'I don't understand when people talk about this two or three-year thing with Davy' - How Wexford bounced back in 2019
Conor McDonald believes Wexford are setting new standards and have learned how to cope with daunting Croke Park occasions
Sometime this evening, he knows he'll make the journey to Ballyfad Cemetery and a rectangle of ground that has the power to anchor him.
There, standing by a young grave, Conor McDonald will start talking. It helps, he says, to keep a foot in the real world, orbiting his thoughts around the important things. Every day, he still comes upon 'Jango' in curious places. Sees him, hears him.
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Colin Fleming died on May 2 just gone. Nine months after he'd been given just weeks to live, 'Jango' finally succumbed to acute myeloid leukaemia. McDonald doubts any man ever met a terminal diagnosis with less solemnity or self-pity.
They once worked together behind the bar of McGovern's in Gorey, but it was only when the sickness hit that he really began to pay attention to 'Jango'. A husband, a father to three children, an 'Everyday Hero' as social media took to calling him, thieved from this life in his mid-thirties.
McDonald (24) had hoped to bring him down to a Wexford training session but, in the end, it wasn't feasible. 'Jango' did send a message to the players' WhatsApp group and Davy Fitz made a little video in return. Davy's empathy was natural.
During his first year with Wexford, he'd told them the story of 20-year-old Jack Lynch from Tulla, another wretchedly young victim of leukaemia. And he counsels the players endlessly on a need for perspective in their lives, an understanding that hurling must be a release, not a burden.
Through 'Jango', McDonald came to understand exactly what he meant.
In the last months of his life, Fleming raised more than €30,000 for the children's cancer charity 'Aoibheann's Pink Tie'. He took control of his own funeral arrangements, even down to who should carry the coffin. He organised a farewell barbecue.
'Jango's' spirit never broke even while his body was under the most demoralising of attack.
So, for McDonald, that grave is like a mirror held up to his face now. "I definitely feel his presence around me," he says. "Jango was such a positive thinker, I just feel I've taken an incredible amount of inspiration from him just heading out to Ballyfad.
"You think you've pressures, especially facing into a weekend like this. But if you're not embracing it, what are you at?"
* * * * *
The energy holding this group together runs deeper now than just hurling and medals and loud promises ricocheting off dressing room walls.
McDonald wasn't a part of the convoy despatched to Sixmilebridge last August. A club match that evening meant he couldn't be, but he did text Davy Fitz a message about "unfinished business". Their season had ended limply against Clare in Cork, yet any anger the group felt now was being channelled resolutely inward.
They were familiar with the theory about Fitzgerald's management style carrying some kind of abstract time limit and struggled to reconcile it with what they knew.
"Nobody really felt it was finished," says McDonald now. "When you crash out of a championship like that, you'd nearly question everything. But when you boiled it down and thought about going back in, who did you want to see there? Davy.
"That's why I sent that text message. I didn't know if he was going to come back but I felt, if he didn't, it probably would have been a missed chance for us.
"So I don't understand when people talk about this two- or three-year thing with Davy. I just felt the players still really wanted to have him. And I knew how much he cared about us. All the players knew. It was a no-brainer for me. Because most of that loss to Clare was our fault. As players, we didn't perform at all."
Eleven months on, Wexford and Davy is still a story without end. They return to Croke Park tomorrow as the only unbeaten team in this championship, Leinster champions yet - in the bookies' eyes - rank outsiders of the four squads still chasing Liam MacCarthy. True, it's taken a bit of a high-wire act to get this far.
The night they drew their final round robin game with Kilkenny in Wexford Park, McDonald wasn't alone in thinking their championship was over. He remembers catching a glimpse of Jack O'Connor maybe 15 yards away, sprawled on the ground, in tears. Jack had just shaken Joey Holden's hand, wishing him: 'Best of luck in the final!'
For maybe three or four minutes, that was the broad emotional dynamic. Season over.
Then people began pouring down out of the stand, eyes ablaze with the madness of it all, yelling, 'Ye're through, ye're through!' Galway, incredibly, had been the fall-guys.
"The emotions were all over the place," McDonald remembers now. "Nobody knew what was going on. The clock was wrong. There was nearly an eerie atmosphere because the players didn't know what was going on, the fans didn't know what was going on.
"Eventually, the penny dropped that we were in the final. Both teams were. But we'd been a point away from being out of the championship completely, which is insane."
It seems a small eternity now since he was lying against a goalpost at a Cúl Camp in Buffers Alley when co-ordinator, Kevin Kennedy, breezily enquired, "Did Liam ring you?"
Just days earlier, McDonald had been called into Wexford's U-21 squad by JJ Doyle and, against all expectation, played in a Leinster final win over Kilkenny. July 2013 and now Liam Dunne, reputedly, had his number. Sure enough, a phone call duly came.
"Conor, I want you to come into training this Thursday night!" McDonald hung brusquely up, presuming it was "someone acting the clown".
Soon enough, Kennedy was marching down the field towards him. "You're after hanging up on Liam Dunne!"
Apology chucklingly accepted, Dunne brought him on near the end of extra-time in their All-Ireland qualifier loss to eventual All-Ireland champions Clare at Semple Stadium. "A whirlwind really," recalls Bord Gáis Energy ambassador McDonald now. "Just to walk into that dressing room with Rory Jacob, Keith Rossiter, all these lads. I'm only 17, looking at these lads, thinking, 'I'll never be able to hurl with them...'
"It was surreal to be honest. Scored a point nearly the minute I came on. Did my Leaving Cert that year as well. It was mad. I wasn't expecting it at that age, wasn't even sure if I was ready being honest."
One year later, Wexford ended Clare's All-Ireland title defence in a replay and, though subsequently beaten by Waterford, they'd found impressive traction under Dunne, none more so than McDonald, nominated for Young Hurler of the Year.
But Wexford flatlined through the next two seasons and he was working in a gym in Nottingham when news came through of Fitzgerald's appointment.
By January of 2017 McDonald was home, his own business '14 Fitness' launched on the club premises of his beloved Naomh Éanna. Today he has maybe 30 one-to-one clients, among them the popular heavyweight boxer, Niall 'Basil' Kennedy, a member of Packie Collins's 'Celtic Warrior' gym and currently preparing to co-headline a card in Massachusetts next month.
Davy's first season replenished energy in the group, Wexford reaching their first provincial final since losing four in a row between '05 and '08. They would learn lessons in a nine-point loss to Galway that McDonald has little doubt stood to them on June 30.
"I'm not saying we got sidetracked two years ago, but it was a lot to take in," he suggests. "And the experience definitely stood to us this time. The whole Croke Park, big crowd experience. The whole lot. You're just thinking about less. You're thinking solely about the game, you don't care about anything else, you're not even looking at anything else.
"I don't care what anyone says, if it's your first final, you're looking at different stuff. Marching behind the band. Full stands. A lot of the players hadn't experienced it before. And I think we wanted to give a better account of ourselves this time than we did against Galway."
That they truly did, leaking a miserly three wides in the entire game, none in the closing 25 minutes. In discipline and game-intelligence, this was a different Wexford to any we had seen before.
Just below his right eyebrow, two parallel burgundy lines mark the spot an opponent's hurley came through his face-guard almost exactly a year ago.
A skin graft will be needed to correct the stubborn damage now, but McDonald knows he got lucky too. "They were saying if it went into the eyelid, I could have been in trouble," he shrugs impassively.
Angry at the time, he filed it away eventually as a price worth paying en route to Naomh Éanna's first-ever Wexford senior title.
They walked down Gorey main street with the cup after beating St Martin's in the final and everywhere he looked McDonald saw familiar faces.
"Best weekend of my life," he says emphatically now.
The recent homecoming with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup was on a grander scale, but felt no less intimate. Maybe for a member of all three Leinster U-21 winning teams between 2013-15, the Kilkenny jersey doesn't create quite the psychological cliff-face it became for other generations of Wexford hurlers. But winning a first senior provincial crown in 15 years still felt an epochal step forward.
And that victory belonged to everyone, not simply those who played. In Wexford Park, two nights before the game, a suspended Aidan Nolan set hair standing on the back of necks with a short, emotional address. Likewise an injured Damien Reck.
"Two lads who were absolutely heartbroken," recalls McDonald.
In more fleeting, less formal ways he's been struck by the selflessness of younger players on the periphery, like Gavin Bailey. Like his own clubmate, Eoin Molloy.
"They might just say something as they go past you, just a little word of encouragement in your ear.
"Watching them walk away, you're thinking, 'I'm not sure that lad realises how much that means to me'."
The Thursday night they went back training after winning Leinster, it was Éanna Martin - the only surviving link to 2004 - who took the initiative, asking the group if they were happy to "settle" for what they now held.
Wexford's winning ratio in All-Ireland semi-finals is a poor one, mistakes having been repeated across generations. So, whatever awaits them against Tipperary now, these men don't want carelessness to play a part.
"I think our expectations of ourselves are fairly high now," says McDonald. "And anything below that is just not good enough. Everyone has that mentality now.
"You might be asked to do a specific job and, while others mightn't see what that job is, you will know yourself whether you've done it or not. That's instilled by management.
"In the grand scheme of things, if you're not working hard for others and are happy to just chip in with your own couple of points, that's completely worthless.
"You're just playing for yourself. You've got to have higher expectations of yourself than that.
"And as a group we do."