Wexford try to put a finger on the Davy Fitzgerald factor
Diarmuid O’Keeffe says Wexford always had the players as they prepare to face Tipperary
Declan O’Keeefe has escaped most of the hype around the county, but there’ll be no masking the Wexford support in Nowlan Park on Sunday. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho
“Eh, the Davy Fitz factor?” asks Diarmuid O’Keeffe, repeating the question, while rubbing his chin, then running his fingers through his long blond hair.
It’s becoming a cliché, and although careful not to overplay it, O’Keeffe knows Wexford hurling probably wouldn’t be where it is now without it: unbeaten in the league, including a champagne quarter-final win over Kilkenny, and one victory away from a first final since 1993.
Except O’Keeffe has seen good times and bad times in Wexford, by now one of their veteran defenders, and while Davy Fitzgerald’s influence in his first year as manager may still be immeasurable, it’s not like he’s walked in waving a magic wand either.
“In my eyes, Davy is very similar to a lot of the other managers I would have worked under,” says O’Keeffe, referring to the likes of Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Liam Dunne.
“It’s really just his way of man-managing. He’s seen by the media on the sideline, going mad a bit, and that’s just his way of showing his passion for the game and showing how passionate he is about his team.
“But look, I don’t really buy into the whole Davy factor. He brings his own passion to the whole set up and that’s just his way of doing things, yeah. But he’s also an excellent man manager, and an excellent communicator. He knows what he wants and he is very good at getting that across to his players. Those are his real strengths I feel.”
That influence must still translate to the playing field, and also the scoreboard, and O’Keeffe certainly believes the Wexford players have responded accordingly. “I would have always felt the quality of players was always there, I think Davy has done a really good job of getting the most out of those players. So, yes he has had a massive impact but the players have always been there.”
Standing in Wexford’s way of a league final are Tipperary, bidding to reach the Allianz hurling League final as All-Ireland champions for the time since 1992, when they lost to Limerick. Tipperary last won the league in 2008.
Sunday’s neutral venue of Nowlan Park is definitely to O’Keeffe’s liking, but he knows too that Tipp will be another step up on anything they’ve so far faced under Fitzgerald. It’s actually a first league meeting between the counties since 2011.
“No, absolutely no complaints about Nowlan Park, a big win there against Kilkenny the last day, which was great. But Tipp by all accounts are the top team in the country. If we go off the results of the last couple of years then absolutely it is bonus territory for us, yes. I suppose the first couple of wins against Limerick and Galway gave us confidence that hang on a second we are there or thereabouts with the top teams and can compete with them and that’s always good.”
Still, win or lose on Sunday, O’Keeffe knows Wexford will ultimately be judged later in the season: they hit the ground running in 2017 partly because of Fitzgerald’s arrival, O’Keeffe himself he must have trained or played 27 or days in January, but the real tests are to come. They’re still bedding in their sweeper system too.
“Wexford can’t afford to be trying to peak at any particular stage in the year for championship, we have to go out every day and get the best performance out of ourselves and win every game we play, that is the stage we are at. We haven’t been competing for Leinster titles or All-Ireland titles for years so ultimately we are trying to win every game we play, bring our best performance to the field and hopefully that’s good enough at the end of it. “
As a schoolteacher in Dunboyne, he’s also escaped most of the hype around the county, but there’ll be no masking the Wexford support in Nowlan Park on Sunday. “Yeah, I don’t see it. I come home at the weekend, and the family are telling me all the stuff that is going on, and the team are the only topic of conversation, but I don’t see any of it.
“It just goes to show how passionate Wexford supporters are. The mindset after the first two wins in the league, changed completely and all Wexford supporters rowed in behind us. They are fantastic supporters, we have had some awful results over the last few years and they have continued to follow us, which has been fantastic.
“Ultimately, we have to get drawn to on the field things, we can’t be distracted by anything off it, it is not in our nature. We have to concentrate on what we are trying to do on the field and not worry about any of that stuff.
“It is very early days. We haven’t won anything. I would like to see our place in the order where we are competing with the top teams, that is where I think we are at the moment. When the day comes when hopefully we get some silverware or more results. It is only one league.”
Both Sunday’s hurling semi-finals will be decided on the day: if the sides are still level after two periods of the extra-time, the winner will be decided by 65m frees.