Darragh Egan a Model leader as Wexford plot a way forward

Tipperary native brings a calm assurance and lots of coaching experience to his role as manager

Two first-season managers find themselves in Salthill this afternoon for an intriguing league hurling meeting.

Henry Shefflin's arrival in Galway last October generated a huge wave of anticipation while Darragh Egan enjoyed a more low-key announcement as the new Wexford manager a few weeks earlier. That would have suited the Kiladangan man just fine.

A wincing 2-29 to 0-19 defeat by Dublin in the Walsh Cup final in the last week of January seemed to give the Wexford hurling community a modest gauge by which to calibrate their expectations for the league.

The Davy Fitzgerald era, a fast and combustible five years, was done: Egan would need time to make his mark. Therefore, the first league outing, against reigning All-Ireland champions Limerick, was forecast as too much too soon for Wexford.

The result – 1-11 to 0-11 to Wexford – sent minor shockwaves and reasons for optimism far beyond Wexford. Yes, it was only the league and one of those blowy February days. But it was, in its own way, a sensational achievement.

How had Wexford managed to transform such a porous defensive effort in so short a time? How had they managed to hold the rapacious, free-scoring Kiely-Kinnerk attacking machine to 11 points over 70 minutes?

Afterwards, John Kiely said that Wexford were full value for their win: the better team on the day, hunting in packs. When Egan spoke with Liam Spratt of South East radio, he summed up the afternoon like this.

"Our commitment all week to the cause was excellent. We were obviously very disappointed leaving Croke Park last weekend. The manner of the defeat was quite heavy but ultimately we didn't perform. We didn't even go at that game properly, which was the worst thing. But today we knew we were going to get a performance in our home park.

“The lads usually raise their game for Wexford Park. Now it’s a matter of how we can transfer that to Cusack Park next weekend, to Salthill at the end of the month and to our two games against Offaly and Cork in March. But: really, really happy and again we just need to be mindful of the fact that Limerick left us in the game for long periods of that first half today and we still have lots to work on. This is a building project now, an education month for a lot of our lads, some of whom haven’t played league before.”

So much of what Egan brings was contained within that radio snippet – the low-key manner, the calm rationale and an overriding clarity as to where Wexford are in the pecking order. They followed that eye-catching result up with a second consecutive win, beating Clare on the road 2-20 to 1-20. This was achieved without Lee Chin, the team captain and field general.

Senior experience

Egan has used the early rounds of the league to distribute senior experience to players like Charlie McGuckin, Oisín Foley and Oisín Pepper. The gaping channels of space between the fullback and halfback line that allowed Dublin to run riot in that pre-season final have been plugged.

We are still in the opening stages of Egan’s very first act in Wexford. There are bound to be bumps in the road – it will probably take a major performance if Wexford are to avoid disappointment in Salthill. But what the last month has advertised is Egan’s ability to respond swiftly and to make required adjustments. He is only starting out but is already moulding his team.

None of this is surprising to those who know Egan. Although he is only 36, he’s always got things done quickly while never appearing to be in much of a rush. Art Flannery, his club mate and the current chairman of Kiladangan, recalls the day Egan made his senior appearance for the club. He was 15 and came on and scored a point in the North Intermediate final of 2001. It was a day of huge significance for a club that had been squeezed into the junior ranks for a time in the mid-1990s.

Egan made the transition from forward to goalkeeper, where he won an All-Ireland medal with Tipperary. But even when his playing career was in full flow, he always demonstrated an aptitude for coaching.

“Even when he was a young player in his 20s he was involved with the coaching side of things in the club,” says Flannery. “He has a natural affinity towards that side of things. He would have coached some of the current senior players. And the U-21 team we had last year he was involved in coaching at U-12. Darragh is very progressive in his thinking in that way. He is our coaching officer in the club . He is very good and progressive on player feedback and different gym programmes for different people.

“He was a principal at an early age in Puckane and there are commonalities there. You are teaching and educating and developing people and it aligns across the school and the club side. He is very big on the team side of things. There is an ethos in the club that every player is important. It’s not just the county guys or whatever. And Darragh is very much part of that even though he was our senior star for a number of years.”

Egan grew up in the club: his late father Jim won an Intermediate All-Ireland with Tipp’ in 1971 and managed the club in the 1990s. An annual juvenile tournament hosted by the club is held in his name. His brothers Colm and Cathal were good hurlers. His sister Gráinne is involved with the club.

“The family live in the village so Darragh has probably been down at the field most days from when he was first holding a hurl,” says Flannery.

Egan has a pleasant, unflappable kind of demeanour. But he wasn’t asked on to Liam Sheedy’s management set-up simply because he is good company. Egan had spent 2017 and 2018 as manager of the Tipperary U-16s squad when Sheedy invited him to join the senior set-up. For a young coach, those three seasons were an ideal apprenticeship.

Egan won an All-Ireland with Tipp' in 2010 as a panel member when he was operating as a forward. He finished up his inter-county career as reserve goalkeeper to Darren Gleeson.

Crucial role

He was just three years gone from the Tipp' senior squad as a player when he returned in a coaching capacity. Now, he had an opportunity to participate in the sessions under the stewardship of Sheedy, Eamon O'Shea and Tommy Dunne. During their successful All-Ireland season in 2019, Egan acted as stationary stats' interpreter. Again, it was the perfect role: out of the public eye but providing him with a crucial role in the masterplan.

"The stats are playing a part but they are only a bit part of your decision making," he told RTÉ's Eoin Ryan that summer. "Sometimes your eyes are the best judge, other times you are getting information in your ear that backs up what your eyes are seeing. I think that is important."

Sheedy’s calling card was an extreme attention to detail and a demanding, positive training ethic. Egan learned and watched over the three years. His experience as a goalkeeper gives him a sharp insight into the increasingly central role of that position. He remains immersed in Kiladangan club. In 2020, playing for the club’s second senior team, he both scored and saved a penalty in a relegation play-off game.

In welcoming Egan as senior manager, Wexford chairman Michael Martin singled out the qualities that had drawn them; "a sharp, enthusiastic and energetic leader who understands performance at a high level".

In 2019, Wexford’s crusading summer ended after a riveting semi-final against Tipperary when they were edged out by 1-28 to 3-20. It was probably the crescendo of the Fitzgerald era and Egan got to witness up close the damage his high-octane running game could cause. It was something to which he alluded after that Limerick win when he was asked about bringing a different style to this Wexford team.

“It is but I think if you look at the first half there, the best phases of our play are when we are carrying the ball through the lines at pace, something this group has worked very hard at over the past five years. So we are going to keep that part of our game.

“We are going to expand it and layer it as much as we possibly can. But that is going to take a lot of work. An awful lot of work on the training pitch. These next two months are going to be vital for the development of our team. So I think we don’t need to get too caught up in the style. We will be playing it as best we can, through the lines, direct. But a mix and match, a hybrid of both games, is what we need going forward.”

The notorious Salthill breeze is likely to dictate the style for both teams tomorrow afternoon. But the early promise of Wexford under Darragh Egan offers another bright note to a hurling season that might yet prove to be anybody’s guess.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times