Friday 6 December 2019

Patience was a virtue for solid Wexford

Kevin Foley
Kevin Foley

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. We're trying new things, so let's see how we get on. Let's be patient," he said.

Wexford adjusted quickly. Less than three months after that 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 Galway before being eliminated from the All-Ireland race by Waterford.

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. Anyway, it's only January - I'm happy with where we're at," he said.

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.

"The sweeper system is not negative," insisted Fitzgerald in the face of persistent criticism. "It just needs to be shown the way it operates. It's good for hurling, not bad."

In any event, it was too late for an overhaul. 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.

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

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