Friday 23 February 2018

Davy effect sees Model men scale old league barriers

Doing the heavy lifting in first two games sets Wexford on path to top flight after five years of frustration

Manager of Wexford Davy Fitzgerald. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Manager of Wexford Davy Fitzgerald. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Wexford hurling's relationship with a six-team Allianz League top division has been uncomfortable at best - a harsher description would be 'permanently broken'.

While the county has scored impressive Championship wins over Cork (2016) and Waterford and Clare (2014) the bread and butter of the League is something they have never been able to deal with since the structure was changed for the 2012 season.

Cast into Division 1B, there they have remained, effectively stuck in neutral. Their record over the five years until now backs that up. From 25 games there is perfect symmetry: 12 wins, a draw and 12 losses.

Not enough to go down, not nearly enough to go up. Often their fate was sealed in the opening two games.

In 2012 they lost their opening fixture to Antrim by 3-18 to 2-15, a start they didn't recover from and eventually required the cushion of five goals to survive a relegation play-off against Laois.

Squeezed

It got better after that, but only marginally. The following year they squeezed past Carlow but were then turned over by Offaly, 0-16 to 0-14 in the second round. Status quo done and dusted for another year..

They went into the final round in 2014 clinging to the hope that they could take down Cork but fell away to lose by seven points, and were still in with a good chance in 2015 when Waterford came to Wexford Park needing to at least draw and kept them at arm's length sufficiently.

Last year it was all over after the opening two rounds with defeats to Limerick and Clare.

In each of the six years they have had the company of fellow Division 1B 'prisoners' Limerick but their best against them was a 2013 draw.

In five games against the team relegated from 1A the previous year they are winless, a tally that rises to six when defeat to Clare in 2012, who also found themselves on the wrong side of the old Division 1 split, is factored in.

Against that background, what they have achieved over the last two weekends is remarkable. Davy Fitzgerald's impact can be measured in back-to-back successes against counties that would be seen to be stronger in terms of playing resources.

It's not something Fitzgerald will want to hear and his cautionary 'chill the beans' appeal reflects that, but it would take a collapse of epic proportions if they were not to rise to Division 1A for 2018.

Beating Kerry, Offaly and Laois in their remaining games is well within their reach and even one loss might be tempered by the knowledge that a head-to-head against either Galway or Limerick would still see them go up.

John Conran, manager when Wexford last won a Leinster senior title in 2004, was part of the committee that sourced Fitzgerald and acknowledges the instant impact he has had.

"Before we started we were saying that if we could even win one of those. . . It goes to show (what can be achieved) when a team's mentality is right," he said.

"Davy has put a really professional face to the whole thing and players feel that too. He's done a great job convincing them that they are good enough.

"One of the goals we set for Davy to get out of 1B. So far, he's done a great job."

As ever though there must be caution. Offaly and Laois, two of their future opponents, have caused them plenty of trouble in the past.

"The problem with Wexford is we might get on too much of a high. We want to keep our feet on the ground," said Conran.

"We've often slipped on that banana skin before. At least time we are very aware of it."

Conran feels the timing of Fitzgerald's arrival couldn't have been better.

"Those players involved in three U-21 provincial titles are starting to mature a bit," he said. "Bringing Davy in at this particular time couldn't have been better. Liam Dunne did so well with them and great credit is due to him for the work he did to bring them to this. Davy might bring them the other step. It was a time for change.

"Beating Galway was one of the best wins we've had in 10 years, for morale and everything. And we beat them on merit. These are all building blocks. That was a win built on character.

"We beat Waterford in a championship three years ago. Long term we have to aim to get ourselves to where Waterford are now."

Difficult days still potentially lie ahead for Wexford. Early season successes don't mean that the yawning gap with Kilkenny is guaranteed to close. And the cut-throat nature of Division 1A hurling would really put the squeeze on a squad not used to such a rarefied atmosphere in those six weeks between February and March.

But for Fitzgerald it is shaping like a managerial achievement to savour.

Irish Independent

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