Monday 14 October 2019

Moment of truth arrives for Wexford as Davy look to crown three years of steady progress with silverware


D-Day looms for Davy: Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald knows his troops must deliver a big performance in Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
D-Day looms for Davy: Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald knows his troops must deliver a big performance in Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

After Davy Fitzgerald's first game in charge of the Wexford hurlers in early January 2017, a Walsh Cup tie in Gorey that drew a couple of thousand people, he delivered something like a mission statement. However, his targets were somewhat vague.

"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," he said, as he sought patience.

The two-year mark has passed, Wexford are coming to the business end of a third season with the Clare man at the helm and the progress has been evident.

But what constitutes this period of Wexford hurling as a success? Is it league wins over every one of the MacCarthy Cup contestants at some stage? Is it making two Leinster finals? Or does it simply come down to silverware franking the gains made?

Sunday's Leinster final has a defining feel to it. A moment of truth. Wexford are unlikely to win an All-Ireland title this summer, so this represents their best chance of attaching something tangible to the last three years.

Another All-Ireland quarter-final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh is something this team is unlikely to relish.

Wexford had an unusual path to a Leinster final, their only win coming against Carlow with draws against Dublin, Galway and Kilkenny securing their place, on score difference, after a dramatic night of action in the final round of the provincial round robin.

But in those games a steely refusal to be beaten has manifested. They were level 13 times against Kilkenny, 11 times against Dublin, but still got something out of both. They were six down against Galway and came back, albeit with the wind at their backs, in the second half in Salthill.

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They have the lowest scoring return of the six teams to come through the round-robin but conversely, only Limerick conceded less in Munster. Teams just don't run up big scores against them any more.

Fitzgerald has made good use of small resources. In their four round-robin championship games they used 22 players, two of them - Seamus Casey and Joe O'Connor - late substitutes against Carlow.

Essentially a core of 20 players - 17 starters - have carried them this far, a narrow base by comparison to any of their main rivals including Kilkenny who, because of injury, have reached for 26 players, 20 starters.

Consequently, the loss of Aidan Nolan to a two-match ban for verbal abuse of referee Fergal Horgan after last week's draw with Kilkenny, doubled because of a previous Category Three offence during a Super 11s game in Boston last November, will be felt as will the prospective loss of Damien Reck to a hamstring injury.

One of the county's All-Ireland medal winners in 1996, Tom Dempsey, doesn't see Sunday's final in such defining terms, however.

"Davy has brought us a long way in the last three years. There is a very strong view down here on that. We had quite an up-and-down period of non-competitiveness, the standard of the Kilkenny subsiding has helped that. But we have lowered the colours of a lot of the bigger counties in that period," said Dempsey.

"He has delivered us back to the top table of hurling. There have been periods where we were going up saying 'well if we can get over the first half we mightn't get a big beating.' That is well and truly gone."

Their record against Kilkenny in the three years shines brightest. Incorporating three Walsh Cup games, they've met nine times now and their account is balanced, four wins each with one draw. Even the difference from all nine scorelines is minimal, just one point in Kilkenny's favour.

Dempsey feels Kilkenny have struggled more with the system that Fitzgerald has laid out for his team, a strategy that still divides opinion in the county.

"We have perhaps wrongly used Kilkenny as the barometer of our performances over the last while. But it's as successful as we have been with them bar a few periods, 1996/97, 1976/77 and the halcyon days of the 1950s when Wexford were on top," he reflected.

"I'm a little bit worried about it. we don't do things by half so we have to keep calm. A few things have changed in the two weeks, one is that the likes of Cillian Buckley, James Maher and Walter Walsh will be further down the line of recovery for Kilkenny and, will we see TJ Reid scoring three points and that's it? Plus Wexford Park has been a fortress for us, Croke Park has been like a second home for Kilkenny teams for 25 years and more."

Still, Dempsey feels that it's the first time in 22 years they can feel, deep down, they have a chance of beating Kilkenny in a Leinster final.

"I don't think Sunday can define the team and this period. But a win would feel like the icing on the cake. No doubt about that."

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