THIS WAS a big game for Wexford. It had seemed like they were slipping from a peak of 2019, but this new-look side showed some mighty resilience in coming from behind to snatch a draw with arch-rivals Kilkenny.
Conor McDonald’s equalising point meant so much in this Walsh Cup clash as it presented the younger players with a further opportunity to experience what it takes in the ‘big time’ with a final clash against Dublin in Croke Park on Saturday evening.
It was also a hugely important result for rookie manager Darragh Egan. Wexford supporters had five years of Davy Fitzgerald still fresh in the memory when they were given a first opportunity on home soil to witness what the Tipperary native had to bring to the table.
It was impressive from the new boss and his team. Egan pulled out some serious tactical chops, going 15 on 15, a change from what was witnessed in the recent past, but he is still experienced enough to realise the players have to deliver much more during the course of 70 minutes.
When Wexford were on top they looked hugely impressive, picking off some excellent points, while their speed of thought to go with their skill sets led to excellent goals. Still, Egan was concerned with what he saw when Kilkenny took the initiative.
Wexford seemed to struggle with Kilkenny’s flexibility, particularly when the opposition began to win more possession.
When Kilkenny started to put Wexford to the sword, the home side’s gameplan struggled, but despite this they showed sufficient focus to regroup, having lost an eight-point lead, to battle back and force a draw.
Wexford’s play was generally simple and direct, utilising the quality of individual players, but the manager alluded to an important aspect to emerge during the course of the 70 minutes: the players need to learn to transition during the course of a game.
What he actually means is that the players must learn to change tactics as the game demands.
While this was a concern for the manager, he will be delighted with being presented with a further opportunity to test many of his young players in the cauldron of Croke Park against a Dublin side seemingly intent on lifting silverware given the strength of their teams fielded so far.
The new intensity Wexford brought to their game was impressive. Their ball-winning ability in the half-back, midfield and half-forward lines was hugely impressive.
It was great to see Paudie Foley back in such commanding form at centre-back, while Connal Flood was a real revelation along with Matthew O’Hanlon on either side of him.
Kevin Foley carried the captain’s armband and led by example (could he be the official captain into the future), while Oisín Foley showed tremendous qualities at wing-forward, particularly under the high ball, coupled with his expert point-taking.
Then we had two young corner-forwards in Cian Byrne and Rory Higgins, in an old-fashioned full-forward set-up, and neither looked out of place alongside the impressive and experienced Conor McDonald.
The displays of the new players, coupled with the likely return of some key experienced personnel, gives real hope for the season ahead.
Meanwhile, it may be the Senior footballers’ opening game of the Allianz League against Sligo in Chadwicks Wexford Park next Sunday, but if they are to entertain hopes of promotion from Division 4 then they must win their home games.
Shane Roche and his backroom team have transformed the football set-up since coming on board, and now they will be looking to advance this even further, through a winning start to the league campaign.
Without putting additional pressure on the players, they themselves will know how important it is to win their home games, particularly given the difficult matches away from home over the coming months.
Sligo have made their intentions of winning promotion well known, but Wexford – having utilised the O’Byrne Cup to give all their players game-time – are more than capable of getting their campaign off to a winning start.