Friday 23 June 2017

'You just want to go and fix the damage'

Wexford captain Eoin Conroy is hoping to lead his team to glory in today’s Bord Gais Energy All-Ireland U-21 hurling final
Wexford captain Eoin Conroy is hoping to lead his team to glory in today’s Bord Gais Energy All-Ireland U-21 hurling final
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

As far as Eoin Conroy is concerned, yesterday doesn't matter as long as you apply its lessons.

The Wexford U-21 captain is in his final throes as an underage player. For three years, he's made the No 4 shirt his own on JJ Doyle's side as the Slaneysiders made little pieces of history.

They beat Kilkenny in the 2013 Leinster final and it set them on a run of success that has seen them win three provincial titles on the bounce and reach two All-Ireland deciders.

It's been a memorable journey but one that has a little more than an hour's hurling left in it. After that all that is left is the unforgiving waters of the senior grade and all its pitfalls. There's no denying that this is last chance saloon for a handful of the side.

"I have been there for three years and we still haven't got the job done," Conroy says, echoing the tone of his manager.

"That's very much the mindset that it's a job that has to be done. Maybe take a little bit of the emotion out of the game, don't play the occasion.

"The last three years have been great with Leinsters but there is a bigger picture and that's the aim."

They might never have gotten this far. This run was started with a little touch of luck when an own goal deep in injury-time in the second period of extra-time decided an epic tussle with Kilkenny in 2013.

Slip-up

Barring a slip-up against an unfancied Antrim side in that year's All-Ireland semi-final, the Model men haven't looked back.

The Cats were up again in Leinster this year. They blitzed from the starting blocks to grab a goal after just a few seconds but Wexford never lost focus and ran out handsome winners.

Twelve months ago Wexford felt they were ready to give the great Clare U-21 team a rattle in the All-Ireland final.

But looking back now, Conroy feels like he wasn't giving himself a chance. He made a couple of rookie mistakes. Taking time out of college was one move that he regrets.

"It's an anxious enough week, you just want to be on the pitch warming up, you wish it was that time already but you have to get on with things," he says.

"Last year I made the mistake and I said I'd rest up and I took the week off college, but this year I'm just going to get on with things because you overthink things and get too anxious.

"It's just better to get on with it. I learned the hard way I suppose."

He felt ready last year. In the semi-final against Galway, he was switched onto Padraig Brehony, who had started brightly, and kept him scoreless from there.

He was detailed to mark Tony Kelly in the decider. What followed was the what he calls the "worst 60 minutes of my life."

"Brehony had scored 1-5 after 20 minutes last year in the semi-final and I was put on him then and I held him scoreless and I thought he was a different level so I thought I was prepared for Kelly," recalls Conroy.

"But Kelly was just something else. It was ridiculous what he is capable of. His movement and his timing. . . Brehony made a lot of runs but Kelly, he could stand and you'd think you'd have him but at the perfect time, just like that, he's gone. That was the difference, his timing.

"I still haven't watched the Clare game and I won't watch it. I never will. I watch all the games but I couldn't watch that one.

"It was the worst 60 minutes of my life. I was marking Tony, and following him around the pitch for 60 minutes was a nightmare. But you learn a lot from it."

At the end of the game he could only watch as Kelly was named man of the match. It was salt in the wound.

"I was going to shake his hand and say fair play to you but the minute the whistle went he was gone so I just hit the ground. I think he was being brought off for his man of the match award, that was the biggest sickener," he says.

The pain of that game kept him going all through the close season even when he was in with Liam Dunne's senior side.

"There was massive hurt. The whole winter. Every training session, every running session and every gym session, it's at the back of your mind. You want to get better and improve and fix the damage," he explains.

Conroy is being hard on himself. Just a year before their duel, Kelly had claimed a clean sweep of individual awards, winning the Hurler of the Year and Young Hurler of the Year as a large swathe of those same Clare youngsters helped the Banner to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Kelly was playing in a Clare team that made history and won a third successive All-Ireland U-21 title, becoming just the fourth county to do so - emulating the feats of Cork (1968-70), Tipperary (1979-81) and Limerick (2000-02).

"Maybe we were a little bit in awe of Clare too and their fantastic individuals," Conroy recalls.

"There's no doubt about it, we played the occasion instead of the game. We concentrated on stopping Clare rather than being Wexford, that was our biggest flaw."

Perhaps Wexford's appearance in the final was to be expected, but Limerick's run was less obvious. The teams left in their trail make for impressive reading: Tipperary, Clare and Galway all fell short.

"The teams they have beaten so far is testimony to how good this team is," says Conroy. "They have come under the radar - no-one fancied them at the start of the year but we saw them against Galway, they were flying and we have to be up to that level."

Conroy warns that any repeat of the display against Antrim in their semi-final and the wait will extend for Wexford.

"We weren't good enough. I know when you win an All-Ireland semi-final by 12 points you can't say you weren't good enough but we were making bad decisions," he says.

"I think the mentality was a little bit lax - 'I'm going to have a shot here and get my name on the scorers against Antrim' - whereas in every other game especially the Kilkenny game the attitude was 'We're going to score it doesn't matter who scores'.

"It's hard to play against Antrim; looking up from the back, it's hard to know where to hit it because they cover both sides of the field. We weren't good enough by our own standards but we got the job done."

There's little to be done now. All they can do is hope to learn from what has gone before.

A chastening 60 minutes at the hands of Tony Kelly might have been the worst game of Conroy's career but it might just have set him up for one of the best moments if his side can get over Limerick and end the county's 19 year wait for an All-Ireland title.

"That's what we are always told - that it's not a mistake if you learn from it. We have taken a lot from it," he reasons.

"The biggest thing last year was we concentrated on Clare and who was going to pick up who. You have to do that to an extent but I think we went overboard on it.

"This year it's about what we are going to bring to the game and make sure we perform."

Irish Independent

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