Sunday 25 August 2019

The evolution of Davy's Model men

From Leinster paupers to princes - Fitzgerald's faith in his systems has been vindicated this year

Wexford players, here celebrating with the Bob O’Keeffe Cup after their Leinster final win over Kilkenny, will know they have to step up another level against Tipp. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford players, here celebrating with the Bob O’Keeffe Cup after their Leinster final win over Kilkenny, will know they have to step up another level against Tipp. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Davy Fitzgerald knew it would take time to win over the Wexford public with the type of game he was planning to use, but he didn't expect the reservations to emerge so quickly.

A Walsh Cup semi-final on a cold, wet day in New Ross in January 2017 provided him with an early indication of the scale of the challenge ahead.

More than 3,000 curious spectators saw Wexford lose by a point, having been denied victory when Kilkenny goalkeeper Richie Reid made a brilliant save from Cathal Dunbar in the final minute.

Fitzgerald was pleased with the performance, but didn't hide his irritation over the reaction of sections of the crowd, who obviously didn't like the new approach, which featured a sweeper.

"You could sense the crowd getting frustrated at times in the first half. They've got to stop and give the lads a chance," he said. "We're trying new things, so let's see how we get on. Let's be patient, give lads a chance to settle into what we want to do.

"We need to be patient - that's the most important thing. I'm three months into the job and trying to work on a lot of different ideas. When we went to Clare, it took maybe a year and a bit to get to grips with it."

Wexford adjusted quicker. Less than three months after the Walsh Cup defeat, they were in the Allianz League semi-final after being promoted from 1B and by early July the N11 was jammed with traffic as Wexford decamped to Croke Park for the Leinster final.

They lost by nine points to a Galway team which was much further down the development line before being eliminated from the All-Ireland race by Waterford.

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Last year was broadly similar, except they didn't reach the Leinster final. By the start of this season, Fitzgerald was convinced they were ready to take a step up, especially after running Limerick to three points in the opening League game.

"We were missing a good few lads, but we still gave ourselves a chance to win against the All-Ireland champions. A lot of teams will lose to Limerick by much more than we did. Anyway, it's only January - I'm happy with where we're at," he reflected.

He's happier now as they head into an All-Ireland semi-final as Leinster champions, a success that has made everyone see Wexford in a different light. Up to then, many regarded the evolution of the squad as too slow. Even some of the most ardent supporters began to question whether the style and tactics would ever take the team to the next level.

Racehorse trainer Jim Bolger - a life-long devotee of Wexford hurling in a variety of capacities - expressed his frustrations on radio after the draw with Dublin in the Leinster 'round-robin' in May.

Traditional

"If we went back to the traditional style of hurling that Wexford always had, we'd be winning more games and we'd be going home winners," said Bolger. "That short game is very energy-sapping and very risky. To me, it makes no sense whatsoever. Go back to the Wexford traditional style of hurling and we'll win."

Bolger wasn't alone in that view, but however widespread it may have been, Fitzgerald had no intention of changing direction.

"The sweeper system is not negative. It just needs to be shown the way it operates. It's good for hurling, not bad," he reasoned.

In any event, it was too late for an overhaul. Wexford were in their third season playing a certain way and a draw against in Dublin in Parnell Park wasn't going to change that.

Some subtle adjustments were made this year, including deploying Kevin Foley as the 'sweeper' in place of Shaun Murphy.

It has worked well, most recently in the Leinster final win over Kilkenny where Foley was outstanding in the 'sweeping' role, while Murphy did very well at corner-back.

Wexford are the only team to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals without losing a game, proof of a growing solidity and confidence.

Liam Dunne, who preceded Fitzgerald, had been predicting for years that the young talent coming through in Wexford would eventually take the county to the top.

Twelve of the 19 players (it would have been 15 if Aidan Nolan hadn't been suspended) who featured against Kilkenny in the Leinster final played under Dunne against Waterford in the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final.

Strengthened by the arrival of Rory O'Connor (20), man-of-the-match in the Leinster final, Damien and Shane Reck (20 and 22 respectively) and Conor Firman (20), the squad have gathered impressive momentum - and now the question is whether Fitzgerald can guide them to more glory.

Despite the initial scepticism, the Fitzgerald-Wexford combination is a good fit, the reason for which he explained with comical simplicity after the Leinster final.

"They're half-made and I'm half-mad," the Clare native quipped.

On the basis of recent months there's a lot more method that madness behind the Model story.

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