Four nights out and Mark Fanning is close to conceding that this evening’s Leinster semi-final has come just a little early for him. During a training session in Portugal last month, he put his hand up to catch a ball — only he slightly misjudged it and it flicked off the top of his finger.
The injury was minor enough but it developed into something serious when it became infected, requiring time in hospital. It forced the Wexford goalkeeper to sit out the Leinster quarter-final win over Laois and now puts his participation against Kilkenny in jeopardy.
“It’s not where quite where I’d like it to be. It was an innocuous enough sort of thing at the time. I’m over the worst of it now. You would see it happening to other players and they wouldn’t come away from it as worse as I did. It was a strange one.”
Nothing’s run smooth for Fanning when Kilkenny have been on the horizon this year. Days before Wexford’s Division 1 quarter-final against their neighbours, his grandfather Francis Fanning passed away. After the victory, Davy Fitzgerald made reference to the goalkeeper’s bereavement — “How he went out and played today, I don’t know. I’m blown away by it and he didn’t want any fuss over it.” But there was never any doubt Fanning was going to miss the game.
“I came home from college on the Monday and my mother said to me that the grandfather wasn’t expected to see out the week. The first thing my mother said to me after that was, ‘I don’t want you thinking about anything else only Kilkenny at the weekend’. That was the attitude the family had towards the whole thing.
“‘Pops’ wasn’t well for a long time and we knew the day would come. But my family supported me to play. It was never in their heads for me to do anything other than play. They put the funeral back for me to play and everything. Even Davy’s side of things, he said it was my decision 100% if I wanted to play.
“It was a no-brainer from my end of it once I got the support from me. Pops wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Francis Fanning didn’t have a huge hurling pedigree but his love of the game was transferred onto his grandson. “He didn’t play a whole lot but he grew up in the era of the Rackards and Ned Wheeler and those fellas. I was half-reared on stories about those fellas. That’s how I got a taste for it. ‘Pops’ made these guys out to be like Gods. The family as a whole wouldn’t be massive into the GAA and that worked in my favour growing up because there was no major pressure on me. It was just about going in and enjoying it and I suppose I haven’t done too bad so far.”
As someone who almost lost a finger in a hurling game, Fitzgerald can sympathise with Fanning. They are among the exclusive goalkeeping fraternity although Fitzgerald, Fanning says, doesn’t impose on him too much, preferring to leave duties to specialist coach and former Kilkenny netminder PJ Ryan. “Barring the odd chat about tactics here and there and puck-outs, Davy kind of lets me at it. He lets me do what I see fit and play the game in front of me. He’s not in my ear the whole time saying, ‘This is what I used to do in my day’ type of thing.”
Speaking to this newspaper in April, former Wexford player Rory Jacob said Fanning’s life “is built around trying to be a better goalkeeper” and said he is “obsessed” with doing so.
The Glynn/Barntown man wouldn’t disagree but he says there is safety in numbers in Wexford.
“To some extent, you would obsess over the game but it’s not just a goalkeeper thing. For a lot of panels, it has to be an obsession at this stage, the level the game is going to both on and off the field. With the demands put on players, it has to be an obsession. It’s beyond a lifestyle now with the amounts of hours and stuff put in. I do put in a lot of time into it but so too do a lot of the boys on our panel and hurlers all over the country.”
he Fitzgerald factor has been instantaneous but then part of the reason for that is the quality of player that he inherited. “From our end of it, we were always kind of confident enough that we had a good group,” says Fanning. “A lot of us are around the one age and we’ve a lot of young guys as well. A lot of us would have played minor together so we would have fancied ourselves as a group with potential, and in fairness to Davy he’s come down and worked hard with us and his coaches.”
Working in the EPA in Johnstown Castle, Fanning hasn’t been oblivious to the hype in the county but doesn’t see the value in concentrating too much on it.
“A waste of energy — anything out of your control you try and stay away from it”.
Likewise, he feels the counties’ last SHC meeting two years ago when Wexford were talked up only to be annihilated by 24 points is of no consequence now. “We got a bit of a lesson that day. You might say to me that the two groups are pretty similar but lads have developed since then and are a couple of years wiser on both sides. While it happened and it’s there it won’t have a whole lot of relevance.”
And yet Kilkenny remain Kilkenny. “We’re not going to be delusional in any shape or form, Kilkenny are a different beast when it comes to the championship. They’re going to come with massive aggression and they’re going to come down and try and win the game. We’re not deluded about what’s in front of us but you wouldn’t expect it any other way.
“Kilkenny are still in the top two teams in the country. They have all the experience, the medals and All-Stars so we know that’s coming.”
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