I wasn’t in Wexford Park on Saturday evening. We were waking Mickey McNamara, a great Clarecastle GAA and greyhound man, who we buried yesterday morning. I would love to have been there to sample the partisan and electric atmosphere but you still got that sense off the TV that it was a boiling cauldron of ferocity and intensity.
Over the last three weeks, everyone raved about the quality of the Cork-Tipperary match but Saturday night’s game appealed to me a lot more. The tribal intensity, the thunderous tackling, the intrigue of the match-ups, the absolute ferocity of how both teams stood in the middle of the ring and just kept swinging, landing haymakers and uppercuts with every alternate punch.
There was no doubt about the deserved winners because Kilkenny had no answer to Wexford. On the other hand, if Kilkenny had an Eddie Brennan or a Henry Shefflin, they could have got six goals. Ger Aylward missed around 1-4. Chris Bolger could have had two goals. Walter Walsh was coming into the game when he was taken off but Kilkenny were just trying to plug too many holes. For a finish, they brought their sub-goalkeeper, Richie Reid, on as a forward late on. You have to admire Kilkenny for how they died with their boots on but they just don’t have the quality anymore to shore up the leaks when cracks appear.
Kilkenny threw everything at them down the home straight to try and save the game but Wexford’s newfound belief and conviction withstood that barrage. I’ve always said one of Davy Fitzgerald’s greatest traits is his fearless defiance. He always has a point to prove. He instils that in his teams and that never-say-die attitude was a dominant theme throughout the match. When Kilkenny nailed them with two goals inside 10 seconds, the reflex response from almost everyone was, ‘Here we go. Here they come now.’ Yet Wexford’s attitude was different. ‘Hi, they’re going nowhere. We’re going to drive on now’.
They did. Lee Chin led the charge. His catch and point after the second goal was Herculean stuff. Everyone else stepped up with Chin and marched on beside him but that was evident in Wexford’s body language from the first minute. They never wavered.
Kilkenny looked to have got the perfect start with a goal from their first attack. It looked the beginning of a difficult evening for Wexford but I’ve often found that to be more of an advantage to the other team, than the side which raised the green flag. Goals give confidence but early goals can also sometimes get inside your own head. Guys can start thinking, ‘We have them on the backfoot already. We’ll put manners on them now.’
I don’t know if Kilkenny mentally dropped off. That certainly isn’t in their nature, especially when early goals have often been followed by another shortly afterwards, but Wexford hit the next five points. Wexford players kept making big plays you normally don’t expect them to make; Paul Morris, Harry Kehoe.
Simon Donohue and James Breen were brilliant. Matthew O’Hanlon’s late point was one of the game’s defining moments. Liam Ryan and Diarmuid O’Keeffe also got points from defence, which shows there is more to Fitzy’s gameplan than just a sweeper. If anything, Shaun Murphy could have given more cover to Liam Ryan when Colin Fennelly was causing rack.
Liam Dunne laid a lot of the base. It eventually went stale but the beauty of Davy coming in was that the slate was immediately wiped clean. Jack Guiney came up with some massive plays late on. Other peripheral players made big statements. The longer the game went on, the better and more confident every Wexford player was getting.
Wexford’s conditioning was savage too. They were all sculpted like stone monuments. I’ve seen Harry Kehoe close up over the years from coming across him with various teams. When he was coming off on Saturday night, after emptying himself, the flesh was stretched on his face, not an ounce of body fat anywhere. Chin was motoring like a Lamborghini car.
Kilkenny were fighting on their heels all evening but they were very unlike Kilkenny in so many other ways too. Brian Cody never named a team so late. Maybe he was waiting on a late fitness test but he played guys who clearly weren’t fit, especially Pádraig Walsh. The talk beforehand was Richie Hogan was injured. Walsh and Richie are marquee players but that’s certainly not the norm with Cody to chance guys carrying injuries.
I learned that lesson myself the hard way as a player. I injured my back before the 1995 league final against Kilkenny but declared myself fit. I’m not making excuses but Adrian Ronan cleaned me out. In fairness to Ger Loughnane and Tony Considine, they cornered me and said I should have put my hand up. “Never, ever go out on a field again injured. Because you are jeopardising everyone else on the team.”
As a manager, I always abided by that principle, no matter how badly a fella wanted to play. Wexford knew from an early stage Kilkenny were vulnerable. They also knew that they were guaranteed to have a chance to build a platform with the breeze in the first-half. Historically, Kilkenny always play into the breeze in the first half. I’ve seen that consistently even with their underage teams. I remember Bill Hennessy saying it to me at the 1995 All-Stars. I had won the toss before the league final that year and elected to play with the breeze.
He wondered why I hadn’t played into the breeze to upset Kilkenny’s rhythm. You could argue giving them the breeze would allow them to build up a head of steam early on but maybe that’s what Kilkenny should have been looking to do on Saturday, especially if they won the toss, to put Wexford against the wall from the start. If they had got Fennelly on the ball more often with plenty of good early ball with that breeze, Kilkenny could have been seven or eight points ahead at the break, which could have got inside Wexford’s heads.
Wexford were only four points up at half-time but they were still ahead, and you knew that they were going to stick to their guns, and be hard to break down. The players never wavered. When Chin was interviewed afterwards, he said that maybe Davy being up in the stand propelled the players into taking on more responsibility, which they did.
I can only imagine how much the place was hopping afterwards. Wexford will bring a massive crowd now to the Leinster final. They have massive momentum now but you can’t put a price on the belief that beating Kilkenny gives a team. The players will be feeling now that there is definitely a Leinster title there for them, and possibly even an All-Ireland.
This result has blown the whole championship wide open. This result will have ignited every other team too. Kilkenny aren’t gone out of this championship yet by a long shot but they have lost the fear factor they had over everyone for so long.
The dominant theme of the evening though, is Wexford are more than just back. They are now serious contenders.