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rising force From Davy to Darragh - how Wexford rose again after swapping Fitzgerald for Egan


Wexford manager Darragh Egan before the Allianz HL Division 1A clash with Galway at Pearse Stadium, Salthill. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Wexford manager Darragh Egan before the Allianz HL Division 1A clash with Galway at Pearse Stadium, Salthill. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Wexford manager Darragh Egan before the Allianz HL Division 1A clash with Galway at Pearse Stadium, Salthill. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Many things have already happened in this year’s Allianz HL things that not even Mystic Meg could have predicted and Wexford’s unbeaten run in the shark tank of Division 1 is top of that list.

Limerick’s winless streak has caught most of the headlines as the defending All-Ireland champions struggle for traction, but Wexford deserve plenty of plaudits for a trio of victories that leaves them primed to make the last four.

Wins on the road against Clare and Galway combined with a stirring home defeat of Limerick have them in pole position as Offaly head to the sunny south-east on Sunday and Darragh Egan has already worked wonders.

Filling Davy Fitzgerald’s shoes was never going to be easy; here was a manager who the Wexford players once travelled the width of the country to keep him in charge, but Egan has brought renewed energy to a squad in danger of going stale.

Their Walsh Cup annihilation against Dublin just eight days out from the visit of the Treaty to Wexford Park looked to have confidence on the floor, but they turned things around in sensational fashion to become the league’s trendsetters.

Tom Dempsey was “worried” leaving Croke Park that night after being humbled by the Dubs with the feeling that an “air of gloom” might prevail if they continued in that vein and the Wexford legend has been “heartened” by their emphatic response.

While sure to keep his feet firmly on the ground despite optimism in the county, Dempsey loves what he sees in terms of their style of play as the ‘sweeper’ which Fitzgerald utilised to claim Leinster honours in 2019 is not nearly as visible.

“The sweeper was always the go-to here in Wexford and when we were very exposed at the back against Dublin, people were thinking we were right to be playing a sweeper all those years, but what Diarmuid O’Keeffe, in particular, is doing is brilliant,” he says.

“He’s an absolute genius if you look at him, he’s playing midfield and getting a couple of points, but he’s one of the reasons that we’re playing so well. He just slips in behind his half-back line and almost creates that extra defender.

“He’s particularly good at doing it when we’re under a bit of pressure and I put a lot of stuff down to him. We’re not playing a sweeper as such, but we are more compact and we learned a lot of lessons from Dublin.”

Dempsey, a classic inside forward during his lengthy county career, also loves the attacking edge to the side with a more traditional set-up led by the red-hot form of Rory O’Connor in the Model County’s full-forward line.

“Another thing that’s different is that when we get the ball, we have men to shoot at up front. We generally have three men and always two men inside, so we’re not dilly-dallying out around the field because we know we can play it direct if we have to.

“Against Galway, we often had three men inside and we haven’t had that for a while. I always felt that it was very hard on Conor McDonald whereas teams now have to deal with Conor Mc with two men beside him, and that’s a completely different thing,” the former All-Star says.

“It’s also standing to us that we have an exceptional forward in Rory O’Connor, he’s just on fire at the moment. He’s almost in a position to shoot or take you on every time he gets the ball and that’s where we need to see Rory. He’s a great player.”

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A criticism often thrown Fitzgerald’s way was the over-reliance on 17 or 18 players, but Dempsey is delighted to see young guns like Connal Flood, Oisín Foley, Mikey Dwyer and Oisín Pepper staking their claim as Egan tries to develop squad depth.

The fact that Wexford are prospering without their “spiritual leader” Lee Chin – currently sidelined with a hamstring injury and yet to feature this year – is also a huge bonus as Egan casts his net wide.

“Everyone is saying that we’re just building on what Davy did, but we had a situation last year where we brought players back on in the Leinster semi-final, so the first difference is that we are blooding young fellas and there is a big effort to create a 26-man panel,” Dempsey says.

“They are looking at everyone. It creates options and we really needed to create a bit more depth in where we were going with the panel.”

Dempsey beams when talking about the benefits which Billy Walsh and Gordon D’Arcy – “two of Wexford’s greatest sporting heroes” – bring to the equation in his back-room team alongside top coaches like Willie Cleary and Niall Corcoran.

The Buffers Alley clubman knows that All-Ireland titles are in the distance, but consistency is all he craves.

“We have a tendency to be either up or down and never in the middle. Over the years, probably the most consistent thing about us was our inconsistency,” Dempsey admits.

“I do think a lot of things are different this year, though. I’m not saying that’s going to win All-Irelands for us, but the important thing is to stay competitive over the next five or six years and keep building.”

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