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Saturday 24 August 2019

Wexford players' bond with Fitzy is key - O'Keeffe

Wexford's Conor McDonald and manager Davy Fitzgerald with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup
Wexford's Conor McDonald and manager Davy Fitzgerald with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup

There are several ways to measure the seismic leap taken by Davy Fitzgerald in his three seasons with Wexford - progress now copperfastened by a first Leinster title in 15 years.

A good place to start might be their semi-final horror show against Kilkenny in 2015, when they crept out of Nowlan Park on the wrong end of a 24-point rout, 5-25 to 0-16.

Eight of that team - Mark Fanning, Liam Ryan, Lee Chin, Matthew O'Hanlon, Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Paul Morris, Conor McDonald and Liam Óg McGovern - started Sunday's famine-ending final against Kilkenny.

Meanwhile, of the subs introduced that day, Kevin Foley started in Croke Park two days ago while Harry Kehoe made a late appearance off the bench.

Deflating

In a way, Wexford's exit from the 2016 Leinster race was just as deflating: on a sodden Saturday night in May, just 13,066 were there to endure a Croke Park double-header of Kildare/Wexford (in football) and Dublin/Wexford (in hurling). They lost the latter damp squib by 13 points - 2-19 to 0-12. The funereal atmosphere was the polar opposite of Sunday's celebratory chaos, watched by 51,842.

And yet that 2016 Wexford team against Dublin featured eight players who started at the weekend: Ryan, O'Hanlon, Paudie Foley, O'Keeffe, Jack O'Connor, Morris, McGovern and McDonald.

It might have been more but for injuries, with Chin a notabl e absentee. Three others, Kehoe, David Dunne and and Cathal Dunbar, saw game-time both days.

What does all this tell us? Firstly, that Wexford pre-Fitzgerald had plenty of talent but they were mired in inconsistency. You couldn't rely on them.

After all, they subsequently travelled further in the 2016 championship than Dublin, enjoying a standout qualifier win over Cork, who had beaten the Dubs a week earlier.

As he basked in Sunday's thrilling victory, Diarmuid O'Keeffe harked back to that Dublin defeat at the same venue.

"It's mad to think that there was 10 or 11 players who were playing that night out there today," O'Keeffe remarked.

"Every year is different," he added, "you have to work really, really hard and stick to the game plan and hope it works out for you."

The marauding midfielder referenced the words of joint-captain O'Hanlon - that Fitzgerald would "die for us" and they would do the same for him - to sum up a bond that "we haven't had with any other manager."

Homegrown

And yet O'Keeffe didn't forget his predecessor, homegrown hero Liam Dunne, the man in charge for those dispiriting defeats to Kilkenny (in '15) and Dublin (in '16).

"A lot of the lads in there started with Liam Dunne back in 2012 and, in fairness to Liam, he brought us a hell of a long way in the five years that we had him," he stressed.

"He completely changed the culture that was in the Wexford dressing-room. Davy has obviously brought it on another step again but, between the two lads, they've done trojan work."

Work now rewarded.

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