Fitzhenry looks forward to improved showing against Cats

HAD he had a mind to do so, Damien Fitzhenry, the last line of defence for the Wexford hurlers in Sunday’s Leinster SHC final against Kilkenny, could easily have been the first point of attack for the Wexford footballers in their provincial decider against Dublin, two weeks later.

He’s a dual player with his club, a wing-forward for the footballers, and has a Leinster football medal from 2000 when they defeated the Dubs.

His club, Duffry Rovers, were once the dominant force in Wexford football, and powered by several Fitzhenry brothers, won seven county titles in succession from 1986. Seamie, Martin and John Fitzhenry all played senior football for Wexford, while Seamie and Martin also played senior hurling – a veritable dynasty!

First things first though for Damien, and while he will be keeping his fingers crossed for the footballers in a few weeks, hurling is his chosen sport at the top level, and his whole focus now is on Sunday afternoon in Croke Park. Ironically, given that Wexford would be seen foremost as a hurling county, their footballers will probably be given a better chance of upsetting the odds against Dublin than the hurlers will against Kilkenny.

Could this be because Kilkenny, unlike Wexford, have kept their focus very firmly on just the one sport? Probably, admits Fitzhenry.

“If you take the likes of the Oulart boys and Rathnure, who would be the two top hurling clubs in Wexford; Rathnure field a junior football team, whereas if they put their mind to it they would have a fantastic intermediate if not senior football team, but their allegiance is to the hurling. That shows you. Take out football completely and you have the two clubs that don’t play football and they are the top two hurling clubs (in Wexford).”

Proof positive, if proof were needed.

Just as he could have been the leading point of attack for the footballers, however, Damien could also have been an outfield focal point for the hurlers. He plays centre-back for the club and an imposing figure he cuts there, a strong, physical player but with an excellent touch. So how did he end up in goal?

“A lot of it has to do with coming from a big family. I have nine brothers and five sisters and I’m the youngest of the lot. We had a full team at home, I was told I was in the goal and when you are the youngest you don’t really argue with anybody, so that’s what happened. You’d always have seven or eight of the lads out hurling and you’d be stuck in the goal. You’d either stop it or get a slap in the head. I still play out the field for the club at the minute, centre-back in hurling and full-forward in the football — Kieran Donaghy style, he’d want to watch out!”

Joking aside, all that outfield play is an advantage, he reckons. “When you’re training with Wexford as much as we would be training, three and four nights a week, and you’re stuck in the goal, I think it’s great to get back to the club and have a kind of free rein to just hurl away. It gets you up to the speed of the game too; we were hurling championship last Friday night and it was a good fast game. That will keep your eye in, but it’s nice to get a bit of a break from the goal as well.”

We haven’t come to the actual game itself yet, the dreaded ‘K’ word has been mentioned only in passing, but it comes up, eventually, inevitably. Kilkenny, that suffocating defence, that game-controlling midfield, that all-singing all-dancing forward line – what hope have Wexford?

What chance, given that Kilkenny hammered them by double-digit figures on practically every occasion they’ve met over the last few years, last year’s Leinster final included.

“I’m not a sort of a fellow that will look back,” he says, “I’m the sort of a lad that will look forward all the time. Really we’re looking forward to the Leinster final of 2008 and that’s most important and it’s foremost in our mind now rather than last year’s. We have a job to do on Sunday. We have to go out and give it our best shot to rise our performance from the last few games we played against Kilkenny – and I think that on Sunday we possibly could do that.”

Easier said than done, though Damien has done his job through all those debilitating defeats, just three goals conceded in their last four championship meetings. One man – no matter how good or intimidating he is between the posts won’t stop Kilkenny though. If only Damien Fitzhenry could be cloned. Damien in goals, Fitzhenry at centre-back, Fitzy at centre-forward.

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