Wexford All-Ireland winner Tom Dempsey strikes a balance about his county’s progress to the NHL semi-finals.
Davy Fitzgerald’s side were a goal too good for All-Ireland champions Galway last weekend, but Dempsey stresses: “We’re not running away with ourselves in terms of where we are, but Wexford are playing an attractive brand of hurling — it’s good to watch and the crowds are responding to it.
“The players are working very hard all over the field and some of the scores last week, in particular, were excellent. It’s anything but a defensive game that Wexford are playing — it’s doing it a disservice to just say it’s a ‘sweeper system’. It’s a little bit more than that.
“I’d be the first to say that Galway probably weren’t quite where they’d want to be come the middle of summer in terms of fitness, but the big thing for Wexford, Davy’s big achievement, has been to make Wexford competitive. Because at times in the last 15 to 20 years we just weren’t competitive.
“That’s all people were looking for, and now that we’re competitive, if we get a little bit of a bounce along the way who knows where we’ll go?”
They’ve also been consistent, he adds.
“It’s great; the consistency has come from perfecting the system. They’re even more comfortable with it this year than last year, and it’s a way of playing that always gives them a chance.
“The other thing is the work ethic — they’re probably working harder than any other team. That’s not to say they’re not showing a bit of skill as well, they are, but that work ethic is a huge factor.”
On the other hand, they’ve been doing well at Wexford Park. Given the nature of the championship in Leinster and Munster, all counties are going to have to learn to win away if they want to make progress. Key to performing away from home is depth on the bench.
“They’re going to have to go on the road in the Leinster championship,” says Dempsey.
“Three of the five games are away, but while the game we lost in the league was away to Tipperary, at the moment Tipp are playing like the best team in the country — there was no huge dishonour in that loss.
“One big boost this year has been the likes of Paudie Foley and Kevin Foley coming in — and Rory O’Connor, though he played some of the championship last year — as they’re adding to what we had last year.
“Again, though, we’re not running away with ourselves. We know it’s a work in progress and there’ll be tough days ahead. Kilkenny will go all out this weekend to put a marker down for the championship, and we’ve lost to Kilkenny often enough not to run away with ourselves.”
Kilkenny will be keen to assert themselves this weekend, though with the championship now on the horizon there’s a school of thought that Wexford aren’t doing themselves any favours meeting the Cats so near to their summer showdown.
Dempsey sees a silver lining to that, however.
“The bottom line is when you’re trying to build from where Wexford were, you have to build confidence. Wexford are right to go out and do their best in every game, not to think ‘we’ll hold back a bit here for the championship’.
“Also, there are going to be rocky patches along the way anyway. We all know that. Next Sunday could be one, or when Galway roll in for the championship. Every team is a threat. And the championship’s only five weeks away.
“In terms of goals, Wexford’s goals for the season were probably to consolidate in 1A and get to a semi-final, which they’ve done, to face into the championship with confidence.
“And that’s going to be needed, because the thing about this year’s championship is that there are no gimmes in Leinster for Wexford.
“Davy is fully aware that losing a couple of games will get you in trouble, so you need to be as competitive as you can be.”
As for the Clareman himself, Dempsey is full of praise.
“Davy’s done an incredible job here, and the players have bought into it totally.
“Now, it’s probably an ongoing job, but in fairness to him we’re enjoying the journey we’ve been on with him, and he’s put in a huge amount of work not only with the squad but in terms of promotion, things to do with the minor teams and so on.
“He’s putting in a great foundation and hopefully he’ll be here for another couple of years, but it’s up to us to carry that on. You couldn’t quibble with anything he’s done and you won’t hear a bad word said against him here.”
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