'Any time Wexford win I look up to the sky and thank him' - How family and Davy Fitz have influenced Kevin Foley
BEFORE heading to Croke Park today Kevin Foley will visit his father’s grave in St Mary’s cemetery in Enniscorthy.
Even though he was only 12 when his dad Michael passed away in 2007 at the age of 42, he still had a seminal influence on his only son’s hurling career.
There is a family story told that Michael left hospital to play a match as soon as his wife Terrie gave birth to Kevin. There is more than a ring of truth to it, as he was born on the first Sunday in February 1995.
“From the moment I could walk I had a hurley thrust in my hand. I was dragged along to watch my father training. I would have seen Dad play during the latter stages of his career, when he lined out with the Starlights junior team,” says Kevin.
“Obviously my dad’s death was a big trauma. I had to step up as the only male figure in the house, but my mum and four sisters – Michelle, Ciara, Eimear and Maeve – look after me twice as much now.
“Any time Wexford win I look up to the sky and thank him,” adds Kevin, who sought out his family in the Hogan Stand after Wexford’s Leinster final win over Kilkenny.
The Rackard primary schools’ leagues are where all would-be Wexford players get their first taste of competitive hurling.
Foley graduated to Wexford’s under-age squads, where coach Eddie ‘Heffo’ Walsh played a key role in his development.
He played alongside a number of future Wexford senior colleagues, including Conor McDonald and Liam Ryan, and made the Wexford minor team – managed by 1996 All-Ireland winning captain Martin Storey – in 2012. Wexford lost to Dublin in the Leinster final, while a broken finger ruled him out of the campaign in 2013.
Foley had better luck at U-21, with Wexford winning back-to-back provincial titles in 2014 and 2015 – they were subsequently beaten in the All-Ireland finals by Clare and Limerick respectively.
By then Foley had been promoted to the senior squad, making his championship debut when he came off the bench against Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final. It was an afternoon to forget, however, as the Cats hit them for five goals and won by 24 points.
He made his full debut at centre-forward a couple of weeks later against Cork in the qualifiers, with the Rebels winning by eight points.
Foley took 2016 off, but was enthused again as soon as he heard ex-Waterford and Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald was taking over as boss.
“My initial reaction was ‘this is deadly, let’s get going straight away’. I remember the first night we met him in the Seafield Hotel in Gorey.
There was a great buzz because we knew he was there to work, win stuff and not waste anybody’s time.
“The early months were a small culture shock, but that night in the Seafield Davy laid down his schedule and everybody was happy enough. It
was hectic enough, but looking back at the way we progressed it was worth every minute of it.”
Having beaten Kilkenny on a memorable night in Wexford Park in the 2017 Leinster semi-final, their second season under Fitzgerald was problematic. Wexford finished third in the Leinster round-robin series, losing to both Galway and Kilkenny before bowing out in the
All-Ireland quarter-final when they lost to Clare.
There were question marks over Fitzgerald’s future, but a group of Wexford players, including Foley, took the initiative and travelled to meet him in his home in Sixmilebridge.
“We went down and told him straight out that we all wanted him back – and it has paid off now,” he says.
Wexford no longer fear Kilkenny and were in confident mood going into their showdown against the Cats in the provincial final.
“We were confidentthat we could get over the line and bridge that 15-year gap since we last won a Leinster title.”
Foley stood in goal and watched as Mark Fanning sprinted the length of Croke Park to bury a penalty in the Kilkenny net – a score which tilted the decider in favour of the Model County.
A key change in Fitzgerald’s match strategy has seen Foley – who was initially deployed as an orthodox midfielder – become the team’s sweeper, with Shaun Murphy reverting to wing-back.
The experiment began last year when Foley was used as a sweeper in a couple of in-house games.
“During the winter Davy phoned me and asked me about what my thoughts were on filling the role. You are constantly thinking about the next ball, but the thing is not to overthink it because then the game will pass you by. As Davy reminds us all the time, just enjoy it and play with a bit of freedom,” says Foley, who teaches in his alma mater Enniscorthy CBS.
A cursory glance at the statistics from the Leinster final underlines how influential he has become.
He made four interceptions, six tackles, won three of his five aerial contests and picked up seven breaks in open play. He had a total of 15 possessions and started moves which led to four scores for the Model County.
Wexford have a history of crashing and burning in their All-Ireland semi-final appearances since they last won one in 1996. They lost to Cork by margins of 13 (after a replay) and 18 points in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
Tipp beat them by seven points in 1997 and by 11 in a replay in 2001, while they were on the receiving end of a 10-point drubbing from Kilkenny in 2007.
The belief is that the current Wexford squad is made of sterner stuff, but today their day of reckoning dawns.