Wednesday 17 January 2018

Putting the fire back in the yellow bellies

Davy Fitzgerald celebrates with Conor McDonald after Wexford’s victory over Kilkenny which booked their spot in the Leinster SHC final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Davy Fitzgerald celebrates with Conor McDonald after Wexford’s victory over Kilkenny which booked their spot in the Leinster SHC final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

At a meeting on the Wednesday night before the 1996 Leinster hurling final, the Wexford squad were asked to write down why they would beat Offaly.

It was easier to think of reasons why they wouldn't. They had lost the 1992-'93-'94 finals, suffered a seven-point beating by Offaly in the 1995 semi-final and were about to take them on again.

'Dunne has a different and deeply personal perspective, having managed Wexford for five years up to the end of last season.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
'Dunne has a different and deeply personal perspective, having managed Wexford for five years up to the end of last season.' Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Still, if the exercise was to work players had to be optimistic and so they were. Trust, unity, faith and determination were all mentioned. Liam Dunne offered a particularly interesting reason: "We have decided that we will beat Offaly," he wrote.

And they did, winning by eight points, before building on that success by going on to take the All-Ireland title.

At the age of 28, Dunne was one of the more experienced performers. At the inexperienced end were two 20-year-olds, Declan Ruth and Mitch Jordan, who later went on to enjoy successful careers, albeit without getting to play in an All-Ireland final.

All three will be in Croke Park tomorrow, this time as Wexford supporters for what the county hopes is the next chapter in a new and exciting tale. Ruth and Jordan played on the last Wexford team to win a Leinster title in 2004 so they know the tingle of excitement that's coursing through the camp now.

Dunne has a different and deeply personal perspective, having managed Wexford for five years up to the end of last season. Most of the players who will take the Wexford colours into the Leinster final for the first time in eight years played under him so there's little he doesn't know about each individual.

He texted his best wishes to them this week and once throw-in time arrives tomorrow, he knows he will experience an unusual tension.

"Having been so close to the group for so long, I know how they feel, how they react, how they work. I said it all along that this bunch of players would put Wexford hurling back on the map. They were ready for the next step at the end of last year and they're taking it this year. The transition is over in Wexford.

"They still have a lot of experience to pick up but they're settled and they're confident in themselves. Whatever success comes their way, they deserve it.

"It didn't matter what setbacks they got over the last few years, they kept coming back, stronger and more determined. That's what makes them the group they are. The whole of Wexford should be proud of them. I certainly am," says Dunne.

Supportive

Despite a rather unsatisfactory end to his term as manager, Dunne was fully supportive of Davy Fitzgerald from the start.

"Of course I was. I'm a Wexford man and I want to see them do as well as possible. Davy came in with an awful lot of experience from his time with Waterford and Clare and has pushed things on in Wexford. I'm 100 per cent behind him.

"In fairness, he took over at a great time. An awful lot of progress had been made. Lads like Gerry Fitzpatrick on strength and conditioning and Paudie Butler on the skills side put in a huge amount of work over the previous years.

"Wexford people shouldn't forget that five years ago it was 50-50 whether players went with the hurling or football squads. Not anymore. I remember saying to Lee Chin when he could be an average footballer or a great hurler. Look at him now - one of the best hurlers in the country," says Dunne.

Ruth and Jordan can hardly believe that it's 13 years since they played on the last Wexford team to win the Leinster title, beating Offaly in the final. Having stunned Kilkenny in the semi-final, Wexford were hot favourites to win the title, unlike this year when they are 3/1 outsiders.

"It hasn't happened very often that the team that beat Kilkenny aren't favourites to win Leinster. But then we didn't have to worry about Galway in our day. It's good for hurling that Galway are playing in Leinster but it certainly makes it harder to win the title.

"Still, if Wexford beat Kilkenny and Galway it will make the title all the more special," says Jordan.

Ruth is impressed by the new sense of confidence and ambition that's running through Wexford hurling and believes that something real and substantial is being built.

It's a different world to the grim years when they were trapped under Kilkenny's giant thumb. That's underlined by the reaction in Wexford to this final as opposed to their last appearance in 2008.

Having been well-beaten by Kilkenny in 2006 and 2007, confidence was so low among the Wexford public that many stayed away from the 2008 final. Only 18,855 attended a game which Kilkenny won by 19 points. Effectively, there was no positive spin-off from the 2004 Leinster success.

"To some degree, you could see it coming. We just didn't have the depth of talent in the county," says Ruth.

The mood is completely different in Wexford now. The championship wins over Clare, then All-Ireland champions, in 2014 and Cork last year showed that Wexford could beat top opposition on a given day.

Unfortunately for them, they lacked consistency, which Dunne puts down to inexperience and an injury curse which seriously undermined them.

"They were always going to come good - it was just a matter of time."

Wexford have won eight of nine league and championship games this year, with the only defeat coming against Tipperary in the Division 1 semi-final. They did well for an hour but fell apart from there on. By the close of play, Tipperary had 5-18 on the board as they ran out 11-point winners. The latter stages of that game was the only time that Wexford's systems completely misfired. "Davy's game-plans have worked well overall. Lads know what they're doing and they stick with it. They see that it's working, which brings more confidence. If you believe in something and see it's going well, you feel better about the whole set-up," adds Ruth.

Jordan says that fears they might overdo handpassing have not materialised. "It's certainly a different style to what Wexford people are used to but it's getting results. The handpassing is being used sensibly to get out of trouble. People say that Wexford are set up very defensively but they're putting up big scores so the attacking side of the game is functioning well too," he continues.

Dunne still has some concerns about the defensive set-up, pointing to Tipperary's five goals and three by Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final.

Match-ups

"The good teams will hit you if you don't get everything right. Davy's system is really going to have to work against Galway. They took Wexford for granted in the league - they won't do that again," he says.

Ruth would play Shaun Murphy a bit deeper to provide more protection in front of goal. He also believes it's vital that Wexford gets the match-ups right.

"Davy has plenty experience of that. I'm sure he'll have worked it all out," he says.

All three concede that matching a Galway team whose confidence is sky-high will be very difficult. And while Wexford beat Galway in the league, there's a massive difference between Salthill on a windy February afternoon and Croke Park in early July.

"Galway are a huge team, not just down the middle but nearly everywhere. And the one lad that isn't that big - Conor Whelan - is some hurler. It's not a Joe (Canning) show in attack anymore.

"They can play any way you want. Offaly played two sweepers so they started popping points from way out the field. Our lads will need to be awake to every trick and I'm sure they will," says Dunne.

So will Wexford's surge continue?

"I'd be very hopeful. They have made huge progress and a bit more could win this one for them," Ruth says.

"We're talking small margins here but it things go right for Wexford, they can win," says Jordan.

"I never thought a Wexford team couldn't win a game and knowing these lads so well I every confidence in them," adds Dunne.

Irish Independent

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