David Power insists Wexford football is ready to write a new chapter at senior level
ON the first Sunday morning of April, David Power woke with a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. Later that day he would lead a young Wexford team into battle against his native Tipperary, the county he had led to All-Ireland minor glory and taken charge of at under 21 level. More pertinently, the county he had breathed football life into again.
Along with the work of John Evans, Power was an influential figure in awakening a long-dormant football heritage - Tipperary had four All-Ireland SFCs won by 1920 - into an emerging force once more. The county is steeped in football folklore through Bloody Sunday and their early success, but for the best part of a century the game was largely ignored in a hurling-mad haven.
Evans, Power and a few others have helped to turn the wheel. However, by the time the last round of this year's NFL came on that Sunday in April, Wexford were already relegated and Tipp had nothing to play for either. That, at least, lessened the pressure on the 31-year-old from Kilsheelan-Kilcash, but there was still some dread in facing his own.
"It was probably the weirdest day of my coaching and managing life," he admits. "It was just strange standing on the line against my own county. I was delighted there was nothing hinging on it for either side and I just thank God that nothing was said on the day.
"That was my biggest fear - that someone would say something stupid in the heat of moment. But it didn't happen and in fact it turned out to be a great game. I coached so many of those lads and sure I know them inside out. In many ways, since the minor job I have spent the last few years helping them before games so it was strange coming up against that.
"But that's part of my journey. I'm with Wexford now and at the end of day we could play each other again in the qualifiers later in the season, although I don't think so. Potentially we would be in different groups."
So you've had a look at the schedule down the line? Power laughs and says no more. Instead, he looks back on a Division 3 campaign that saw Wexford go to battle without many established stars and ultimately slide to the bottom tier.
The odds were always against them staying up, considering how they barely managed it last season. This time around, with Dáithí Waters going to the hurlers and PJ Banville taking a year out, Power was left with a depleted squad, certainly one shorn of experience. His reaction was to blood a dozen new players in the hope that they would be thriving this time next year. Relegation was a casualty of that balancing act but the young manager is philosophical about their tumble.
"The lads have got game time and experience and have come on a lot. The morale and spirit in the camp is very good. The bottom line is that we are in a much better place than we were at the start of the year," he states.
A sign of that development is how both Naomhan Rossiter and Simon Donohoe are ready to start in defence today and there will be at least two other debutants. James Breen is fit again and overall the side looks more hardened than it was during the winter and spring .
"It's taken a while," Power accepts. "For early May we only met once or twice a week because of all the club hurling and football games that were on, but in the past couple of weeks that backlog has eased off and we've been able to meet up a little more.
"We're definitely showing signs of improvement but this whole project is going to take time. Having the likes of Graeme Molloy back has given us a huge boost. It's been a tough year but we'll see massive improvement soon, I have no doubt about that."
Dropping down has been hard to accept for someone who has built a reputation for winning. Power's journey into management started in 2007 when he became involved with the Tipp under 15 football development squad. He led the under 16s to a Munster title and managed the under 17s in 2010 and 2011. In 2009, he was asked to take over the minor football team and brought them to unprecedented All-Ireland glory against Dublin in the final.
The 2011 exploits saw him receive the Manager of the Year award from the Munster Council and he also won the highly prestigious Tipperary Dublin Association's Person of the Year award in the same year.
So it's no surprise that he looks back on the league with regret and cannot hide the disappointment of dropping down.
"We got four points in total this time around; they got the same amount of points last year when we had players like Banville and Waters, but this time it wasn't enough. We were down quite a few players but it's no excuse because in a couple matches I feel we left it behind us - against Sligo and Louth in particular. If we got results there we were safe. Another thing that killed us was the score we conceded against Clare.
"But I would still say that we have learned a lot along the way."
Power has seen a huge difference in the demands of being a minor and under 21 manager in comparison to senior. "You are always learning anyway, regardless of the position, but you have to become even more tactically aware. There is much more to managing at senior than 21 or minor and you simply have to become a better manager across all aspects of the game, from goalkeeper kick-outs to the logistics. It's way more time-consuming than people think. I'm probably working up to 40 hours a week at it along with my own job, but I love it. The Wexford players are a joy to work with and at every session there are great numbers - if lads are not there at training there's a reason and the communication is good."
Still, there was no concealing that he was a little anxious at the early juncture of this gig and found February and March very tough months. It wasn't as if the walls were tumbling down, just that he was busy trying to build new foundations.
"When the results are not going your way, it's tough," he shrugged.
"You pick up on absolutely everything and maybe magnify things but you have to stay upbeat too because if you're down the players are down. Against Limerick, I thought we had turned things around but then we went to Sligo and left it behind us. Even against Armagh we were doing well but we lost a goal before half-time and it killed us."
Yet, he is seriously heartened by the fact that the Wexford County Board chairman Diarmuid Devereaux has his back. Devereaux earmarked Power to implement the necessary structures in the county over the next few years.
They had no plan for harnessing the potential that lies within their ranks. With Power at the helm they are now focusing on forming, not just a new senior team, but a new wave of players from under 13 upwards.
In the past month Power and Devereaux have been in regular consultation about putting suitable structures into the county regarding development squads and things are already shaping up.
Peter Hally has been appointed the county's full-time football coaching officer, Good Counsel won the under 16 and a half All-Ireland title, beating St Brendan's in the final and 13 of the 15 were from Wexford. It was the second time in two years they landed that title.
St Peter's are also competitive in Leinster football and Enniscorthy did well in the 'B' championship. "The county development structure was weak and players were being lost from 14 upwards," Power maintains. "That had to change. There was no proper strength and conditioning programme either and we're changing all of that.
"My goal is to get Wexford football back to where it was four years ago and that's being competitive with the big boys. But my other goal is to put in development structures and like, just look where Tipp are now - why cant we be there too?
"If the work goes on at under 13 and 14 level and it is maintained, redevelopment can happen in any county. You just have to put work in, have good mentors involved and make sure the players are enjoying it. With Tipp, we got players to believe in the project and enjoy it. They did too - with Tipp hurling there is way more pressure to succeed and the football lads could ease themselves up to that level."
There is no hiding, though, from the immediate pressure of trying to win today's game - a result that could really help fast-track Wexford's resurgence.
"Towards the end of the league we were getting there. It was nice to end on a win and I also thought that against Tipp, Ciarán Lyng had his best game as captain. Ben Brosnan was magnificent too and the team was starting to find a bit of form. All along, people were saying to me that Wexford are probably more of a championship than a league side and I'm beginning to see that now. But for us to improve the lads know they have to get to Division 2 at least to be competitive."
As for today? "Both Westmeath and ourselves will fancy our chances and the winners play Wicklow or Meath and those two other teams involved in that will fancy their chances of winning that too.
"We are all definitely on the right side of the draw and June 14 is a date that has long been in our minds. May 24 was the last round of the Wexford championships so we have got the last three weeks at it, preparing for this game.
"Next year we will be supposedly playing weaker teams than in Division 3 but I actually think those teams will be more dogged and harder to beat, so it's up to us to bring a bigger intensity and increase the speed of games. It's all a learning curve. Today we'll learn more too. We have young lads on the books willing to do that; we blooded a dozen of them this year and they are ready to write a new story."
The prologue could well appear today. After a rough winter they'd take that.
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