McDonald can slay ghosts of Semple

ALL-IRELAND U21 HC SEMI-FINAL:

McDonald can slay ghosts of Semple

The accepted mecca of hurling venues, but for Conor McDonald and a few more of the Wexford U21s travelling to the Tipperary town for today’s Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland U21 semi-final it is a repository of failed pilgrimages.

Only four weeks have slid past since Liam Dunne’s seniors had their summer odyssey halted unceremoniously: a 24-point savaging at Limerick’s hands making a mockery of the expectation hot-housed in the choked traffic jams hours earlier.

Just as discouraging was the loss a year ago tomorrow at the same stadium when the county’s progress towards what would have been a first U21 All-Ireland final in 13 years was checked by an Antrim side that surprised itself as much as anyone else with victory.

Wexford were 80/1 on and McDonald didn’t mince his words earlier this week when he recalled the traumatic two-point loss. “Disaster,” he labelled it. A lesson for players on the dangers of living and breathing the same air as supporters.

“Everyone was trying not to think of [the final], but a lot of people on the outside would have said, ‘ah sure, ye’ll be grand and we’ll have Clare or Galway in the final’,” said McDonald, whose late goal almost rescued Wexford.

“It was more that everyone else was kind of drilling it into us and that mentality rubbed off on us a small bit. It certainly looked like that anyway and there was a small bit of taking for granted that day too, unfortunately.”

It was a sour note on which to end a sweet summer.

In the space of those few sublimely sun-soaked months, the teenager from Gorey sat his Leaving Cert and played hurling for Wexford at minor, U21 and senior. All three grades provided ups and downs.

The minors defeated Kilkenny but lost out to Laois, the U21s tamed the Cats to claim a first provincial title since 2003 — and then lost to Antrim — while the seniors gave him his most unexpected promotion of them all.

The club beckoned when Laois saw to the minors but then JJ Doyle rang and asked him to hitch a ride with the U21s the very week they faced Kilkenny in the Leinster final. Then Liam Dunne punched in his number.

“I thought it was a prank phone call after winning a Leinster final. I was nearly going to hang up. Never did I think I’d be involved.”

How wrong was he?

Hearing his name on the match-day squad was shock enough on arrival at, yep, Semple Stadium. Then Dunne gave him the nod 10 minutes before the end for a game that would extend into extra-time and see him claim a point before Clare pulled clear.

Of all the defeats in Thurles, this was surely the easiest to swallow.

McDonald was always expected to shine. Go back five years and people were touting him as one of the finest U14 hurlers in the county. Many a talent has fallen aside after such early praise, but McDonald’s levels have yet to drop.

There has been no second season syndrome in 2014. He claimed 6-10 in a half-dozen showings for the seniors this summer. His tally with the U21s stands at 2-7 after three appearances. That’s 8-17 all told.

A big lad, it is his ability to catch dropping balls in the face of opponents and score goals that has marked him out, even though he plumps for physicality and speed as the greatest difference between the senior and underage grades.

The tone is humble and honest. He applies the mantra about being only as good as your last game, but he knows that guys like him, Liam Óg McGovern, Podge Doran and Paul Morris are in the vanguard of an exciting movement in the south-east.

When he was a minor and sharing a bill with the seniors, he could sense the difference in the vibe around the two camps. The minors were energised, the seniors were more apprehensive, stunted by defeat.

His generation has the opportunity to change that. The medium-term goal is a senior Leinster title in 2015 — he doesn’t shy away from declaring that — but an All-Ireland U21 success would breathe yet more air into the smouldering fire.

“If we were to get an U21 title or make an appearance in the final it would bring lads forward an awful lot more and if the elder statesmen of the panel saw that it would give them the extra little lift forward.”

And lay those Thurles ghosts to rest, too.

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