Wexford’s focus is fully on this weekend’s NHL clash with Tipperary after a fundraising trip to New York last week, says Diarmuid O’Keeffe.
A travelling party including manager Davy Fitzgerald and player Lee Chin went to the US for much-needed funds, but now the focus is on Saturday’s game at Semple Stadium.
“The lads sat down a number of number of months ago and discussed how they’d pull a few extra pound together,” said the free-scoring wing-back.
“Going across to New York was the best option that they thought was possible. The finance that counties are using has gone to crazy levels. I haven’t heard too much about how they got on last week but I believe they got on very well and it was a good couple of days.”
Unlike Chin, who’s taken a year to focus on hurling, O’Keeffe is working full-time as a teacher in Meath. A good commute to Wexford?
“You’re talking a little over two hours from Dunboyne to Ferns, we train in Ferns. But the only thing to keep me going is that I’m one of 16 lads based in Dublin at the moment, between lads that are working and based in college.
“That’s nearly half the squad. You’re travelling down with a full car load of lads, week to week, and you get to know them pretty well. You’ve a lot of time to catch up so that keeps me going.”
Saturday is a replay of last year’s league semi-final, which O’Keeffe describes now as a steep learning curve: “I thought we did certain things in the first-half that were very good, the way we tried to play, I thought we executed it good in the first-half.
“They caught us for two goals against the run of play and really in the second-half we got to three or four points behind them but we could never break that gap of just getting a little closer. They finished up, I think, with five goals in the end and two late on.
“It was a steep learning curve and we picked up a lot of things from it. Tipperary went on to lose the league final but got to an All-Ireland semi-final and almost an All-Ireland final again. The biggest thing we learned was that if you don’t perform to the best of your ability as a team then you’re going to suffer and we did, very much, that day.”
Beating Kilkenny in the championship was a more positive experience.
“It was very significant. It gave us massive belief that we could compete with the top teams. We beat them in the league semi-final, beat them in the Leinster semi-final. It gave us the belief that we could push on and compete with the top teams in the country.
“The atmosphere that night was unbelievable but no different to last weekend against Cork, Wexford supporters will follow in numbers so they were very good.”
Wexford were the story of last year’s championship — apart from Galway’s All-Ireland final win — and O’Keeffe acknowledges their progress.
“We got to a league semi-final and Leinster final last year but you are judged on championship and we finished in a quarter-final again — which we have done for the last couple of years previous and haven’t really made any inroads there. Yes, we have made progress, but judging by the championship we are improving though there’s still work to do.
“The big thing for us was to get to 1A and we did that last year, maybe ahead of schedule in Davy’s eyes, he might have looked at it over the course of two years that it might happen.
“That’s where you are competing against top sides week in week out and that will have a knock-on benefit in terms of performances in the Championship because you are playing high-quality games week to week, and it will improve you.”
O’Keeffe doesn’t feel Wexford ran out of energy last year, though he admits he and his colleagues are training smarter this season: “We got promotion in the league, we met Galway in a Leinster final and three weeks later Waterford in a quarter-final and those two teams ended up in the All Ireland.
“When you are playing teams that are competing for an All Ireland there is only a couple of points either way. I don’t think it was a case of running out of steam - it was a case of we were meeting another top calibre team and if you are not on top of your game you are going to suffer and unfortunately we did, in the Leinster final particularly, and in the quarter-final we were beaten by four points.
“When you are playing the Tipps, the Waterfords, the Galways, the Clares, if you don’t take your chances you will be punished. You see a lot of time that the team that makes the least mistakes tend to go on and win the game.
“Maybe we are being smarter about what we are doing. So instead of doing three nights a week in the gym you might do two nights and the third night be out doing your own hurling specific stuff.
“Forwards might be shooting, backs defending, you are just being smarter about the training you are doing.”
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