Wexford lauds Davy Fitzgerald after historic Leinster double
John Conran, who led team to last title, says manager has brought them to another level
Wexford players celebrate securing the Leinster championship for the first time in 15 years. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
A great day for Wexford hurling on Sunday was reflected in the striking statistic that the minor and senior provincial double was achieved for the first time in all of 49 years.
The county had gone since 1985 without a Leinster minor title and since 2004 without a senior championship. One man, who bridged the two achievements is John Conran, a selector with this year’s minor team and manager of the previous team to win the Bob O’Keeffe Cup 15 years ago.
As he got ready to attend the homecoming event in Innovate Wexford Park where the teams were due to be presented, he summed up his feelings: “It’s fantastic, the first time we’ve won three titles on the one day – the ladies also won the Leinster intermediate.”
Although delighted with the outpouring of celebration in the county – 10,000 in Gorey in Sunday night – Conran is also wary of getting carried away. “We’ll enjoy it but as a county Wexford finds it easy to go into overdrive and we need to settle down and focus on what comes next.”
He remembers the last time the seniors won when under his management, they launched a tactical coup in a provincial semi-final against a Kilkenny side in the middle of winning 12 Leinster titles in 13 years.
“It was the players who came to the management and said that they had worked out a strategy around puck-outs and how to play low, fast ball into the corners. We were interested and sat down and talked it through.”
Was it not challenging to have the players come to management with game plans?
“Not at all. Whether in sport or business, the best outcomes are when people you’re working with take ownership of projects. We were delighted.”
Kilkenny were felled on a seismic day in June when Michael Jacob’s famous goal swung the verdict in the dying seconds. “It was probably the beginning of modern hurling in Wexford in that it was a tailored system. Since then the evolution of the game has been amazing.”
He would die for us and believe it or not, we would do the same for him
Fifteen Junes later, Wexford finally repeated the dose on Sunday, another goal but this time with six or seven minutes to go setting them on their way to beat Brian Cody’s team in a Leinster final for the first time ever.
Conran is full of praise for David Fitzgerald’s influence on turning the team into provincial winners and All-Ireland semi-finalists.
“Nowadays, teams have to have systems or a tactical appreciation of how they’re going to play the game. Brian Cody has tended to go with tried and tested approaches but Wexford are very structured and the players implement the plan very effectively.”
One of the championship’s great performers for Wexford has been centrefielder Diarmuid O’Keeffe, who is experienced enough to appreciate the scale of the achievement and those who helped to guide it along the way.
“Absolutely awesome. We started many moons ago; 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 completely changed the culture that was in the Wexford dressingroom. Davy has obviously brought it on another step again but between the two lads they’ve done Trojan work – delighted for them as well.
“Matt [O’Hanlon, joint-captain] said something exceptionally accurate in the speech: he said that he [Fitzgerald] would do anything for us – he would die for us and believe it or not, we would do the same for him.
“There’s a bond there between this group of players that we haven’t had with any other manager and look it’s great, he brings a lot to it, energy, passion, but he’s organised and communication is top notch. We couldn’t fault him in any way.”
Ironically, one of the high points of Dunne’s tenure was probably deposing Fitzgerald’s All-Ireland winning Clare team in a 2014 qualifier replay.
“Davy has brought it to a new level,” says Conran. “Fifteen-on-fifteen has gone out the window but players have to believe in and buy into the system. If you look at Sunday it’s remarkable how Wexford didn’t panic. With five minutes left, they kept their composure.”
If anything it was Kilkenny who began uncharacteristically to look for goals when just three points behind in the closing minutes. That deficit had come from the crucial penalty scored by goalkeeper Mark Fanning in the 64th minute.
O’Keeffe couldn’t bear to look.
“I’ll tell you what: I turned around and looked into the ground. Mark in fairness to him has a serious stroke. I presume he connected with it but whether it went in or didn’t go in, we had another job to do from the puck-out, but thankfully yeah it went in.”
“It’s all very well having the right tactics and system or whatever,” according to Conran, “but Wexford also have really good players – like Conor McDonald, Kevin Foley and Rory O’Connor. The modern game means not making mistakes or keeping them to a minimum: catch the high ball and don’t drop it – make mistakes and suddenly it’s a goal.”
If it all came together in any moment it was in the dying moments when the indestructible Lee Chin stuck up a hand and pulled down one of Kilkenny’s late, frantic aerial bombardments. He didn’t drop it but powered away from the danger area, ready to claim the Leinster championship.