Sunday 20 January 2019

Martin Breheny: Cody and Davy ready for battle as Wexford look to prove power balance with Cats has shifted

Model men bidding for third successive win over opponents who dominated them for a very long time

Davy Fitzgerald and Brian Cody will lock horns on the sideline again today. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Davy Fitzgerald and Brian Cody will lock horns on the sideline again today. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Sunday, January 29, 2017: Kilkenny 0-15 Wexford 0-14, New Ross (Walsh Cup semi-final) "You could sense the crowd getting frustrated at times in the first half. They've got to stop and give lads a chance. We're trying new things - some of them are working and some of them are breaking down. Let's be patient, it's very early days." - Davy Fitzgerald

"Wexford were very competitive but then they've always been competitive." - Brian Cody

Sunday, April 2, 2017: Wexford 2-18 Kilkenny 0-19, Nowlan Park (Allianz League quarter-final) "I'm sure Brian will go back and study this and come back vicious. If he meets us again, I know what's coming." - Fitzgerald

"We were forewarned for today. They were on a serious roll so it wasn't a question of us thinking we hadn't a serious challenge. We knew we had. If anybody else wasn't sure about it, they know it now." - Cody

Saturday, 10 June, 2017: Wexford 1-20 Kilkenny 3-11, Innovate Wexford Park (Leinster semi-final) "That victory means an awful lot to people down here (in Wexford). It's been a long time since we've beaten Kilkenny in the league and championship in the one year." - Fitzgerald

"No excuses." - Cody

* * * * *

It should have been 3-0 to Wexford. They had a great chance to win the Walsh Cup semi-final last January when Cathal Dunbar found himself through on goal in the closing seconds but his shot was too close to Kilkenny goalkeeper, Richie Reid, who reacted instinctively and diverted the ball out for a '65.

Even then, Wexford had a chance to equalise and send the game to extra-time, but Lee Chin's shot drifted wide. In many ways, it looked like the same old story in new packaging. Fitzgerald was in now in charge of the wrapping for Wexford but couldn't quite get it tight enough to tie up Kilkenny, the ultimate masters in escaping from knots.

As a crowd of over 3,000 left O'Kennedy Park in the gathering dusk of a wet January evening, nobody would have thought that by mid-June, Wexford would have beaten Kilkenny in league and championship, something that hadn't happened for a very long time. It certainly hadn't occurred in the Cody years, giving it a significance that could not be ignored.

Wexford went further in league (semi-final) and championship (Leinster final and All-Ireland quarter-final) than Kilkenny and, by the end of the year, deserved to be ranked ahead of their great rivals for the first time in 20 years.

Despite that, the public need convincing that the power balance has shifted. Kilkenny are 8/13 favourites to beat Wexford (6/4) in today's Bord na Móna Walsh Cup final in Nowlan Park, odds that are more reflective of the past than the present.

That's the thing about fluctuating trends. When they involve powerful empires that have been in control for a long time, decline isn't recognised in the same way as it would be for a lower-ranked team.

It happened with Mick O'Dwyer's great Kerry team in the 1980s. There was feeling in Kerry - and beyond too - that they would bounce back in a season or two, but instead they went 11 years without winning an All-Ireland.

Only a deluded fool would predict that Kilkenny will go more than a decade without welcoming Liam MacCarthy again but, as of now, they are among a pack of eight, most of whom could beat any of the others on a given day.

How the players - and Cody - react to that will one of the fascinations of 2018. Kilkenny were in a somewhat similar position at the end of 2005, having been beaten by Wexford, Cork and Galway in the championship over the previous two seasons.

More excitable types were talking of a long period of domination by Cork, while Kilkenny were supposed to be heading for a slump.

Thirteen years on, Cork are still waiting for their next All-Ireland, whereas Kilkenny have added eight to their haul.

That's why it would be silly to undervalue Kilkenny now. Granted, they aren't the force of the past decade but then no squad in history came close to reaching that level of accomplishment.

An interesting aspect of Kilkenny this year will be the impact of the long break on their more experienced players.

Being eliminated from the championship before mid-July was alien territory for Kilkenny but it may benefit them, leaving them fresh and reinvigorated for the new season.

There are still a lot of top-class, proven performers in the Kilkenny squad so the big question is whether Cody has found sufficient support troops to complete the army.

Nobody is better qualified than him to do that but he can still only deal with what's available in the county. Is it quality there?

Another new challenge for Kilkenny this year is the lessening of the aura surrounding the black-and-amber jersey. Unquestionably, their incredible success story had a double effect for a long time.

It took their self-confidence levels to record heights while also planting doubts in the minds of the opposition at crucial times. That's no longer the case on either front.

Wexford suffered so long and so much under Kilkenny that last year's liberation not only energised the county but also dramatically raised expectations.

That brings a big new challenge for Fitzgerald. He inherited a very solid base from the Liam Dunne era and built on it last year with promotion to 1A before beating Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship. And while they lost to Galway and Waterford, it could hardly be seen as a big setback to be beaten by two vastly more experienced outfits that went on to contest the All-Ireland final.

Still, Fitzgerald knows that Wexford's expectations are now much higher than a year ago. He also knows the risks that carries.

He was hailed as a hero when Clare won the 2013 All-Ireland, but criticism built, slowly at first, before eventually reaching an intolerable level.

He is very much in kudos-land down Wexford way now, but that will only last if the squad are seen to advance again this year.

That will be difficult. All five Division 1A games are very demanding before they head into the 'round robin' Leinster Championship with Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin and Offaly. Only three of that five will advance in the championship.

Wexford are now in the fast lane where the room for error is small. Today's game certainly won't define their season but it does offer them the chance to achieve something very unusual - beating Kilkenny for a third successive time.

And with return visits to Nowlan Park in the league on March 4 and in the Leinster Championship on June 9 on the bigger agenda, every edge is significant. It will make for quite a battle today.

Irish Independent

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