Column: Michael Fennelly on hurling
By Michael Fennelly
In all my years playing for Kilkenny we always gave Wexford plenty of respect.
They might not have had the consistency and depth of talent to win Leinster or All-Ireland titles during that period, but they always had good players who could do damage if you let them.
Plenty of counties have found that out to their cost over the years, including Clare, and that’s why they’ll be so wary about facing the Slaneysiders in Saturday’s All-Ireland SHC Quarter-Final.
It was Wexford who dumped Clare out of the Championship in 2014 when the Banner County were reigning All-Ireland Champions, and that memory will still be a fresh one for a lot of their players.
Back then Davy Fitzgerald was Clare manager but on Sunday he’ll be in the other dug-out, trying to mastermind a Wexford win over his native county.
Davy said back in July that the Championship will only be getting started in July, and if I was a Clare player I’d be very wary of what he and Wexford will bring to the table this weekend. Davy is most dangerous when he has had time to plot and plan against a team.
All the more so when he knows most of these Clare players inside out, their strengths and their weaknesses.
That’s a huge advantage for Wexford and it will be very interesting to see the one-on-one match-ups that Davy deploys.
John Conlon has been Clare’s best forward this summer and if Clare continue to progress through the Championship and he keeps performing at the same level he’ll be a genuine candidate for the Hurler of the Year.
His raw strength and finishing ability have made him a real handful for opposition defenders, but Wexford have a natural full-back in Liam Ryan who stands at 6’3’’ and is a powerful man himself.
Ryan is a quality defender, but he’ll need his corner-backs to be on their game too this weekend because they’ll have their hands full with Clare’s likely corner-forwards Podge Collins and Shane O’Donnell.
Both of those boys haven’t played to their full potential yet this year, but Sunday could be D-Day if they get the sort of good supply of ball that hasn’t come their way with enough consistency.
Another obvious match-up from a Wexford point of view would be to pit Paudie Foley against Peter Duggan. Foley has been one of the best half-backs in the country this year, and has the physical stature to match the towering Duggan.
Tony Kelly will be a big part of the equation on Sunday, too. Where will he play, and what sort of form will he be in?
I have no doubt that Davy will have a plan for him either way.
Diarmuid O’Keeffe is a fast and versatile half-back who loves going forward. Might we see him being detailed to follow Kelly if he starts on the half forward line?
Wexford will make themselves difficult to break down on Sunday, but they’ll have to find a way to marry defensive durability with attacking opportunism.
Players like their talisman Lee Chin, Conor McDonald, and Rory and Jack O’Connor will have to be in tip-top form if Wexford are to win this match.
I don’t think Clare will be planning for match-ups against Wexford but they will be plotting how best to overcome the sweeper system.
They’ll be very familiar with it obviously because Davy also adopted the same tactic when he was Clare manager, but it’s one thing implementing it yourself and another thing entirely playing against it.
What team will Clare go with? I think the backs will remain the same but we might see Conor McGrath come into the half-forward line and Tony Kelly given the latitude to go wherever he wants from a midfield position.
Movement will be key for Clare in order to pull the Wexford sweeper system out of shape, and if I was their manager I’d be instructing some of the forwards to circulate to different positions throughout the match.
There has to be a purpose to it, but it would be nice to see Duggan on the edge of the square occasionally with Conlon coming out to the ’45 and the corner men switching out to the wings occasionally.
Keeping some shape to your attack is vital when you do that sort of movement, but Clare have the forwards to adapt to such a strategy.
Confidence is always a factor in a high-stakes match like this one, and you’d wonder if Clare’s has taken a hit from the manner of their Munster Final defeat to Cork.
They played really well in the first half of that match, but can’t afford to go missing again like they did in the second and will also have to improve their discipline.
If they can feed their corner-forwards with ball into space and complement that with accurate deliveries into their big men Duggan and Conlon, then I think Clare are formidable.
The man best equipped to deliver those balls is Tony Kelly, and if he is allowed to get his head up and spray passes around then that could be the key to unlocking the obvious potential in this Clare team.
But if instead he and others start shooting from everywhere rather than playing with a plan, then Clare will be in trouble.
Anything less than their best won’t be good enough against a hungry Wexford team that will be geared up by Davy.
He’ll want to improve on last year’s Championship when they were beaten at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, and if they were to make the semis this year then I think Davy can regard the year as a success.
The big question though is how much longer Davy will remain in charge of Wexford, because the logistics of travelling to and from Clare obviously make it a very demanding role.
If the Wexford County Board don’t already have an assurance he’ll be back in 2019 regardless of what happens this year, then they really need to start thinking hard about a possible alternative.
The Wexford players have great belief in the culture and style of play that Davy has brought to the set-up.
He’s laid a foundation that’s ready to be built on with the sort of up and coming talent we saw in the Leinster U-21 Final against Galway.
But if another manager comes in with a completely different style and agenda to Davy’s, then it could be disastrous for Wexford in the short to medium term.
I’m going with a Banner win by 3 points but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Wexford pull the rug out from under their feet led by the mastermind Davy Fitzgerald.