Retiring Fitzhenry 'best keeper of era'
AS glowing tributes greeted the inter-county retirement of Wexford goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry yesterday, Colm Bonnar said that the 35-year-old's lamented departure offers an opportunity for someone else.
"Only when a player of Damien's stature retires do you realise the massive gap he leaves behind," said Wexford manager Bonnar. "But as one door closes, another opens and there's a great chance now for someone else to make that position their own."
Dermot Flynn (Rathnure), who was rotated with Fitzhenry in last year's NHL, is in pole position to take over, but the Wexford panel also includes two more 'keepers in Noel Carton (Cloughbawn) and Mark Fanning (Glynn-Barntown), last year's minor netminder.
"Damien was a marvellous goal-keeper, one of the top three in Ireland all during his career," said Bonnar of the Duffry Rovers star, who first lined out for Wexford's seniors in 1993.
"People will point to his brilliant shot-stopping but Damien also had a marvellous puck-out and could vary and deliver them with pinpoint accuracy, which is increasingly a key part of the modern game."
Bonnar tried to get Fitzhenry to stay on for an 18th season but said he respected the veteran's decision to call it a day.
Fitzhenry revealed that he had given it a lot of thought.
"It wasn't a fly-by-night decision; I thought long and hard about it," stressed Fitzhenry. "But it's now time to give someone else a run at it.
"If you look at senior hurling at the minute, it's going into a serious game," he added.
"I don't think it's really about age, it's the amount of time and preparation and sacrifices that go into it. I have never faltered for 20 years to make those sacrifices but I think now is the time to move on to different things."
Fitzhenry won one All-Ireland, three Leinster senior titles and two All Stars (1997 and 2004) during an illustrious career.
He was the last member of Wexford's historic All-Ireland-winning team of 1996 to be still playing for the county.
Liam Griffin, their '96 manager, described him yesterday as "No 1 in the country in an era of absolutely fantastic goalkeepers".
"We will all miss him but I still think it is the right decision and I respect him for it," Griffin said. "What does that man owe Wexford? He was just a fantastic servant and such a loyal Wexford man."
Griffin said that one of Fitzhenry's special talents was his ability to double up as a last-line 'sweeper'.
There was rarely an inter-county game that Fitzhenry did not embellish with at least one of his trademark instinctive saves.
He also took penalties for the county, including two en route to their famous All-Ireland title in 1996.
Perhaps the most memorable performance of his Wexford career was the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick which finished with an extraordinary 4-10 to 2-15 scoreline.
Fitzhenry made an uncharacteristic error to concede a goal but then went on to score two himself.
The first was a penalty and the second was a rocket from a 20-metre free in the dying minutes which spectacularly snatched Wexford's one-point victory and prompted team-mate Larry Murphy's description of it as "a bolt of lightning".
Fitzhenry also made three sensational first-half saves in the subsequent semi-final against Tipperary.
He is also a talented dual player with Duffry Rovers where he plays outfield in football. Alongside his nine brothers, he helped the club win seven successive Wexford SFC titles from 1986-1992.