The 2019 hurling season is upon us and in Wexford that means Year 3 of the Davy Fitzgerald project. The immediate impact of Davy’s appointment in 2017 was as unexpected for most around the country as it was exhilarating for long suffering Wexford supporters. The purple and gold descended on stadiums throughout the country in their droves to enjoy a long overdue return to the hurling spotlight for the Slaneysiders. Following on from that 2017 season, Davy’s stock, in the South-East at least, was at an all-time high.
The 2019 season has already seen Wexford suffer defeat in the Walsh Cup final to Galway last Sunday. The defeat itself won’t cause Wexford supporters any sleepless nights but when the relative strength of the teams fielded is examined, some concern would be inevitable.
While Galway fielded four – Aidan Harte, Padraic Mannion, Cathal Mannion and Joe Canning – of their team from last August’s All-Ireland, Wexford used 14 players at some stage last Sunday who had also played a part against Clare in their last championship match. In a home game, in Enniscorthy, the Wexford public would have expected that team to produce a result against an inexperienced Galway outfit.
What was noticeable was that even when Galway had been reduced to 13, Wexford’s game plan didn’t deviate from what has become the norm over the last number of years. Davy is moving into his third season with Wexford and the narrative from last year is that the system is constantly evolving. Players can pop up anywhere, with a feature of their game being the scoring prowess of wing backs like Diarmaid O’ Keefe and Paudie Foley.
Both were on the scoresheet again last Sunday with Matthew O’ Hanlon also chipping in with two points from the half back line. However, as their shots sometimes sail over and sometimes fly wide, the more pertinent sight should be the brilliantly talented Conor McDonald hopelessly isolated, hopelessly outnumbered and starved of possession in the full forward line.
Wexford are falling about six points per game short of being a truly relevant power in the hurling world. This is a gap that McDonald could bridge if given an even chance. When the necessity for a goal became pressing last Sunday and Wexford belatedly started to go more direct, they created a number of clear goal chances as Galway struggled to deal with McDonald’s prowess in the air. He was also fouled for a penalty which had it been scored may have given Wexford the momentum to save the game.
The result of the Walsh Cup final will be an insignificant footnote when the story of the 2019 hurling season is written but if Wexford want to avoid playing a bit part in the big summer days ahead, they will have to evolve. Within their system, a premium is placed on the flexibility of players to contribute and pop up in a variety of positions on the field. The running game implemented by Wexford requires enormous effort on the player’s part to work successfully and also places a significant strain on the players’ bodies. Is it sustainable in the long term? Can Wexford evolve into a side that can mix their running game with periods of playing more direct hurling giving forwards like McDonald, Lee Chin, Rory O’Connor, Cathal Dunbar and Liam Og McGovern the platform to hurt teams?
The League is the ideal opportunity to get that blend right for Wexford. The threat of relegation has been removed from the bear pit that has been Division 1A over the last number of years and while winning the league still carries some significance, Wexford and Davy’s season will be defined by how they perform on summer days.
Tangible progress is needed. Davy’s predecessor, Liam Dunne, brought Wexford to two All-Ireland quarter finals and delivered championship victories over Clare, who were All-Ireland champions at the time, Waterford and Cork. While Wexford have claimed a number of notable league scalps during Fitzgerald’s tenure, their only really significant championship victory was the 2017 success over Kilkenny in Wexford Park.
Within the championship arena, Wexford have gone no deeper into the championship season under this manager than they did with the last. With challenging trips to Pearse Stadium and Parnell Park looming in this year’s Leinster round robin series, Davy’s credit may quickly begin to run out if he can’t find a way to maximise the return from his attacking talent. The league is now his chance to do this.
Tribesman and columnist for GAAWrap.ie