Saturday 20 January 2018

Davy is helping Wexford unlock their potential, insists O'Keeffe

Tipperary next on the agenda for Fitzgerald's high-flying Slaneysiders

Diarmuid O’Keeffe in Semple Stadium yesterday ahead of Sunday’s Allianz HL semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Diarmuid O’Keeffe in Semple Stadium yesterday ahead of Sunday’s Allianz HL semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The spring hasn't seen a revolution in Wexford hurling. Instead, defender Diarmuid O'Keeffe insists, it has witnessed more of an unlocking of potential.

In O'Keeffe's eyes, the players were always there, the raw materials present. They had hinted as much with big championship wins over then All-Ireland champions Clare and Waterford under Liam Dunne in 2014.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile

So, as he sees it, Davy Fitzgerald hasn't come in and turned also-rans into derby horses overnight. Instead, he has helped them play consistently to a level that was frustratingly beyond them all too often in recent years.

That's not to downplay Fitzgerald's influence on the team. For O'Keeffe, the Clare man's impact has been profound. But he feels the all-action figure Fitzgerald cuts on the sideline disguises his real strength. "He's an excellent man-manager and an excellent communicator," said the Dunboyne based teacher. "He knows what he wants and he is very good at getting that across to his players. Those are his real strengths, I feel.

"I would have always felt the quality of players was always there. I think Davy has done a really good job of getting the most out of those players. Yes, he has had a massive impact, but the players have always been there.

"In my eyes Davy is very similar to a lot of the other managers I would have worked under; it's just his way of man-managing (is good)," O'Keeffe reflected, ahead of Sunday's league semi-final clash with Tipperary in Nowlan Park.

"He's seen by the media on the sideline going mad a bit, that's just his way of showing his passion for the game and showing how passionate he is about his team. Look, I don't buy into the whole Davy factor, he brings his own passion to the whole set-up and that's just his way of doing things, yeah."

It's only April but already Wexford hurling has passed some significant milestones under Fitzgerald. Sunday will be their first appearance in a league semi-final since 2007. To get there, they beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park for the first time since 1957 and whatever happens this weekend, they'll compete in hurling's top flight next season. They haven't done that since 2010 under the old eight-team format.

Perhaps we shouldn't surprised at Wexford's league surge. Fitzgerald has now helped three counties (Waterford, Clare and Wexford) to the top flight since 2012. Indeed, his Banner side won the league title last year having come from Division 1B.

However, the Slaneysiders will be keen to avoid the fate that befell Clare in the championship last year. They couldn't keep up the form of the spring and bowed out at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, having failed to make an impact in Munster once again.

But St Anne's clubman O'Keeffe insists his side can't be worrying about what might be coming down the tracks.

"Wexford are in the position where they can't afford to be trying to peak at any particular stage in the year for championship. We have to go out every day and get the best performance out of ourselves and win every game we play, that is the stage we are at.

"We haven't been competing for Leinster titles or All-Ireland titles for years so ultimately we are trying to win every game we play, bring our best performance to the field and hopefully that's good enough at the end of it."

Wexford put in an ocean of work in January, with one report suggesting there were in excess of 25 squad sessions in that month alone. O'Keeffe, though, stresses it was less hectic than it sounds.

"To be honest, I got told by friend of mine in work that we had trained 26 or 28 days of however many days there was in the month and I didn't actually believe it myself.

"I didn't notice it at the time being honest, we rowed in behind it and I can't say for definite what the figure was. At the time we were just getting on with it and that was the height of it.

"There was a lot of challenge games, we had Waterford, Cork, Tipp themselves so there was a lot of games but I think that's what Davy needed, to see the whole 30 or 35 players and to see where everyone was at and what they were able to offer.

"He needed those games to see how the lads were working, so there was a lot of games, but not everyone was playing in every game because there was a rotation system there."

The win in Kilkenny was a "massive boost," according to O'Keeffe. "They were in the All-Ireland final last year, they are a phenomenal outfit and they are going to be a phenomenal outfit this year, despite what has gone on in the last while, they are not gone by any means.

"Look, it was a game last Sunday where it was tit-for-tat up until the 70th minute, until a fortuitous goal went in; it was a very even game and we came out the right side of it."

And this weekend they are back in Nowlan Park to take on the All-Ireland champions and see if they can take another step forward.

"Tipp by all accounts are the top team in the country, they are All-Ireland champions and had some really good wins against Dublin, Waterford and Clare in the group and they got over Offaly at the weekend. There was an end-to-end battle with Kilkenny as well so we are under no illusion, Tipp are the top team and we have to be in tip-top shape to put it up to them on Sunday."

Irish Independent

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