Tuesday 19 March 2019

Colm Keys: Davy showing benefit of experience in Model revival

Wexford's playing pool lacks depth of other counties but they continue to keep pace

Davy Fitzgerald (pictured) has started Liam Óg McGovern and Diarmuid O'Keeffe in every game. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Davy Fitzgerald (pictured) has started Liam Óg McGovern and Diarmuid O'Keeffe in every game. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When a mini-bus pulled into Davy Fitzgerald's driveway in Sixmilebridge not long after their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Clare last July and up to a dozen of Wexford's hurling squad hopped out, the proprietor knew the game was up and a third year at the helm would have to be committed to.

No one knows the journey they had travelled to make their point better than Fitzgerald himself, having done the round trip more than 120 times the previous year. The comfort of motorway is shortlived in criss-crossing from west to east.

Liam Óg McGovern. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Liam Óg McGovern. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

But the players were determined to get their man. Some of those that didn't travel sent texts. They wanted more, they felt they had more to give and crucially, they felt their manager had more to give too.

History suggested something different. In his previous inter-county management job with his native Clare his second year in charge had been his best, helping to steer them to a fourth All-Ireland title. While a league title was claimed in 2016 they didn't make it beyond a championship quarter-final in the three years that followed.

The pattern in Waterford was only slightly different. An All-Ireland final appearance within 12 weeks, a Munster title in just over two years. But little progress in the season after that.

In short, his best results in management tend to be front-loaded, the exhaustive effort to fast-track everything taking its toll.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Diarmuid O'Keeffe. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

But a third league campaign has, so far, thrown up a sequence of results that indicate that the graph continues to nudge upwards. Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny beaten, Limerick and Clare pressed hard to the finish.

The win over Tipperary has given Fitzgerald the distinction, as Wexford manager, of beating every tier one hurling county in the two-and-a-half years that he has now been in charge.

That in itself says something about hurling's level playing field but also the competitive pitch that he has been able to bring them too so often.

Ultimately, the accumulation of silverware will frame this period more but it's quite a catalogue of results for a county that had more modest pickings up to that, and well in excess of the terms of reference at the outset of this three-year cycle.

Kilkenny always will be Wexford's barometer and in that sense, they've been able to keep step.

For sure, Kilkenny are no longer the force that pulverised Wexford teams for the previous decade and a half and, in that sense, Fitzgerald's timing has been good.

Incorporating three Walsh Cup games, they've met eight times now and their account is finely balanced. Even the score difference is just one point in Kilkenny's favour, Sunday's seven-point win for the home side in Wexford Park helping to eat into the nine-point aberration at the same venue in last year's league semi-final.

Wexford under Fitzgerald may still be bereft of silverware (Walsh Cup apart) but that sequence of results could be worth its weight in gold beyond his tenure.

In theory, this year's league should be one of experimentation and personnel rotation with no threat of relegation but that still hasn't stifled the competitive juices.

What's particularly pleasing for them is how they have chased games down. Not once in their five-game programme have they led at half-time yet they haven't been beaten in any second half.

They were eight down at one stage against Tipp and won, the same margin behind Kilkenny on Sunday (albeit against the wind) but still had seven points to spare, while the 13-point deficit against Clare was whittled down to two in Ennis before they lost by three.

Fitzgerald declared himself satisfied with the depth he has been able to bring his squad to over this period yet the comparison with the same regulation stage of last year's league is marginal, 25 players used (24 last year), well below their peers.

When the net is cast in Wexford it really can only travel so far without compromising results.

Pointing

Of those 25 used, three have featured in just one game, pointing to a core of 22 players that Fitzgerald has depended upon.

Matthew O'Hanlon, Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Shaun Murphy and Liam Óg McGovern have started every game, Paudie Foley, Cathal Dunbar, Damien Reck and Harry Kehoe have featured at some stage in every game.

But 'new faces' have been in short supply with 20 of last year's 24 overlapping with this year's 25. Shane Reck and Darren Byrne, the first Blackwater player to feature for a Wexford senior team since 1965, have pushed through.

The charge will still be laid at Fitzgerald's Wexford that they can't build sufficient winning tallies when it counts and, like the Irish rugby team in the World Cup, if they don't push past a quarter-final in this year's championship, they can't really quantify progress.

But they continue to give themselves every chance of achieving it.

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