The passion of Davy and Wexford’s man behind the wire

Leinster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 30/6/2019 Kilkenny vs Wexford Wexford's Lee Chin celebrates with manager Davy Fitzgerald after the game. Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

A VICTORY FOR PLANNING — ON AND OFF THE FIELD

At last year’s Wexford GAA convention, chairman Derek Kent presented the end-of-year accounts along with treasurer Andrew Nolan. A surplus of €481,000 was recorded. After paying outstanding bills they were left with close to €100,000, with Kent declaring: “I have the mechanisms in place to make another half a million. I know how to do it.”

Clearly he does and his successful business background, allied to the skills of commercial manager Eanna Martin, have ensured a progressive vision for Wexford GAA.

Ger Loughnane wrote a brilliant article on Saturday last highlighting the merits of having quality people in key positions to ensure every resource possible to create an environment for excellence to flourish. Wexford seem to have created such a model. At the end of yesterday’s Leinster final, Kent and Fitzgerald, two men who had planned meticulously for the victory, were locked in a close, genuine embrace.

Over my five years with Waterford, I often referenced to the players the choices we make around the easy life or the hard life. The easy life is non committal to challenges, it is being passive and afraid to fail. The hard road is laced with adversity, challenges, and surprise but ultimately coming out of your comfort zone overwhelmingly provides greater solace, direction, and satisfaction.

The easy path was my choice on Sunday last as a catch up with friends, a few drinks, and the matches in Croker put me in the comfort zone for the day. I had mixed emotions throughout the McDonagh Cup final. Great friendships with many Raharney stalwarts, chief amongst them New York-based Gerry O Reilly, saw me leaning towards Westmeath in terms of support.

But balancing this was the fact my own clubman Donal Treacy was lending his expertise in S&C to Laois. Having met his wife Sharon and their kids, bedecked in their Laois gear on the train up to the game, I began to revert to the De la Salle connection as a better support system. Watching the game I was reminded of a pre-season game I attended in January between Dublin and Laois in the Walsh Cup in Portlaoise.

Laois on that day played with seven at the back and allowed Mark Kavanagh the freedom of the park. Kavanagh’s ability to pick up ball, ghost in behind and combine guile with substance was again evident in a brilliant victory for Laois Sunday last.

Also very much in evidence was the evolution of Eddie Brennan as a manager. He now realises that teams can be tactically fluid without being hamstrung by over instruction. The perfect mix that we all search for.

Wexford’s victory was fascinating to watch. Early on in the game, I noticed Mark Fanning conversing with someone behind his goal at the Davin Stand end. It was intriguing to watch this member of Davy’s backroom team perched right in the front row five yards from Fanning’s goals clearly instructing Fanning re the puckout policy.

Obviously wired to Seoirse Bulfin, Keith Rossiter, and JJ Doyle, with the lead direction coming from Davy himself, the early instruction to go long clearly paid dividends but while clearly planned was open to improvisation.

I monitored this individual’s progress at half-time as he somehow made his way to right behind the goal at the Hill and the guidance duly continued. When you take your seat for the semi-final Saturday three weeks watch out for this.

The puckouts set the tone for the day’s proceedings and listening to Davy’s post-match interview where he spoke of the intricacies of what he had asked of his players and the nature of how they had applied themselves, I began to think about what a good teacher Davy is.

Anthony Daly reviews the hurling weekend with Brian Hogan, TJ Ryan and

Ger Cunningham. In association with Renault - car partners of the GAA.

It reminded me of what Bill Walsh said in ‘The Score Takes Care of Itself’ about the importance of combining passion and teaching. Walsh famously said that “passion is a love for the act of teaching itself, believing in your heart that it is not a means to an end, but an end in itself”, and that “in order to have passion, you must love the topic you teach”.

Davy loves hurling. He loves people and he loves Wexford. When on Sunday he declared that they changed formation at least five times, openly informed us that Rory O’Connor’s creation of the penalty was “one of our gameplans”, some viewed this with scepticism.

However I feel the tide is turning in terms of people’s perceptions around tactical fluidity. Certainly the language of pundits has noticeably changed in the last 18 months. Do people think that all of what we saw on Sunday wasn’t the product of simulated training repetition?

The early aerial bombardment on Conor McDonald, the puckout to Foley after 11:30 that saw Matthew O’Hanlon set up Rory O’Connor for a great score, the constant rotation of Paul Morris, O’Connor, and Chin around the area occupied by Padraig Walsh, the ability of the Wexford forwards to push up on Eoin Murphy’s puckout and yet get Foley back on the edge of the D, the ball played in over the top for Rory O’Connor?

Davy is telling us the truth and finally people are beginning to listen. Davy took great personal joy from Sunday because he is consumed by the process of developing the capabilities of others. He does it with his heart and his head.

STICKING WITH PROCESS

Coincidentally without being completely pro-Davy, I can also see his stamp on the Limerick method of play. John Kiely’s search for an edge was conclusive and definitive. Where did it come from though?

On February 2, perhaps a nugget emerged. While working on the Limerick-Tipp league game when Peter Casey appeared for the last 12 minutes, Anthony Daly skilfully noted “this will be a different test for James Barry”.

Having seen a returning Kevin Downes off with a degree of comfort, Casey’s low centre of gravity discommoded Barry. No surprise then yesterday to see him take up residency on the edge of the square. He tortured Barry. It’s hard to argue with the word being used around Limerick’s approach: relentless.

Though Kiely, Kinnerk, and Cunningham’s systematic approach and the implementation of these plans by their players cannot just be classified in terms of work-ethic or tackle counts.

Watch Kinnerk on 12 minutes take Hegarty, watch him later in the half enter the field to speak to Casey, Mulcahy, and Hayes. My feeling is that the instruction was “we are only one pass away from getting this right”. Limerick players had grass in front of them and were offloading too early without going into the space. As the half wore on, the decisions were made with a proper sense of judgement resulting in Gillane’s brilliant offload to Casey.

Similarly, the perfect merger of work-rate and planning can be seen in the execution of Hayes’ goal. Casey the dog but Hayes following up right on Maher, demonstrating the innate ability of Limerick’s 10, 11, and 12 to be out the field but also to offer a threat to the goal. As Tony Kelly sharply observed on Sunday night when asked what makes Limerick so effective, “the way they play the game, and sticking to their process”.

The generic principles of unity, attitude, and a relentless work ethic Kelly knows are non-negotiable.

The Clare man was giving us more and that’s what we wanted. Often during the game Gillane was operating as a lone attacker with everyone else outside the 65, but the furious manner in which they burst forward in waves to cover the puckouts disguises this ruse.

Still, Limerick will take learnings from it. When in on goal in the first half the brilliant Hegarty may have changed his body angle at the last minute and gone low to Hogan’s right hand. In terms of homework the youngster whose physical prowess is matched by a sublime set of soft hands would do well to watch Paul Flynn’s finish against Limerick in the 2001 Munster Championship, Niall Gilligan’s finish in the 1998 Munster final replay, or Kevin Moran’s early goal against Galway in the All-Ireland final. All gave the keeper the eyes before going to the near post. Crucially they didn’t lose any pace when looking or shooting.

CRYSTAL BALL TIME

Despite the harrowing nature of a 12-point loss, I still feel Tipperary will be in the All-Ireland final. I am in no way taking from the magnitude of what Wexford achieved yesterday. This team is the perfect amalgamation of detail, learning, and intangible spirit. There will be a lot of talk about how Tipp recover psychologically, but their route back to the final is not the worst path.

With marquee players like John and Noel McGrath and Bubbles not having a great day yesterday, the inevitable debate around ‘legs’ will no doubt dominate column inches. I think they have the players, the resolve, and the leaders on and off the field to make it back to the final.

The Cats’ story may be different. Losses to Wexford and Waterford, to Limerick in 2018, and Wexford again in 2019 raises the question not about their talent pool but how they cope when facing a ‘system’-based team.

Davy rightly acknowledged their game has changed and that they have become more adaptable. However as the once-market leaders in being the proactive team tactically it seems to me that Kilkenny now find themselves reacting to what other teams are doing rather than coming with something new themselves.

So here goes. Back out of the comfort zone: Cork to beat Westmeath comprehensively and to triumph over the Cats in a classic. At least 100,000 mentions of Nicky Quaid’s flick from Seamie Harnedy’s goal chance, the now strengthened nature of Cork’s bench to be aired both publicly and privately. But Limerick to sit back, prepare relentlessly and use the motivation of early season defeats to Cork to drive them to another final.

Laois to give Dublin the game and fright of their lives but the Dubs to emerge setting up a clash with Tipperary. Sheedy to evoke the spirit of 2010, using all his motivational powers to create a siege mentality and claim victory against Mattie Kenny’s men.

An invasion of Croker by the people of Wexford to complement a brilliant performance that just ends in defeat to the Premier men. Then for part 3. We’ll leave that for another day.

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