Doc hopes Wexford ills are cured

THE benefits of the Fitzgibbon Cup in helping players to advance their careers at inter-county level may not be generally appreciated, but the evidence is there to show that it does.

For instance, while David O'Connor was a Wexford minor and under-21 hurler, he was a county senior footballer before he made the step-up in hurling. And he acknowledges that the profile he achieved during UCD's successful Fitzgibbon Cup run in early 2001 made it possible.

Recently conferred with a degree in engineering and food science, he is about to start out on one of the most important stages of his life in terms of seeking full-time employment.

Similarly, he has high hopes for his career in top-flight hurling.

Known to all and sundry as 'Doc', he points out that Liam Griffin and Tony Dempsey both had a strong influence on his early development particularly Griffin, when he was in charge of the minors for two years.

"That was in 1998 and '99 and it was my first introduction to the intensity of preparation for inter-county games. I learned enough in those two years to get me through any troubles I have encountered so far," he says.

Tony Dempsey brought him into the hurling squad, and while he was to earn rapid promotion, he almost missed out after pulling a hamstring and was sidelined for about six weeks. However, he was back in time to share in a memorable Leinster U-21 final triumph in the newly-opened Wexford Park. And in another two weeks he was stepping out in Croke Park in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick.

"That summer was up and down. There was the annihilation by Kilkenny in the Leinster final and then the high of the U-21 win. After that we thought we could beat Limerick. We hurled okay but we managed to get four goals and beat them.

"The All-Ireland semi-final for me was almost like a supporter playing. I was just 20 and had only been there for a short time. It was something I'll never forget, running out before more than 50,000 in Croke Park to play Tipperary.

"In the first ten minutes I was all at sea, but after that I came into it okay. I found my feet and just concentrated on my hurling. We were asleep for the first half-hour. Maybe it was our lack of experience, but in the second half we had Tipperary on the back foot. We ran out of time and it was a draw. And the replay ... everybody knows about the replay!"

In contrast, last year was an anti-climax, both for him after breaking his finger in May and missing the Dublin game and for the team. He only returned to hurling ten days before the Leinster final, but after the management "took a chance" on him, he got through the game "all right."

Fixed to play Clare in the qualifier six days later, Wexford were well beaten and their season ended on a disappointing note. Looking back, O'Connor feels that there was possibly too much talk about the proximity of the two games.

But having a two-week break before playing Waterford was a definite help. It allowed the team to rest and to put more planning into the next game.

"That's what we did in that game, we had a better idea of what we were about. Having seen the video, I thought it was one of the games of the summer."

He has his own ideas of what went wrong against Antrim in the quarter-final. It was the first time in his career that Wexford were so heavily favoured, but for him personally that was not a factor.

There's no doubt we were very lucky. Antrim didn't play to their potential. If they did, we wouldn't be talking about next Sunday's game, we'd be watching it!"

Describing Wexford supporters as the "eternal optimists", he knows the team will have massive support in Croke Park on Sunday.

"They're happy enough that we are in an All-Ireland semi-final. As Páidí Ó Sé said last week, there are a lot of teams around the country who would love to be in our position.

"You do your work, prepare as hard as you can and get on with it."

That's his philosophy and who could disagree?

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