Wexford tide set to keep on rising
It has been a long time since Wexford's hurling fields looked as green, and with so many talented workers beavering diligently, the feeling throughout the county is that bountiful crops are on the way.
Whether they are harvested this year, or at some point later on, remains the only question among supporters, who are basking in the giddy excitement being generated by a decisive upward surge.
"We've had enough disappointing times - we're not going back there. The mood in Wexford now is as upbeat as I've seen it," said former All-Ireland winner Billy Byrne who keeps a close eye on the scene as an analyst with South East Radio.
This week last year, Byrne predicted that Wexford would beat Kilkenny in the Allianz League quarter-final, a game that many have since regarded as a hugely significant staging post on the journey embarked upon a few months earlier when Davy Fitzgerald took over as team manager.
Fitzgerald's first impact was to preside over promotion from Division 1B, no mean feat in a group that included Galway and Limerick. However, it was the win over the Cats in Nowlan Park that took Wexford into a new world.
A year on, they have again reached the League semi-final after coping comfortably with the tough demands in 1A, before moving things to a higher level by beating Galway, the reigning All-Ireland and League champions.
A dormant Wexford support sprang to life last year, eventually swelling the attendance at the Leinster final to a record of over 60,000. Wexford lost to Galway and were later beaten by Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but the county still believed. Now their faith is even stronger.
"It took people a while to believe in the system that Davy introduced but they do now because they can it how it's working," said Byrne. "He uses an extra man back but what's a sweeper in hurling?
"There's so much energy all over the field, and in fairness to Davy, his system is based on lots of movement. Lads can pop up anywhere - that makes it hard for the opposition to figure out. It's good to watch too and the Wexford supporters are really enjoying it, especially since good results are following."
Doubts about the tactics were raised in the media after the defeat by Waterford last July, with sceptics (mostly ex-players turned pundits) claiming that opposition had figured out how to counteract them, but Byrne believes that was a wrong assessment.
"Wexford had a long season up to the Waterford game. They had to put in an awful lot of hard work early in the year and then keep it going. I think it was more fatigue than wrong tactics that cost them. When players are tired, everything else looks wrong too. I always felt confident that when they came back fresh this year, they would drive things on again," he said.
Fitzgerald's predecessor Liam Dunne insisted for the last two years of his term that when the young talent in the county matured into seniors, the squad would be good enough to match the best, a process that has now unfolded.
Byrne references the county's influence at colleges' level as a sign of how Wexford hurling has advanced in recent years
"There were 10 or 11 Wexford lads on the top college teams this year. Go back four or five years and it wasn't like that," he said. "These are serious young hurlers who are mixing it with the best from other counties.
"Fitzgibbon Cup hurling is very intense. If a player can do well there, there's a good chance he will be ready for what awaits him at inter-county level. Wexford lads have stood up at third level and they are doing it with the county team too.
"Another interesting thing is how big they are. Galway are a very powerful side physically but Wexford matched them last Saturday. That was great to see because it doesn't matter how good a hurler you are, you have to be able to stand up to the physical demands or else you'll struggle."
As he looked on at half-time and after the game on home turf last Saturday, he was taken by the swarms of youngsters on the pitch, proof that Wexford's traditional devotion to hurling has been reawakened in the next generation.
"To me, that was nearly as good as the win. There was a time not so long ago when you wouldn't have seen that - now all the youngsters want to be there," said Byrne. "Watching the Wexford lads out on the pitch afterwards signing autographs made you realise what it means to have a team going well.
"And fair play to Joe Canning. Galway lost, but he stayed out there a long time too signing autographs. That's what the spirit of hurling is all about."
With success comes ever-increasing expectations and now Wexford supporters are beginning to believe that a first League title since 1973 is a realistic target.
Byrne won't puncture the optimism bubble, but he's warns against presuming anything.
"We wouldn't want to get carried away. People who know their hurling are not, especially with Kilkenny next up," he said. "It's as tough a test as Wexford could ask for but the great thing is that we're now playing well enough to believe we can win any game.
"That doesn't mean that we will, but we're at a level where we can match anyone on a given day."