'We just let them at it' - Davy Fitzgerald says Wexford are benefiting from being cut loose
Wexford 0-21 Cork 1-14
Back in the dim and distant past, as in January of last year, maybe the only thing watching Wexford hurl on a bitingly cold day could promise was curvature of the spine.
But the sound of whistling timber under a winter sky had their people exultant in the cauldron that was Innovate Wexford Park yesterday where 7,740 witnessed this rollicking win over the Munster champions, almost certainly securing Wexford's Division 1A status for another season.
It was their first National League defeat of Cork in seven seasons and one earned on the back of modern tactic that came salted with a re-assuring abundance of old-fashioned dander.
Davy Fitzgerald's men restricted Cork to a paltry three points in the closing 36 minutes, during which time they themselves rattled over 0-10, every score at the church end palpably causing tectonic plates to shift somewhere in the south east.
Cork manager John Meyler acknowledged as much afterwards.
"It was nearly a Championship match in the first week of February - the intensity and the speed were incredible, the crowd were on their feet," said Meyler of a riotous day in his native county.
"Wexford were ferociously competitive and intense; they're physical, big men, very mobile. And they're probably two weeks ahead of us, but I'm delighted with the commitment we showed.
"I'm disappointed with the result, but a good performance."
Cork had opened with compelling venom, Conor Lehane dancing around Matthew O'Hanlon to goal easily inside five minutes and, seconds later, the Midleton man was racing in towards an unprotected Wexford square again only for Mark Fanning to intervene with a terrific save.
From the line, Fitzgerald could be seen in an animated exchange with sweeper Shaun Murphy, his forensics already under way in exploration of how a backline buttressed by an extra body could turn into O'Connell Street with the traffic lights turned off.
In time, the Wexford defence settled, albeit without ever quite subduing the threat of Lehane, who had O'Hanlon and, subsequently, Paudie Foley working overtime to avoid any repeat of that fifth-minute concession.
With the wind at their backs, Cork should really have built on a four-point advantage inside ten minutes, but the work-rate of their opponents was unrelenting and, despite Wexford's two-man full-forward line of Cathal Dunbar and Paul Morris was getting little change out of the Cork defence, that gap never widened.
In fact a wonderful fetch and score from Lee Chin on 20 minutes narrowed the margin to two points and he repeated the feat six minutes later, Cork by now beginning to sense that this was going to be more than a day of simple checks and balances.
They led 1-9 to 0-10 at the mid-point, but Fitzgerald would have been frustrated by the number of times his players took the wrong option with short hand-passes into congested areas of the field.
A glaring accumulation of wides after the resumption (they leaked eight in the first 17 minutes of the half) would have deepened that frustration too.
But Wexford were getting well on top now, with Liam Ryan a colossus on the edge of the square and Chin, Kevin Foley and Aidan Nolan really storming into things in the middle third.
Paul Morris, too, was having a stormer, while Jack Guiney barely had his tracksuit off before nailing a spectacular over-the-shoulder score that almost blew the roof off the stand.
It was all Wexford now, Fitzgerald having shuffled his pack by switching Diarmuid O'Keeffe back to a familiar wing-back berth, putting the impressive Foley on Lehane and endlessly counselling his team to "take the space".
Remarkably, Cork would not add to Alan Cadogan's 38thminute point until substitute Michael Cahalane raised a white flag in the 61st minute. Still, Shane Kingston soon added another to push them a point in front with just seven minutes of normal time remaining, yet Wexford would win the remainder 0-5 to 0-0.
Guiney's beauty was the first of those, while others followed from Nolan, Guiney (a free), Harry Kehoe and O'Keeffe. Cahalane did have an injury-time goal chance for Cork, blazing well wide under pressure from a back-line now hunting in venomous packs.
So Wexford reeled off those last five scores of the game to maintain an unbeaten start to the year that seems sure to come under serious questioning the next day out against Tipperary in Thurles.
Meyler had no complaints, having to replace an ill Seamus Harnedy at half-time and Bill Cooper soon after to a bang on the knee. And he remained philosophical about an attacking half-forward line that, having opened on fire, eventually petered out into little more than a rumour.
"Wexford just had the edge on us on the back of playing Dublin, Kilkenny and Waterford in the last three weeks," he reflected. "They were that little bit sharper and more composed in the end and got some critical scores.
"We'd a lot of young lads out there but they showed a good work ethic. Wexford's fitness levels for this time of year are very good and we still have a way to go. But we'll get up there.
"The last five minutes, they really threw the kitchen sink at us. We had that goal opportunity late on, worked it through the lines well, but didn't take it. You learn from your mistakes."
For now, the Davy Fitz era brings endless summer to the south east then. Even without David Dunne, Rory O'Connor, Shane Tomkins and Liam Og McGovern yesterday, they still looked a group with strength in depth.
Had they maybe made this one tougher than it needed to be?
"I probably agree with you, but you know what? Aren't we better to have battles like that where we're actually coming out on top?" he replied with a card-shark's grin. "That's what we want. The atmosphere there at the end was incredible.
"People say it's very early in the year, but I don't really care. Winning isn't a bad habit and the supporters make such a difference. We're not going to get over the line if they're not behind us."
Someone suggested he might be mellowing with old age.
"Listen there are times to get animated," he smiled. "I've left this up to them. They know the story. They're just told to go out and hurl. We just let them off, let them at it and I think they are getting more confident. We'll hit a patch where we lose a few games, but you know what? Wexford are there or thereabouts, not at the top yet, but we're not a hundred miles off it"
A people now oblivious to winter.
Where all this will lead, of course, is anybody's guess.
SCORERS - Wexford: L Chin 0-6 (2fs, 1 '65'), A Nolan, K Foley, P Morris 0-3 each, J Guiney 0-2 (1f), M Fanning (f), D O'Keeffe, C McDonald, H Kehoe 0-1 each. Cork: C Lehane 1-2 (0-1f), P Horgan 0-4 (3fs), A Cadogan 0-2, D Fitzgibbon, S Kingston, R O'Floinn, B Cooper, S Harnedy, M Cahalane 0-1 each.
WEXFORD - M Fanning 7; D Reck 6, L Ryan 8, S Murphy 6; P Foley 8, M O'Hanlon 6, S Donohoe 7; K Foley 8, D O'Keeffe 7; A Nolan 9, L Chin 8, J O'Connor 6; P Morris 8, C Dunbar 6, C McDonald 7. Subs: W Devereux 7 for Reck (28), J Guiney 7 for O'Connor (53), H Kehoe 6 for Dunbar (61).
CORK - P Collins 7; S O'Donoghue 6, E Cadogan 7, C O'Sullivan 7; C Joyce 7, T O'Mahony 7, M Ellis 7; D Fitzgibbon 6, D Kearney 6; R O'Floinn 7, C Lehane 8, B Cooper 6; A Cadogan 7, P Horgan 6, S Harnedy 6. Subs: L Meade 6 for Harnedy (half-time), S Kingston 6 for Cooper (46), B Lawton 6 for Fitzgibbon (46), D Cahalane 6 for Kearney (55), M Cahalane 6 for Horgan (60), J O'Connor for Cadogan (69).
Ref -J Keenan (Wicklow)