The Wexford Rising: How Davy Fitz has masterminded change in fortunes
Coming away from Nowlan Park the last day, PJ Ryan ran the gauntlet of a few sour Kilkenny voices. Nothing major, nothing deep, just the odd, tossed barb implying some faint betrayal implicit in working against his own.
The noise came from an isolated constituency, most Kilkenny people generous and decent towards the Johnstown man. But that there was even the flimsiest sound of disapproval towards a figure named man of the match in Kilkenny's 2009 All-Ireland final win said much about the distance Wexford have already travelled.
When, last October, Ryan was confirmed as a member of Davy Fitzgerald's backroom team, it scarcely merited a mention within his native county. Six months later, the sound building in the south-east has begun turning even the most regal heads.
Ryan had no real connection with Fitzgerald before an unidentified number came up on his phone roughly one week after Wexford had named their new manager. They'd bumped into one another at a couple of games in Croke Park, yet their dialogue never extended far beyond gentle courtesies. Now Fitzgerald suggested he take a couple of days to consider the offer of becoming Wexford's goalkeeping coach.
Ryan did not need to. The following morning, he rang back to accept.
"I didn't have to think too long about it to be honest," he reflects now. "I suppose people see Davy on the sideline and tell themselves, 'Jesus, that fella's a bit of a lunatic!' But, if you know him, he's a fierce genuine, down-to-earth fella.
"Like if we were all to be judged on what we do on the sideline during games, we'd all have a name for being highly strung. But I've found him to be a very good guy, very passionate about the game, but very organised too. And his analysis is really sharp."
Wexford's only competitive defeat so far this year has been a single-point Walsh Cup loss to Kilkenny in January. A wretched day in New Ross during which the absence of freedom in their play generated sporadic growls in the rain. Traditionally, Wexford hurling has been an investment of faith in manliness and dander. Davy Fitz prefers his teams to be more calculated, more protective of possession.
And, in a January tempest, that wasn't an easy sell.
Yet, this National League has now flipped perception on its head in Wexford. Winning their opening games against Limerick and Galway essentially guaranteed promotion to Division 1A, yet beating Kilkenny on their own patch in a quarter-final on April 2 took this Wexford story to a different altitude. Suddenly, Davy's system scarcely draws comment, let alone grumble.
His team has found an energy that all but looks ungovernable.
How has he done it? For a start, through heavy time investment. It's fair to say that the compressed intensity of Wexford's training has brought the group to virtual championship pitch earlier than is common. It is said that they trained 26 out of 31 days in January and, before the league had even commenced, Fitzgerald's exploration of his extended squad had already stretched to almost a dozen games.
Ownership In the job negotiation for "defence coach", Keith Rossiter committed to maybe two nights every month. After all, he still plays with Oulart and was keen to retain some shred of ownership of his evenings. Yet, within a fortnight, Rossiter was doing three nights a week, swept up in the energy of a regime already travelling at full pelt.
He has since recalibrated his involvement to twice-weekly sessions, but Rossiter feels electrified by what he has been witnessing.
At their first meeting, Fitzgerald even offered the carrot of a potential playing return for a man who retired from inter-county after Wexford's thrilling summer run under Liam Dunne in 2014. For Rossiter, it was tempting. But cold pragmatism had to out-shout romance.
"Look you'd love to be in there hurling with the way things are going at the minute," he accepts. "But you sort of have to see sense at the end of the day. This will be my third year out of the fold now and I'm heading for 34. You're at the wrong end of the scale to be even thinking about it.
"You know Davy's approach to training would be totally different to what the lads would be used to. And they've reacted really well to it. But when you look at this Wexford bunch, you've one or two around the 30-year-old mark but, after that, they're mostly mid-20s.
"So youth is on their side really and that leaves Davy with sort of an open book in terms of what training he wants to do with them. Because the younger you are, the quicker you recover. And the more enthusiastic you are to come back the next day and do it again."
Rossiter believes that getting Limerick and Galway so early in the league was an advantage, given the miles Wexford had already travelled in terms of physical preparation. The defeat of Kilkenny couldn't be so easily compartmentalised. Brian Cody selected his strongest available team and, by early April, Kilkenny teams tend to be pretty well conditioned for battle.
So, since Nowlan Park, giddiness has - arguably - become Wexford's biggest worry.
As Rossiter puts it: "Davy's well able to manage the players and keep their feet on the ground, but the public is a different matter altogether. I suppose they can't help but get carried away because they've been crying out for something for a long time now. You can't criticise them too much for it.
"I mean people just want to be able to come away from games, saying, 'Well at least the lads gave it everything!' They're getting that now. I've seen the lads on the team for the last couple of years and it's been heartbreaking for what they put into it. Heartbreaking.
"People look at Davy and I suppose he's great entertainment to the fans and on the telly. But everyone knows, too, that he's an unbelievable hurling fanatic. And the passion he has for the game is a breath of fresh air for the lads in Wexford. To see what he brings to the table.
"He's the driving force behind this. You have to be passionate about it, you have to love hurling if you're going to train Wexford three or four nights a week."
Crucially, Fitzgerald seems to have gelled well too with local selector JJ Doyle, who guided Wexford U-21s to three consecutive Leinster titles. And his backroom team has been further buttressed by the familiar faces of Páraic Fanning and Seoirse Bulfin.
Bonus Ryan suggests that, if the victory over Kilkenny might have come as an unexpected bonus, the performance had a different status.
"We knew by the way they were training that they were really up for it," he says now. "Just watching them doing the drills that week, their touch was spot-on. They were really flying into it at a hundred miles an hour. So I wasn't surprised that that performance came out of them."
Summoning a reprise against Tipperary tomorrow will, he agrees, be no easy compute. Yet Ryan doubts if Davy Fitz is conditioned to settle for anything less.
"You know Davy," he says. "And you know any team that he's over, they don't go in just to fulfil a fixture. We'll be trying to win the game and, if Wexford play up to what they're capable of, they'll be there or thereabouts. And that's all you can ask. To be there or thereabouts coming into the crunch time in the game.
"Who knows what'll happen if you do that?
"But it's a big task. Tipperary have, arguably, the best six forwards in the country and they can hurt you from a lot of positions."
Rossiter adopts a similar perspective. "You might think this sounds crazy," he says, "but the result for me doesn't matter at the minute as long as the players perform to the best of their ability. Nobody's saying Wexford are going to be winning All-Irelands in the morning. It's a young panel, we're not expecting miracles overnight.
"But at least they're competing. And I always look on a hurling game as just 15 against 15. People might say Tipp are the better team, fair enough. But they can only have 15 on the field at a given time and we'll have 15 too. So, in my head, it's down then to whoever wants it most really.
"And if our lads perform as they can perform, they'll be in with a shout. They'll give Tipp a game of it. Simple as that."