Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Since he last faced Waterford, Tommy Barrett’s luck had not exactly been in. In the eight games following May’s 6-3 RSC victory, Limerick FC managed only one win. Good performances, achieved in the teeth of cashflow problems and player departures, were met with scant reward. Barrett, in other words, was due a touch of good fortune. And on Friday night he finally got it.
A happy ending looked remote after two minutes, however, when Limerick failed to deal with a simple long ball. Courtney Duffus won the initial aerial duel, and strike partner Noel Hunt outmuscled covering defender Killian Brouder. Tommy Holland denied Hunt’s point-blanker and the resultant Paul Keegan penalty. But referee Damien MacGraith deemed Wearen’s recovery challenge on Hunt a professional foul, and Limerick were reduced to 10.
Tommy Barrett initially matched Waterford’s diamond formation like-for-like, but that didn’t last long. Shaun Kelly’s presence on the bench made an instant return to a back-four possible. But Barrett eschewed that option, deciding instead to simply tuck his existing full-backs in.
That, unequivocally, was not a good decision. Configured from then on in a 3-3-1-2 system, Limerick had no wide players at their defensive disposal. Waterford full-backs Dylan Barnett and Dessie Hutchinson, therefore, had the run of both flanks.
Fed by Paul Keegan’s diagonals, Hutchinson saw more of the football than any other player in the first-half. But the 21-year-old, a natural central midfielder, struggled to make the most of it. Hutchinson must have hit double-figures for cross attempts, many of them decent deliveries.
But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Rory Feely’s dynamism would have better exploited that right-wing space. Feely, dropped to the bench along with Akinade, instead sat twiddling his thumbs. The ex-Pat’s defender finally saw game-time on the hour-mark, but only as a centre-back.
Still, Hutchinson’s crosses did menace Limerick at times, even if Akinade’s absence rendered them significantly less threatening. And one, that almost picked out Barnett at the back-post, finally convinced Barrett to shut the ex-Brighton pair down.
Barry Maguire, who was likely to tire quickly anyway, got the hook. Karl O’Sullivan came on in the Dutchman’s stead, signalling a switch to 3-1-4-1; with O’Sullivan on the right-wing and Fitzgerald on the left.
In his initial position of striker, Fitzgerald had seemed reluctant to track Hutchinson. Now he had no option, and Hutchinson had some defending of his own to do. And within two minutes of Barrett’s tactical tweak the right-back was already in trouble.
Picked out by a wonderful Darren Murphy diagonal, Fitzgerald went on a mazy dribble that ultimately tempted David Webster to tug the winger’s jersey. Billy Dennehy converted the resultant penalty, gifting the hosts the most unlikely of leads. Their luck was very much in, as evidenced by Stanley Aborah’s subsequent brush with the woodwork.
There was even time for Webster to pick up a second yellow card, leveling the numerical playing field. The former Shamrock Rovers defender had a stinker in the RSC last May, gifting Limerick their second goal and conceding a late penalty. He won’t want to play the Super Blues again in a hurry.
At the start of the second-half, Alan Reynolds rejigged his side into a 4-2-1-2, with Sander Puri switched from midfield to left-back. Bastien Héry remained in the hole, from where he quickly cancelled out his former employer’s lead.
In doing that, the Frenchman prevailed upon Barrett’s dysfunctional back-three, which all too often resembled a back-one. Limerick’s defence was rarely narrow enough, as both Kilian Cantwell and Billy Dennehy continued to pick up full-back positions after Wearen’s dismissal. Brouder, therefore, regularly found himself all alone.
Indeed Limerick were lucky to survive one such instance in the 13th minute, when a poor Murphy pass created a two-on-one in Waterford’s favour. Only an untimely slip from Duffus denied Hunt an assist. Brouder, stranded between the two, could do nothing but watch.
Failing to learn from this experience, Cantwell unwisely bombed upfield on the overlap after the break. And when the defender’s cross was ultimately cleared, Waterford found themselves with a 3-on-2 overload against Brouder and Dennehy. Both remaining Limerick defenders fatally opted to stay with the Blues strikers, allowing Héry to waltz laughably into the box and score.
Already passive off the ball and defending super-deep, Limerick disappeared even further into their shell after that blow. Keegan, therefore, had acres of space to run the game. But despite getting into the half-spaces either side of Murphy for fun, the likes of Héry and Aborah couldn’t find the final pass.
Perhaps that explains the fateful decision to hand Carlos ‘Rudy’ Wilson a debut with 10 minutes to go. Keegan was called ashore in favour of the Angolan attacking midfielder, and Duggan availed of his absence to smash in a superlative long-range winner. For the second consecutive game against Limerick, tactical over-aggression had cost Reynolds a result.
Limerick did ride their luck on two more occasions after that, however. Cantwell’s decision to press Barnett on 85, leaving a chasm of space between he and Brouder, should have been punished. Aborah ran into that space, and although Murphy appeared to foul the midfielder, referee MacGraith was unmoved.
Just as he was when Akinade appeared to head an Aborah corner over the goal-line in injury-time. Waterford’s wild protests were in vain, just as Limerick’s were in Inchicore seven days prior. Both sides felt, with some justification, that they were unfairly denied a late equaliser. But this time Limerick were on the right end of the injustice. Tommy Barrett, who was fallen victim to so much of it throughout 2018, won’t mind in the slightest.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112