Saturday 21 April 2018

Model star O'Connor has more to come - Fitzgerald

Wexford 0-20 Clare 1-13

Shane O’Donnell has eyes only
for the sliotar as he’s pursued
by Wexford duo Diarmuid
O’Keeffe (L) and Damien Reck
at Wexford Park yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Shane O’Donnell has eyes only for the sliotar as he’s pursued by Wexford duo Diarmuid O’Keeffe (L) and Damien Reck at Wexford Park yesterday Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Finally, Davy Fitz materialises at the mouth of the dressing-room tunnel, an oddly bleak smile playing on his lips.

Wexford are in the National League quarter-finals, the sense of giddy ferment still drawing an urgent hum from the big, concrete stand overhead. The last unbeaten record in 1A lies in small pieces on a dressing-room floor somewhere down the corridor, ready for brush and dustpan.

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald Photo: Sportsfile

Davy came to this day armed with five years of field research on his opponents, so it's maybe no surprise he knew precisely how to rope them down. But he has little appetite for triumphal rhetoric now, reflecting with surprising articulacy instead on the tangled emotion of managing against his own.

"I found it hard," he says flatly. "Listen I had a job to do today, but I'm a Clare man. All I ever wanted to do was play for Clare. All I ever wanted to do was manage Clare. And it's difficult... But I think the lads knew that. All week I tried not to dwell on the Clare thing and just focus on Wexford.

Funny

"It's funny because I said to them that I'd rather not talk about the Clare players one-to-one, which I actually didn't do. I just said that we'd concentrate on what we could do and go at it. I still have massive respect for all those (Clare) lads. I told them before, that won't change. We won an All-Ireland together.

"But the respect I have for these Wexford guys is incredible too. I know that they were conscious I was from Clare today and they gave it everything they could. They wanted to do that big-time today and I think you could see that in their attitude. They put their hearts out there."

Cathal Dunbar of Wexford in action against Gearoid O'Connell of Clare Photo: Sportsfile
Cathal Dunbar of Wexford in action against Gearoid O'Connell of Clare Photo: Sportsfile

The fabric of Wexford hurling on days like this is nylon, plain, hard-wearing, not a single ornamental stitch. In this mood, they don't have time for aesthetics. They just stand on your toes, inviting you to mount an argument.

And for 35 minutes of this beautifully sunlit day, Clare just about managed that. They led 0-8 to 0-7 at the interval, but that was as far as their argument would stretch. For the half-time introduction of St Martin's teenager Rory O'Connor just electrified a home side that might, previously, have been more inclined to fixate on the loss to a quad strain of joint-captain Lee Chin.

O'Connor, having underwent knee surgery in October, scored with his first touch and very quickly became the fulcrum for a second-half Wexford performance that was nothing less than an expression of profound physical dominance in front of 7,800 spectators.

They actually led 0-11 to 0-8 within six minutes of the resumption, had stretched their advantage out to eight with ten minutes remaining and then freewheeled home with a composure barely ruffled by Peter Duggan's 70th-minute Clare goal from a 20-metre free.

Given the Banner county had already qualified for the quarter-finals and lined out without talisman Tony Kelly, it might be fair to surmise they weren't exactly frothing at the mouth here, but that wasn't how it looked during the early flurries. Indeed in just the ninth minute, joint-manager Donal Moloney incurred a stern lecture from the fourth official for his involvement in a collision with Wexford midfielder Kevin Foley down the stand-side tramline.

John Conlon was having a towering game for Clare while the central spine of their defence, Conor Cleary and David McInerney, looked rock-solid. Jason McCarthy was doing a good job on Chin too, but Wexford's Jack O'Connor had begun completely dominating young Michael O'Malley in the air, spectacularly fielding six puck-outs in the first half alone.

Conor McDonald, too, was looking dangerous for Wexford and his 14th-minute point, after great set-up work by Chin and Paul Morris, was the pick of an otherwise largely turgid first half of traffic-jams and communal frazzle.

His brother Rory's introduction completely reset the balance of the Wexford attack and, with Davy Fitz instructing a high press on Clare's puck-outs into the wind, the visitors had little option but to hit long against bigger, physically stronger players now. In a game played on such starkly unromantic terms, there was only going to be one winner.

Moloney admitted as much after, acknowledging Wexford's size and physicality, yet lamenting the complicity of his team.

"Wexford's third quarter was really, really good," he reflected after. "They had huge desire today and fully deserved their victory. They have huge physicality, more so than other teams I would say. Like the physicality of Wexford relative to Cork, Kilkenny or Tipperary is a completely different level in terms of their size.

"But it's not just size, they've got good skill as well. And you know Davy's done a great job with them as well."

Had Clare's foot been metaphorically off the gas maybe?

"We wouldn't like for that to come into it," he replied candidly. "You have to be able to perform every week and we expected them to perform today in a different environment, different challenge and they probably didn't do that to the level we expected."

Clare's more nimble attackers, David Reidy, Shane O'Donnell and Podge Collins, certainly didn't find the terms of engagement to their liking. Colm Galvin also went off after a heavy collision with what looked like a whiplash injury and it was a sobering second outing for young Kilmaley wing-back O'Malley after that spectacular debut against Cork.

For Wexford, Rory O'Connor's introduction was the bonus Fitzgerald has been waiting for, given the spectacular impression he made on his senior debut against Waterford in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

And the work Wexford have put into forcing turnovers was in evidence all over the field, Fitzgerald admitting afterwards "the stats I got looked pretty decent in that department anyhow".

Of O'Connor, he was, naturally, effusive. "He's not right yet, but he did well today," said Fitzgerald. "And that's only his second bit of action now for four and a bit months. So he'll come on a lot more than what he has yet."

Wexford, Davy said, "probably won't be full throttle" now in their final 1A game against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park next weekend. They won't need to be, now that priorities are shifting.

As young match-winner O'Connor put it: "Anyone can hit a purple match in the quarter-finals now and drive on and win the whole league."

Wexford haven't done that since 1973. They couldn't, could they?

 

Irish Independent

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