pure euphoria. I write a lot of the songs and chants for the Youths fans to sing in the stand and the songs that are always belted out the loudest are the ones referencing the 6-0 destruction of Waterford.
Waterford, had always been the best side in the South East, and we were the incredibly poor cousin. So to rattle them by that score line, with a new manager and a new squad was a huge shock.
Did I foresee the success that Shane Keegan has had? Yes and no. I trusted him. I recall an interview he did with a South East Radio station in January 2012, where he spoke like a Premier League manager, English Premier League at that.
He spoke of a five year plan, a building process, and I bought it. You could tell Keegan had something, even back then, and we have been constantly improving ever since
Despite the success of 2012 and the signs of a real promotion push starting to come together for the first time in Youths history, disaster struck for Keegan’s men when all-time leading scorer Danny Furlong and experienced midfielder ”Patsi” Malone left the club for Premier Division outfits.
As a result the 2013 season was a step back in the progression of the Youths as the club finished fifth, a massive 16 points off the play-off places.
Many thought Wexford had thrown away their chance of becoming a competitive First Division side by losing their top players and failing to replace them. However, Gary always believed the best was yet to come from Keegan’s men despite these setbacks –
It was no surprise when Danny left. Cork had been knocking down Danny’s door long before they finally got their claws on him. And not one Youths fan begrudged Danny Furlong his move to Cork. So, I guess yes, there was a slight worry ahead of the 2013 season.
You could still see a progression. Watching Kegan’s teams, week in week out, home and away as I have done for the past 4 years, it never crossed my mind that things were going in the wrong direction.’
Fast forward a few months and it was once again all change in Wexford as an experienced squad was put together but most importantly Danny Furlong was back.
Just as Keegan’s arrival in 2012 will be looked back upon as a major change in the fortunes of this football club, the recapture of ‘goal machine’ Furlong will also be highlighted as one of the cornerstones of Youths success.
Unsurprisingly Furlong settled back into the Youths team like a duck to water as he bagged 16 league goals to fire his side to a joint best fourth place finish, only three points away from the newly formed Galway United who took the final play-off place and went on to secure promotion at their first attempt.
Fears that Furlong among others may once again be stolen away by the top sides in the country haunted the clubs supporters throughout the off-season but thankfully that failed to materialise.
Skip forward to the present day and Shane Keegan now finds himself dealing with the reality that three points on Friday night, at home to 2013 champions Athlone Town, will secure Premier Division football for the first time ever in Wexford. Once again Furlong has lead the way with an astonishing 25 goals.
This is a day the life long supporters of Wexford, if you can describe them as that considering all of them are much older than the club itself, even in their wildest dreams thought they would never see. The hashtag #ThisIsHappening has begun to dominate League of Ireland timelines all over Twitter.
Gary Doyle attempted to sum up just what a victory on Friday night would mean to him and the rest of the supporters –
I can’t contemplate what winning the league would mean to me as a Wexford Youths fan. I think the fans (me included) got completely carried away on Friday after completing our second win in a week over UCD.
Some of us forgot that Finn Harps can still win this league, so as thoughts turn to Friday night against Athlone, nobody has counted their chickens just yet.
I know I haven’t really answered the question, but maybe ask me again when we have won it!’
With Athlone struggling towards the bottom of the division this season, their manager Alan Mathews will be under pressure to end the season strongly and stopping the Youths from lifting their former crown on Friday night would certainly be a good start.
Elsewhere, Harps will aim to keep to pressure high with a win over fellow promotion hopefuls UCD, meaning it could turn into a very uncomfortable night for the Youths should things not go to plan.
Attempting to predict the outcome of Friday’s potentially historic encounter Gary unsurprisingly tipped a Youths home win, but was extremely quick to point out complacency could lead to a second loss to Alan Mathews team this season –
I think Youths will win. The thing with this league is there is absolutely nothing between any of the teams. Rarely someone gets a hammering. We’ve won our last six games in a row, five of them have been by one goal margin, the other was by a two goal margin. So, if we do beat Athlone, it won’t be because we are by far the best team and will steamroll them.
Given the (potential) fairytale status of this season’s story for Wexford it would be unfair to start discussing their chances of survival in the top flight both on and off the field should it come, so in the interest of fairness we left the final word to Gary and his message to the people of Wexford ahead of this weekends action –
Come to Ferrycarrig Park this Friday for 8pm. The people of Wexford are sports mad and you have a fantastic product on your doorstep. There is a FREE bus running from Redmond Square to the game, and back again afterwards.Buy your tickets in the town all this week at Hores Stores, as we are expecting a sell-out.
If you’ve never been before, your time is now.Let’s get 1,000 through the gates. If for no other reason than to shut me up constantly moaning about attendance. It’s going to be absolutely electric. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be nerve racking. It’s going to be better than Coronation Street, I promise you, so get off the sofa and come witness history in the making!