ANALYSIS: Maguire the diamond in relegation-scrap rough

Alan O’Brien 

The phrase ‘diamond in the rough’ was invented for Barry Maguire’s performance here. The Dutchman’s quality was enough to tip this ugly scrap, between two depleted strugglers, in Limerick FC’s favour.

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Playing through the pain-barrier on amateur terms, Maguire is a perfect exemplar for the youth on which Tommy Barrett will henceforth have to rely.

McCabe and Maguire

Compare and contrast with Bray Wanderers’ captain-for-the-day, Gary McCabe. The number-10 showed no interest in pressing Limerick’s central defenders, before lashing out at Cian Coleman on 26 minutes. Bray manager Martin Russell, back at his old stomping grounds, acted first, subbing McCabe before his inevitable dismissal.

Down 2-1 by that point, after a frenetic opening quarter, McCabe’s departure actually helped the Seagulls to staunch the Limerick tide. Key to this momentum shift was a tactical change from Russell; the Dub switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-4-1 upon losing his most dangerous attacking player. Substitute Conor Kenna slotted into defence, with Rhys Gorman promoted to the anchorman role.

The space Maguire intelligently found between the lines, therefore, dried up. And not a moment too soon for Bray, who allowed the former Dutch underage international to score one goal and assist another.

Structure

Here, Russell must carry the can for his side’s appallingly poor defensive structure. Opting to keep their shape rather than press high, Bray were not nearly compact enough — either from back-to-front or from side-to-side — to make that a valid strategy. Ball-playing centre-back Eoin Wearen, therefore, had all the time in the world to pick out his Limerick team-mates with passes into feet. Interceptions, from Bray’s disconnected troops, were few and far between.

No surprise then that Wearen, also playing through injury here, was integral to Limerick’s opener. The midfielder-by-trade found Maguire free between the lines, with a criminally easy long pass. And, after a nice one-two with returning striker Connor Ellis, the Dutchman threaded a deflected through-ball for third-man runner Cian Coleman.

Neither Paul O’Conor nor Craig Walsh thought to track Coleman. Nor did either think to follow the Cork native when he headed an earlier Billy Dennehy cross wide. With work still to do on his possession play, arriving late in the box is one aspect of Coleman’s game that needs no attention. Bray’s midfield marking, on the other hand, very much does.

As does the Seagulls’ right-back area, upon which Limerick focused most of their attacking attentions. All four of Bray’s 2018 right-backs numbered among Russell’s nine-strong missing-list here. Darragh Gibbons, Hugh Douglas (ACL) and Dylan Hayes are all injured, while midfielder Dan McKenna has presumably returned to parent club Wolves.

Harding

Sean Harding, therefore, joined Walsh in making the move from Crumlin United to the Carlisle Grounds in recent weeks. Harding let Ellis scamper in behind to collect another Maguire through-pass, and set up the Dutchman’s winner. And the 29-year-old, who also played for Russell at both Limerick and UCD, endured a torrid sophomore outing here up against Will Fitzgerald.

The middle plugged up after Kenna’s introduction, Bray’s weak right-side still handed the teenager two chance-creation opportunities before the break. Aided and abetted by Dennehy’s overlaps, the 19-year-old frequently availed of Harding’s questionable positioning to dash into the inside-left channel. Only iffy finishing from both Maguire and Karl O’Sullivan robbed Fitzgerald of the assist for which he is still searching.

The flipside of Limerick’s left-wing focus, of course, was the risk of exposing a half-fit Wearen. And Russell, to his credit, was wise to this opening, eschewing his usual possession-based style in favour of a more direct approach. The Seagulls, therefore, went long, in behind the advanced Dennehy, at every first-half opportunity. And, indeed, Daniel Kelly got in behind on several occasions, only to fluff his final-ball lines.

Bray did equalise from one of those long-balls, however; Rónán Coughlan running onto a Harding pass to lob Brendan Clarke. For all his excellence on the ball, Wearen, who allowed it to sail over his head, still lacks the defensive basics. Walsh’s 35th-minute sitter sticks in the mind, in that regard. The unmarked midfielder shot wide from 12 yards after a Kevin Lynch free-kick struck Wearen’s back.

Second-half

Fortunate to still be ahead, Barrett’s side then immediately found themselves under the cosh at the start of the second-half. Another tactical change from Russell did the damage, as Ger Pender’s half-time arrival heralded Bray’s reconstitution into a 3-4-1-2. Pender formed an initially productive partnership with Daniel Kelly up top; the ineffectual Jake Kelly hooked.

So effective was this change of shape that Barrett felt compelled to match it 10 minutes later. With Karl O’Sullivan sacrificed, the Southern United-bound Tony Whitehead made his final appearance for the Super Blues on the left of a back-three. Pender and Kelly suddenly had an extra centre-back to contend with.

And the 22-year-old had plenty of work to get through on his final shift, as the Seagulls continued to channel their attacking efforts down Limerick’s left-side. Fortunately for Limerick, however, neither Harding — nor Lynch on the opposite flank — proved capable of reaching the byline on a regular basis.

Bray did win seven (poorly delivered) second-half corners, but most of their attacks ended in deep crosses that Limerick, for the most part, dealt with. Only a late, late Kenna cross, also from deep, caused a real problem. More dodgy penalty-box defending saw Pender receive into feet in the area. But Walsh once again fluffed his lines, striking straight at Clarke from eight yards.

Conclusion

That Kenna created that chance is no aberration. The 33-year-old right-sided centre-back saw more ball than anyone else in the second-half, underlining Bray’s failure to work it into the final-third. Limerick, meanwhile, were not much better in possession. Nervy, in self-preservation mode, and sitting too deep, the hosts’ counterattacks simply consisted of booting the ball long for right-sided striker Fitzgerald to chase.

Underwhelming stuff, in terms of quality. Aside, of course, from Maguire, who incredibly lasted 79 minutes before Shane Tracy arrived to sit at the base of Limerick’s midfield. The Dutchman may suffer from chronic, potentially intractable, injury problems that prevent him from reaching tip-top conditioning.

But that’s not going to stop Maguire giving his all for a club that handed him another chance at career revival. Bray, now nine points adrift, can only wish for a player of his undoubted calibre; that, ultimately, was the difference here.

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