Friday 15 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: A few less Fitz of pique, and a life under the radar, and Davy could help Wexford deliver

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Davy Fitzgerald. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to move Wexford from ninth to sixth place in inter-county hurling. You have just three years to carry this out. Call it Mission Possible.

Wexford chairman Diarmuid Devereux can hardly be accused of making unreasonable demands of the county's new hurling manager. "We're number nine in the league. We want to move from nine up the ladder to maybe six. If we could achieve that in three years, I think 'game on'," he said.

I've seen this three-place jump in three years plan described as "an ambitious target", and no doubt there are people in Wexford who'll be saying 'hang on a second Devereux, you crazy, dreaming bastard, you're like Icarus flying too close to the sun'. But who exactly are hurling's number six team at the moment?

Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford and Galway are the obvious top four, miles ahead of everyone else. Clare are probably number five, with the potential to go a lot higher if properly managed.

But number six? Last year it was Cork, but Wexford actually beat them in the championship. Perhaps it's Dublin? Or Limerick? So what Wexford are hoping is that within three years they'll have gone past Dublin. Or Limerick. Maybe passing one of them in year two and the other in year three to achieve the dizzy heights of being number six in the National Hurling League. Which puts you bottom of Division 1A. No pressure there then. Literally, no pressure.

But of course there will be pressure. If, after three years, all Davy Fitz has achieved is to make Wexford good enough to be relegated from the top flight it's unlikely that he'll be stopped in the streets of Enniscorthy and asked 'how did you manage that, you old miracle-worker you?'.

Larry Murphy's declaration during the week that Wexford under Fitzgerald should be aiming at nothing less than an All-Ireland might not seem very realistic, but it's less unbelievable than the idea of Wexford fans being happy to see their team enter 2020 as a slightly better class of also-ran.

The county should certainly be thinking about cracking the top four. For one thing, they've just got hold of a very good manager, something easy to forget about Fitzgerald given the hoopla which usually surrounds him. For all the praise showered on Gerald McCarthy, Justin McCarthy and Derek McGrath, Fitzgerald remains the only man to steer Waterford to an All-Ireland final in the last 50 years.

He's also one of the small band of bosses who've managed to win an All-Ireland in the Brian Cody era.

A decent team with a lot of potential awaits him. There's a tendency to regard Wexford as a bit of a basket case, but the three Leinster under 21 titles in a row they won from 2013 to 2015 made them the first side to complete this hat-trick since Kilkenny in 2006. This is a team with plenty of upside.

Fitzgerald's alacrity in taking the job makes an apparent nonsense out of his protestations that he had left Clare entirely of his own volition. It does seem unlikely that he said 'sod the Banner for a game of soldiers, Wexford is the place for me'.

Twelve months ago he appeared to be in the dream job, with tales of colossal expenditure, a massive support staff and a level of detailed analysis never seen before in hurling. Now, in the words of the song, Davy's on the road again.

The extent to which he can rebuild Wexford may ultimately depend on the extent to which he can rebuild himself. Sometimes you wonder if Fitzgerald thinks that his uncontrolled public persona is actually part of his 'brand', whereas in reality all the losses of control are as much use to him as a manager as drink was to Brendan Behan as a writer.

There will always be people who, like the Bird egging on Bull McCabe, will tell him not to worry, because the way he's doing things is fine. They told him this even while things were going tits-up in Clare and eventually ended in disaster.

Now comes a chance for redemption. Wexford deserve it, and so does Davy Fitzgerald. There will be plenty of attention focused on him in his first few games but if he can keep the head and starve the sensation-seekers by denying them the bust-ups they've come to witness in the past, he'll get the chance to do his work under the radar.

If the Wexford story becomes about the players rather than the manager, it could well have a happy ending for them all.

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