'I want hurling fans in Wexford to be enthusiastic and optimistic but realistic' - Davy Fitzgerald
Wexford 4-31 UCD 1-8
As knots of people began hauling themselves out of cars and filing through the gates of the Naomh Eanna grounds not long after midday, it was obvious that this was no ordinary seasonal opening for Wexford.
Curiosity abounded as two new managers drawn from different provinces, full of ambition and energy in so many facets of their lives, took their bow in Gorey.
At its peak the crowd could have swelled to about 2,000, not that they were engaged by the competitiveness of the opening match that resulted in a landslide Walsh Cup success for Davy Fitzgerald’s hurlers over a UCD team shorn of far too many front-line players.
Seamus McEnaney’s footballers were made to work much harder later in the day for their victory over UCD but for Fitzgerald safe passage was assured within the opening five minutes when Barry Carton and Paul Morris struck for goals.
This was the official beginning of an incredible 31st year of unbroken inter-county involvement for Fitzgerald.
He was three years a Clare minor, graduated immediately on to the senior squad in 1990, took up management with Waterford weeks after quitting as a Clare player in 2008 and is now facing into a 10th year as manager. He’s only 45 but has scarcely allowed himself to draw breath.
This challenge will be different. Less pressurised for sure, but hauling yourself across the width of the country on a journey that cuts across rather than surfs the motorway network is going to tax him. Three or four nights a week he does it.
“Leaving (Sixmilebridge in Clare) at half-one in the day getting home at one at night. It’s a long day but it’s grand, I’m happy enough,” he said.
He enjoys the company of those backroom associates he has taken with him and it helps that there are “lovely people” to work with when he arrives.
But where might it take him and his new team? He used a couple of general time-frames to plead his case for patience in the aftermath of a 35-point win.
Six months to know his players and what structure suits best, two years to reflect on whether progress is being made.
“I need to find out,” he reflected. “It’s probably going to take six months to find out what you really want to do to shuffle things around.
“We are probably playing a small bit different than they had played, doing a few different bits and pieces. That’s all going to take time.
“And when you come up against a stronger opposition, some of the stuff we did try today will break down even more and it really test us to see can we stay doing what we’re doing. Because we’re going to have to (stay doing it).”
Wexford deployed Oulart-The Ballagh’s Shaun Murphy as a sweeper and had Lee Chin playing at full-forward early on but to measure either tactic in this context would be wrong.
In the short term Fitzgerald is apprehensive, though acknowledging the enthusiasm that can be quickly whipped up in the county.
“I want them to be enthusiastic and optimistic but let’s be realistic. I’m not going to just turn this around like that,” he said.
“Let’s see at the end of two years where I am. If I have made an improvement and we are really up there or thereabouts then fine. But I don’t expect anything in the short term. You’re not just going to flick a wand like that.
“You don’t go from being eighth or ninth in a list to top three or four. That just doesn’t happen.
“Are the lads enthusiastic? Of course they’re enthusiastic and we’ll keep working extremely hard. I’m not stupid either. I know what’s ahead of us.”
Limerick and Galway in their opening Division 1B games for a start. But at least the pressure is reduced.
“When I went in to Clare in 2011 there was no pressure on because they were after being hammered in the All-Ireland,” said Fitzgerald.
“When we won a bit then, of course the pressure starts to build. When you win one, they think you’re going to win 20. I’m sure if we won something here there would be pressure!”
Carton caught the eye with his early scores and movement, while Murphy did look to have the instinct to play that free role, but Wexford won’t have it as easy again as they did against a side that could boast just a sprinkling of first-teamers.
Scorers – Wexford: C McDonald 0-9 (7fs, 1 ‘65’), B Carton 1-5, P Morris 1-2, H Kehoe, C Dunbar, R Kehoe 1-1 each, L Chin, E Martin 0-3 each, D Redmond 0-2, S O’Gorman, K Foley, A Nolan, D O’Keeffe all 0-1 each. UCD: D Dolan 1-1, J Murphy, G Cullen (1f), L Scanlon 0-2 each, C O’Shea 0-1.
WEXFORD – M Fanning; S Donoghue, L Ryan, J Breen; R Kehoe, M O’Hanlon, D O’Keeffe; Shaun Murphy, D Redmond; B Carton, C McDonald, H Kehoe; C Dunbar, L Chin, P Morris. Subs: D Reck for Redmond (39), S O’Gorman for R Kehoe (45), E Martin for Morris (50), K Foley for Dunbar (50), A Nolan for H Kehoe (60), A Kenny for Breen (63), Sean Murphy for O’Keeffe (70).
UCD – D Holohan; E Hayden, R Dwan, M Cronin; H Lawlor, B Quigley, C Butler; L Scanlon, J Houlihan; J Murphy, J O’Toole, P Guinan; R McEvoy, C Keane, D Dolan. Subs: T Phelan for McEvoy (h-t), C O’Shea for O’Toole (45), J Power for Guinan (57), G Cullen for Keane, (57) J Griffin (Cork) for Houlihan (60), DJ Foran for Lalor (68).
Ref – J O’Brien (Tipperary)