There’s a chance Davy Fitzgerald will decide his time in the south-east is up if Wexford exit the hurling Championship this evening.
A loss to Kilkenny, allied to a win for Dublin elsewhere, would deny Wexford a top-three finish and leave a giant question mark hanging over the entire Fitzgerald project after three seasons. It took a delegation of players to drive to Fitzgerald’s Sixmilebridge home last August to convince him to stay on for 2019 and it would surely be a far tougher sell this time.
Larry O’Gorman, Hurler of the Year when Wexford were last crowned All-Ireland champions in 1996, would be gutted if it pans out that way. Fitzgerald has his detractors, some of whom have been frustrated with his tactics and others with his match-day antics, yet O’Gorman sees a kindred spirit in the Clare man.
“Fellas can say what they like, they said I was a showboat, that I was a bit of a jackass,” said O’Gorman. “But I went out to do my stuff when it counted. When you put on the jersey, when you’re representing your county or your club or whatever, the best of you comes out. Davy likes to jump up and down, he likes to cause a racket. That’s him. He’d probably do the same if he was over a tug-of-war team or a ladies rugby team.
“He’s just passionately driven by what he thinks is right, and that’s to win.”
It’s an approach that’s captivated the imagination of the Wexford public since the former Clare and Waterford manager arrived in late 2016.
But it’s not for everyone and Damien Fitzhenry, another player from that successful team of 1996 in Wexford, was slow to praise the Clare man when interviewed last year, insisting that ‘anything less than a Leinster or definitely getting to an All-Ireland semi-final or final is not progress’ on 2017.
In the end, Wexford achieved neither of those things in 2018 but while O’Gorman says the present group of players ‘deserve’ some silverware for all their efforts, he’s adamant the Fitzgerald project has been a success either way.
“Davy doesn’t mind fellas knocking him, he’s probably used to it after coming from Clare and Waterford,” said O’Gorman. “We have him here in the county as our manager and we want him to do the best he can for us. But after three years if he does go away and if we haven’t won any silverware, he has still risen the county in terms of greater attendance at matches and more kids interested in the game. The likes of Ned Wheeler and the great men of the old (teams), they died with their shirts on their backs and Davy has instilled that into our players of today. It’s up to them now to go out and in terms of Kilkenny, or wherever we go after that, self belief is key to you being better than the opposition.”
For years, O’Gorman reckons Wexford teams lacked that belief when it came to playing Kilkenny. Things have changed under Fitzgerald because after nine meetings in all competitions under his watch, Wexford have won five to Kilkenny’s four and are four points better off overall, 187 to 183.
“I even noticed it when I was playing, we were hoping to beat Kilkenny,” said O’Gorman. “From a Kilkenny point of view, they knew they could beat us. So we had to turn that, slowly but surely we had to get it into our head that we’re as good as them. We can’t bow to them all the time. We can’t give in to them, we can’t throw in the towel. When Liam Griffin came in, he changed that mentality within the players. He changed it around to say, ‘Look, we are as good as these, sometimes we’re better than them but we don’t believe in ourselves’.
“That bit of hard work, the hard graft that Davy has instilled in the players, it’s the same frame of mind we had back then. We didn’t fear Kilkenny.”