Wexford revival sees a rivalry reborn as Davy Fitz looks to skin Cats
Training went well for the minor hurlers in Naomh Eanna, Gorey on Wednesday night.
They are, in the words of manager Billy Byrne, "a right good group". Together with fellow mentors John Lavin and Kieran O'Dwyer, Byrne is nurturing their hopes and dreams as the wheel begins to turn for another generation.
Underage Wexford teams have done well in recent times, especially the U-21s, who won three successive Leinster titles from 2013-15, victories made so much sweeter by beating Kilkenny three times, twice in finals.
Youngsters across the county would have felt their ambitions surge as they witnessed something not seen at senior level since 2004, the last time Wexford beat Kilkenny. Prior to that, it hadn't happened in the championship since 1997 when Wexford, the then reigning All-Ireland champions, staged a memorable finish to win the Leinster final.
Byrne, aged 37 at the time, came on as a sub in the 64th minute, with the words of manager Rory Kinsella ringing in his ears.
"Right Billy, get in there and hang around the square." Byrne hung in alright. He scored 1-2 in the final six minutes and Wexford won by six points. More optimistic supporters believed that Wexford had hit the jackpot and would never know another poor day.
Almost 20 years later, there are no more senior All-Irelands in Wexford and only one Leinster title, won in 2004.
There have been many awful days too, mostly at the cruel hand of Kilkenny, presided over by Brian Cody. In fact, they are so numerous that Wexford people want to forget them.
However, there's fresh hope around now, a feeling that they are advancing rapidly. Liam Dunne signed off as manager last year, predicting a great future for many of the young talents in the county.
And then along came Davy Fitzgerald, complete with a swashbuckling presence, steely determination and a sense of destiny.
In his first season as Waterford manager in 2008, he led them to the All-Ireland final for the first time 45 years; two years later they won the Munster title.
In his second season as Clare manager, he steered them to All-Ireland success. In his first season as Wexford manager, he has already hit a target which most people thought was beyond them, winning promotion in Division 1B, ahead of pre-season favourites Galway and Limerick.
Last Wednesday night in Gorey, Byrne's minors talked of Nowlan Park tomorrow not in a fearful way but with the confidence of youth. It was the same all across Wexford this week as supporters made plans for the trip to Kilkenny.
Byrne, who will be there as an analyst for South East radio, is far too experienced to fall for the hype that is beginning to lap around the county.
Beating Limerick and Galway was impressive, but out-gunning Kilkenny in Nowlan Park would be an altogether different proposition.
If Wexford need reminding, all they have to do is look back on the 2015 Leinster semi-final when Kilkenny squashed them 5-25 to 0-16 in Nowlan Park.
It's different now, of course, with Kilkenny's status under more scrutiny than for a long time. The nonsense, which claimed they were in serious trouble after losing the first two games has dissipated, but it's true that opposition don't regard them with quite the same sense of awe that applied for so long.
Despite that, Byrne advises caution.
"You can only judge a team over a few years, not a few weeks or months," he said. "People who talk of Kilkenny falling back have no evidence at all because it isn't there.
"Look at all the All-Irelands and Leagues they've won. Even last year, they were in the All-Ireland final. And after a slow start to the League, they're in the quarter-finals, same as they nearly always are."
More interesting from a Wexford perspective is whether a new dawn is about to break. Their early-season surge has certainly raised expectations, perhaps even to over-inflated levels. Fitzgerald has repeatedly called for patience, pointing out that he is embarking on a long-term project, which will encounter bumps along the way.
Indeed, two months ago he took a took a gentle swipe at Wexford supporters who he felt were uncomfortable with the style of play deployed against Kilkenny in the Walsh Cup semi-final in New Ross.
"You could sense the crowed getting frustrated at times in the first half. They've got to stop and give lads a chance," he said after a game which his side lost by a point. Significantly though, a crowd of over 3,000 attended on a miserable January day, proof that the Wexford public want to get aboard for the Fitzy adventure.
"There's no doubt about it - he has brought a huge buzz to the scene and the great start has added to it. Wexford people are always looking forward, always hoping for a lift and, so far under Davy, things have gone really well," said Byrne.
"The hurlers are there and it's now a matter of getting them to believe in themselves. Davy is very good at that, and players take to him."
With four possible opponents in the quarter-finals, many Wexford people would have preferred if the team had been paired with Tipperary, Waterford or Cork.
It's not that they don't relish the prospect of watching the team test themselves against their great old rivals but they also have one eye to the Championship.
If Wexford beat a round-robin qualifier, they will have home advantage against Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final.
"With that in mind, it's very important for Wexford to put in a really good performance on Sunday," said Byrne.
"Even if they don't win, the big thing is to come out of it in good shape. They wouldn't want to be playing Kilkenny in June off a bad result.
"I don't think that will happen. They showed a great spirit against the big teams in 1B - Limerick and Galway - which will have done wonders for their confidence.
"Beating Galway in Pearse Stadium was a result any county would be proud of."
Byrne has noticed a pep in the step of his minor squad in recent weeks and believes it's all part of the feelgood factor in Wexford now. The Naomh Eanna youngsters are, of course, looking up to club colleague Conor McDonald, Wexford's top scorer and a key man in Fitzy's project.
"They're fierce proud of Conor and the better he does, the more it encourages them to work towards being like him. And if Wexford continue to make progress, it will lift everyone in the county," said Byrne.
Beating Kilkenny in the Championship is, of course, the big aim after the balance of the famous rivalry has been tilted in the Cats' direction for so long. First though, there's tomorrow's test.
"There will a very big Wexford crowd there. We're not getting carried away but we expect a really good, battling performance. That would set things up nicely for the summer. After that, all we need is a good crop of strawberries," said Byrne.