Friday 19 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Hurling's punk rock maverick Davy has saved Leinster series'

One-of-a-kind manager delivers beautiful game with Models to reignite competition

Wexford squad members and mentors celebrate with the O’Keeffe Cup on Croke Park after
their victory over Kilkenny yesterday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Wexford squad members and mentors celebrate with the O’Keeffe Cup on Croke Park after their victory over Kilkenny yesterday. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Davy Fitzgerald has saved the Leinster Hurling Championship. This time last year the province seemed a mere afterthought, its games mediocre compared to the string of classics in its ultra-competitive southern counterpart. Only two of its teams looked like genuine title contenders.

Wexford said goodbye to all that. Yesterday they gave Leinster an emotional highpoint to match anything we will see anywhere this summer.

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Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with a trademark celebration. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with a trademark celebration. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Thank God for that because a Leinster final with Wexford in it is a completely different and much more impressive beast.

Yesterday's 51,482 crowd has only been exceeded in the past decade by the record 60,032 crowd of 2017 for the match between Wexford and Galway. The combined crowd at those two finals is just 10,000 less than the finals of 2018, draw and replay, 2016 and 2015 put together.

Wexford make Leinster feel like Munster. Hurling needs them and has ever since they roared out of Leinster in 1954 to set an all-time attendance record of 84,856 in the All-Ireland final against Cork. Other supporters go to a match, Wexford fans go on a crusade.

Not long ago they seemed an endangered species. Already crushed by a decade of Kilkenny dominance, the county's Leinster woes were worsened by the introduction of Galway, as the Slaneysiders fell behind Dublin in the pecking order as well.

Liam Ryan battles with Kilkenny’s Ger Aylward. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Liam Ryan battles with Kilkenny’s Ger Aylward. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Three years ago Wexford scored a combined total of 0-23 in Leinster and qualifier hammerings by Dublin and Waterford; in the league they lost to Offaly by seven points and beat Laois by one.

They looked more likely to become Leinster's number six team than its number one. The kind of post-mortems currently written for Offaly were being rehearsed for the county of the Rackards, the Quigleys and the Dorans. They weren't just drinking in the last chance saloon, the landlord was calling last orders.

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It was Davy Fitz time.

So low were Wexford's expectations that the targets set for Fitzgerald in his three-year term were to get back into Division 1A , put the county in the top six nationally and reach a provincial final. He appears to have exceeded expectations.

But let's not get too cosy about the Wexford manager. It doesn't suit him.

He is hurling's outsider artist, a Van Gogh whose ability to do things differently is not entirely unconnected with a certain eccentricity of approach. Nobody ruled by the cool dictates of logic would imagine Wexford could overhaul Galway and Kilkenny. You didn't have to be crazy to work there, but it helped.

Davy Fitzgerald is Irish sport's punk rock genius. Occasionally obnoxious, frequently noisy and always ready to defy authority, he also possesses the kind of spirit, energy and originality which sweeps aside old certainties and reshapes landscapes.

Encountering a province grown staid and complacent, he gave it a kick in the arse and ran a few thousand volts through its slumbering carcass.

If Brian Cody's great Kilkenny team were The Beatles, Fitzgerald's Wexford are the Sex Pistols, fearlessly overturning all the old certainties.

Like the band, they're managed by a guru who believes in the invigorating power of chaos. He means it, man. So do his players. They've got knocked down and they've got up again and now you're never going to keep them down.

Eight minutes from time the marvellous Lee Chin had a long free to put Wexford ahead. It dropped just short and was fielded by Kilkenny's Paddy Deegan, who set off on a great run up the field, hopping the ball off the ground and gathering it before finding TJ Reid, who did likewise before firing over the lead point.

Those ground hops brought back memories of the move's greatest exponent Pat Delaney, who in his heyday frequently dashed the dreams of fine Wexford sides. That's what Kilkenny always do. It seems the natural order of things. Reid's score was straight from The Big Book Of Turning Points.

But sometimes someone decides he's mad as hell and won't take it anymore. This time it was Rory O'Connor, just six the last time Wexford beat Kilkenny in a Championship game. Brilliant all day, the kid won possession, beat a man and headed for goal. He could have taken a point, but O'Connor decided the tit for tat must end. A definitive statement had to be made.

On he went and Enda Morrissey hauled him down. When Mark Fanning came up to take the penalty you thought of the keeper on the last Wexford team to win the Leinster title, Damien Fitzhenry, and all the times he'd scored from this position.

Underdogs

But when Fanning buried his shot and hared back towards his own half, you thought of a keeper from another county running back in the same way 24 years ago after scoring a crucial goal for the underdogs in his province's final. Davy Fitzgerald was 23 then and we hardly knew him. A lot of water had passed under the Sixmilebridge since, but yesterday was his finest hour.

A fortnight ago as the Wexford and Kilkenny game ended, Fitzgerald, apparently unsure of the group stages permutations, wandered the sideline, uncertain as a lost child in a car park. You could practically see him thinking 'after all we've done, is it going to end like this?'

It didn't and it didn't end yesterday either. But Wexford's victory does mark a kind of consummation of the Fitzgerald Project.

Surely this was their big emotional victory and they'll be found out in the semi-finals.

Isn't that what everyone said about Clare in 1995?

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