Davy Fitzgerald has found his way out of tactical dead end

Amid the tumult at a certain Slaneyside venue around 8.30pm this evening three weeks ago, on the night they freed old Wexford, a triptych of sounds could be detected, two of them admittedly on a frequency available only to dogs and bats.

First there was the noise from the thousands of jubilating locals present, soon overlaid by the strains of a public address system overseen by a DJ with an impressive record collection and a finely judged sense of the appropriate. The Boys are Back in Town, Glory Days and so on.

Then came the noise from behind the green door in the middle of the press facilities at the top of the stand. In view of the racket outside it was impossible to hear what was happening. But Davy was inside his bespoke box and it was fair to assume he was giving it loads. As he was richly entitled to, a 24-point defeat by Kilkenny in 2015 having been transformed into a three-point victory, a 27-point turnaround overseen by him.

Finally there came the sound of hands being rubbed. The hands were those of Pat Lynagh from Westmeath. Pat Lynagh? The treasurer of the Leinster Council. He was a particularly happy treasurer that night. He will be so again tomorrow evening.

They’re opening the upper deck in Croke Park to meet the demand and it’s 1997 all over again. That year’s provincial decider between Wexford and Kilkenny attracted a Leinster-record attendance of 55,492. This season’s renewal will hardly top it but no matter. The pikemen are back, trailing clouds of romance and excitement and optimism, and the championship is fully dressed once more.

The chap behind the green door is no longer the busted tactical flush of his latter days with Clare. Wexford gave him a blank page, he’s used it splendidly and he sounds a new man.

The longer his tenure with Clare wheezed on, the more Davy was immured in a maze of his own devising. He ended up becoming a slave to his system as Clare’s glorious flexibility of 2013 calcified into the inglorious rigidity of 2016.

We’re chasing an All-Ireland quarter-final and need goals? Let’s stick with five lads up front. What could possibly go wrong?

The very fact that Wexford, unlike the Clare of 2013, are not weighed down with options has been a help. Davy lacks the tools to overcomplicate matters and risk outsmarting himself: Hence his current Occam’s Razor of a system. Keep it simple? He has to because he lacks the bells and switches.

In strategic terms Wexford don’t brim with variation or width or carry a huge cutlass. In practical terms such narrowness of canvas scarcely matters because they’ve have sharpened their little blade to an edge, honing it on the training field since the beginning of the year to a point where it’s become second nature. Arguably the manager’s greatest cause for satisfaction after the semi-final was the fact that Kilkenny knew what was coming — and still couldn’t prevent it.

Kilkenny were forewarned: It didn’t matter. Kilkenny were fitter than they’d been at Nowlan Park: It didn’t matter. Kilkenny scored three goals to Wexford’s one: It didn’t matter.

What Wexford hit Kilkenny with in April was what they would hit them with in June, except the later version was necessarily smoother. In the league quarter-final Wexford defenders unleashed four shots at the Kilkenny posts (Liam Ryan one, Diarmuid O’Keeffe three). Only one found the target.

Two months later — practice having made perfect, as practice usually does — they tried it again. This time no fewer than three of their defenders scored. In a provincial championship semi-final. Incredible. If such a feat has been witnessed before at this level we’d love to know where and when, and if it occurs again it may not be within our time on earth.

The last of the points came in the dying stages from Matthew O’Hanlon. He’s Wexford’s centre-back and under any other manager would have stayed back to mind the house instead of venturing forward looking to get on the scoreboard. While this was happening Simon Donohoe, their right-corner back, was spending much of the closing quarter in and around the 20-metre line. The Kilkenny 20-metre line.

Total hurling? Not quite. It’s to some degree making and mending, to another degree an exercise in misdirection, convincing us that Wexford boast more attacking options than they really do. Having defenders bomb upfield is unsustainable in the long run; in the short term it’s a good trick and, once the offload is given and received with precision, almost impossible to defend against.

Lee Chin is unlikely to be executing a series of Cruyff turns tomorrow, incidentally, but so what. Part of the reason for his effectiveness against Kilkenny was that he didn’t try to do everything by himself. The best players don’t.

He did play a little too deep in the first half, but one byproduct of the Wexford system is that it works better against a wind than with it. And that they beat Kilkenny without the services of Liam Óg McGovern and David Dunne, who’s raw and excessively one-sided but speedy, made the feat even more worthy. Conor McDonald was a disappointment but can, and will, do better. Paul Morris was a revelation and Jack Guiney quicker on his feet than might have been expected.

Caveats? The obvious ones. The small matters of how they conceded three goals despite operating with a spare defender and how they were nearly caught at the death by the weakest Kilkenny team for 20 years.

While their most shining virtue under Davy has been their thoroughly unWexfordlike poise on the ball, tomorrow they’ll be attempting to work the sliotar out of a defence faced not with a common or garden opposition forward line but with Monsters, Inc in maroon jerseys. They will not have three defenders here. They will not have two defenders scoring.

If they have one defender scoring it’ll be early on.

Galway are racking up the white flags: 21 against Tipperary, 28 against Dublin, 33 against Offaly. The fact they were content to beat Offaly with points says something about their mental well-being.

Teams with no existential imperative to bulk out their bottom line with goals are dangerous opponents. Points are their protein and in hurling there is never a day when the points don’t come. There are plenty of days when the goals don’t come.

Some other observations.

Conor Whelan had seven points from seven shots against Offaly. Whelan was one of the few from the county to impress in the 2015 All-Ireland final. As a promising young Galway corner-forward, that flashy and fleeting species, he was also precisely the kind of player one wouldn’t have stuck the mortgage on being around the place a couple of years later. He is and he appears to have trained on.

The loss of Paul Killeen has straitened Galway’s defensive options. They don’t have a lot on the bench. This will surely be a factor before summer’s lease is up.

It is premature to hold that this is their All-Ireland to lose.

If such a statement can be made on the eve of the semi-finals next month we’ll know their form and general health are holding up. But it need hardly be added that an All-Ireland that’s Galway’s to lose is a very different entity to an All-Ireland that’s Kilkenny’s to lose.

Galway have to win tomorrow. They may win it well. Certainly Donald Trump will sooner self-censor his tweets than Wexford will come from behind at half-time to win.

But they’re there and they’re in the All-Ireland series and Croke Park will be a blaze of purple and gold tomorrow and hurling is properly attired again.

All of which will suffice very nicely for now.

Wexford’s intensity won’t be good enough

Leinster SHC final: Galway v Wexford, Croke Park 4pm (C. Lyons, Cork) Live RTÉ.

It’s been easy street for Galway since they won the league final and we maintain the Tipperary team they beat that day looked flat to the point of being exhausted. Consider a second-string Waterford side, fellow Division 1B members Limerick in the semi-final and now a poor Dublin and a poorer Offaly in the championship and just who have Galway beaten? Victory over a quickly-improving Wexford team tomorrow afternoon would be expected but it would also confirm that they can deal with variations of styles. Wexford will need to be as rabid in their approach as Galway were at this stage in 2012 when their ferocity shocked Kilkenny. Galway may not have found the net against Offaly but alongside Tipperary they possess the greatest ability to get them and the openings a struggling Kilkenny side created will give them optimism.

Shaun Murphy will sweep again for Wexford but also expect a man-marker for Joe Canning – James Breen looks the top candidate.

The Canning-David Burke combination will have to be upset if Wexford are to win and Lee Chin will have to turn in another wonder display to get the best of the middle third. Conor Whelan’s form is truly electric and if he can be halted then Galway are at least three points a poorer team. Wexford can match Galway for intensity but they don’t have their experience or depth.

Verdict: Galway.

 



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