Monday 21 October 2019

Fanning hoping to see a Model turnaround as Wexford revisit Cats

In the end, Fanning decided that maybe the best way to honour his grandfather was to go and try to beat Kilkenny. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
In the end, Fanning decided that maybe the best way to honour his grandfather was to go and try to beat Kilkenny. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

in Ferns on Wednesday night, 34 slim, black GPS monitors remained untouched on a wooden table by the field nearly an hour into Wexford hurlers' allotted training time.

Inside, Davy Fitzgerald and his players were still talking, still processing the implications of a weekend defeat to Galway that had felt too much like a blithe surrender. What hurling they would do on this breathless, sun-kissed evening would be purposefully brief then.

Facing their fourth Leinster Championship game in 20 days, Wexford's priorities were, clearly, spiritual as much as physical. Even before a sliotar was struck under the new round-robin structure, Fitzgerald had expressed reservations about the compressed calendar. Now the starkest implications of that compression sat right outside, on Wexford's doorstep.

Next up a rested Kilkenny in Nowlan Park?

Davy Fitz might have been mildly tongue-in-cheek when suggesting last Saturday night that anyone of a gambling persuasion might profitably put their "house on Kilkenny", but there is still the faint air of injustice about a schedule more brutal on one team than another.

So Wexford's players and management got plenty off their chests in the county's Centre of Excellence on Wednesday night before submitting to no more than half an hour of sharp, coherent hurling drills designed, you had to suspect, to do little more than knead stiffness from tired muscles.

gathered On Sunday morning, the players had gathered for a walk in the sea rather than assemble at the Irish Sea Contractors' premises in Ferns where they've been availing of access to a hyperbaric chamber for recovery this year.

That walk had been as much about talking the Galway game out of their bones as easing sore bodies towards another intense week. The tightness of the group has been apparent these last few days. But this evening Kilkenny will be determined to explore just how much physical trauma that tightness can withstand.

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After Wednesday's session, goalkeeper Mark Fanning settled into a tiny administrative office to discuss the natural conflict now between identifying real fatigue as distinct from the tricks of the mind.

Fanning has guarded the Wexford net since 2013 and the nearest comparison he can draw with a championship schedule as squeezed as this was the one that tapered out so starkly for the Model County in 2014.

That summer, Wexford beat the then All-Ireland champions, Clare, in a replay and followed that victory up with a victory over Waterford. Those results set the county ablaze with enthusiasm for Liam Dunne's team only for they to then suffer a dispiriting 24-point All-Ireland quarter-final trouncing at the hands of Limerick in Thurles.

The Limerick game was their fourth big championship game in 22 days.

"Really, the legs just kind of gave out on us against Limerick" recalls Fanning. "It was unfortunate because we'd done a lot of good work that year, but I think the lads just didn't have the go in them for that quarter-final.

"And I suppose the worry would be that this could be something similar. Like Kilkenny now, Limerick had had a two-week break going into that game. We're going four weeks in a row whereas Kilkenny have had a chance to sit back, regroup and analyse us to a certain extent. Like we've already seen a lot of teams suffering who've played three weeks in a row, it seemed to take it toll.

"So we're going into this match, effectively a Leinster semi-final, against a team that's just had a week off. Four weeks on the trot is tough for lads and it's going to be a big ask to be honest with you.

"I know, it's true the mind can be a powerful thing, but the science behind it would suggest that to play 70/75 minutes one week after another - particularly in the heat at the moment - can be tough going. Listen, it's not a case of the championship not working or anything, but a couple of tweaks could give it a better balance."

In Davy Fitz's time at the helm, Wexford's relationship with Kilkenny has been a good deal more equal and interesting than the virtual tyranny of recent times with victories recorded in last year's National League quarter-final and Leinster semi-final.

The former arrived on the back of Wexford's first competitive defeat of Kilkenny in Nowlan Park since 1957, after which Davy Fitz paid warm tribute to Fanning specifically.

Two days before that game, his grandfather - Francis - had passed away after a long illness and, aware that Mark had been especially close to his mother's father, Fitzgerald was not about to issue any directives on whether or not he should make himself available to play.

In the end, Fanning decided that maybe the best way to honour his grandfather was to go and try to beat Kilkenny.

"It was a tough time for the family, but I couldn't have asked for better from Davy and the whole management team," Fanning remembers now. "Davy rang the day he died and just said, 'Look, I'm leaving it 100pc up to you. If you want to play, no problem. If you want to step aside, that's absolutely fine too!'

"Like 'Pops' was sick for a long time, probably three or four years. He was hanging on nearly longer than he was expected to, nearly out of stubbornness more than anything. We were very close. Like, when I was a child, I'd have been reared on stories of the Rackards and Ned Wheeler from the Wexford team of the Fifties. That would have been my grandfather's time and he'd have talked a lot about those men. The way he'd make them sound, they were gods like, iconic men. That was such a great period for Wexford hurling. Like we're a proud hurling county and it's the likes of the Rackards, Ned Wheelers, Ned Buggys, the Mick Jacobs, the Tony Dorans... these kind of men... and some of the '96 team too... they're the people your parents or grandparents talk so much about."

Fanning has felt especially well served by Wexford management teams since his breakthrough year in 2013.

One of Dunne's selectors was Damien Fitzhenry, a man he regards as "the greatest goalkeeper that ever played". Fanning makes that declaration in the knowledge that Fitzhenry existed in what is commonly regarded as a golden era for hurling goalkeepers with the likes of Davy Fitz, Dónal óg Cusack and Brendan Cummins also on the scene.

Transition Fitzgerald's arrival as manager in late 2016 brought about what he regards as a relatively seamless transition.

"Myself and Davy kind of hit it off from day one," he reflects now. "We had a connection straight away. To be fair, I've improved massively since he came down. He's great to offer advice when it's needed but, largely, just trusts me to get on with it."

And despite the severity (nine points) of last Saturday's defeat to the All-Ireland champions, Fanning believes that the unity in the camp could still carry them much deeper into this season.

"Look, it's been a pretty successful year for us already in that retaining our Division 1A status was huge for us in the league because we've a savagely young panel with a good shot (12) of U-21s training with us. Getting young lads like Rory O'Connor or Damien Reck or Conor Firman more experience of hurling at that level will be massive for Wexford hurling long after I'm gone or some of the other lads are gone. Because those lads are going to be the Wexford leaders and icons going forward."

This evening though will be about the co-operative and everybody digging deeper than maybe is even reasonable to ask.

"Look we were massively disappointed by the Galway defeat, because it's a game we fully believed that we could win," explains Fanning. "But they look head and shoulders above everybody at the moment, the best team in the country. It's going to take a serious, serious side to beat them this year.

"But we're a fairly tight group ourselves. Lads really enjoy being around one another and we'll give this socks now although I'd say they do feel a bit flat to be honest with you. But momentum is huge in hurling as we saw with Tipperary against Waterford last weekend and they were playing for the third week running too.

"This is a huge ask for us. But this championship is a minefield the way it's working out. By and large, anybody can beat anybody. So we'll give this socks and see where it takes us."

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