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Primed for the fight: Former boxer McDonald is enjoying split season and set on club glory

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McDonald gets his shot away in the semi-final with Oulart-The Ballagh. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

McDonald gets his shot away in the semi-final with Oulart-The Ballagh. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

McDonald gets his shot away in the semi-final with Oulart-The Ballagh. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

LONG after the result has been forgotten, today's Wexford hurling final will be recalled in the annals of the GAA.

For the first time ever a blue riband championship decider will not yield a cent in gate receipts.

In the wake of the Government's controversial new crackdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus all games have to take place behind closed doors.

The only consolation for the fans of Naomh Éanna and Shelmaliers is that they can watch the decider on TG4 (2.0).

Players are pragmatic creatures, however, and though they might miss the buzz from the crowd this is still one of the biggest days in their careers.

"It will be something different," acknowledges Naomh Éanna and Wexford marksman Conor McDonald.

"At the end of the day it is a county final. Obviously it is not ideal but I'd rather play behind closed doors than not play at all having come this far in the competition."

This has been a season without precedent, particularly for inter-county stars like McDonald.

Normally they would be so preoccupied with their county duties that they would rarely train alongside their club colleagues. But the hurling calendar has been turned on its head in 2020.

McDonald has just had his longest ever uninterrupted period of training with his club mates. Going forward, a split season is on the cards and McDonald believes it will be a positive step if it happens.

Normality

"I was delighted that the GAA opted to resume club activities first after the lock down. It allowed everybody to settle back into some kind of normality. It has been very refreshing.

"Furthermore putting the clubs first allowed every GAA player to play some hurling or football during the summer. Had it happened the other way around there might have been some sort of an All-Ireland series played but who knows what might have happened with club competitions."

Born in September 1995, McDonald's first birthday coincided with the county celebrating their famous 1996 All-Ireland win.

He has watched the video of the campaign so often that summer feels part of his DNA.

Furthermore, when he first joined the Gorey-based Naomh Éanna club he was able to get up close and personal with two of Wexford's 1996 heroes, full back Ger Cushe and super sub Billy Byrne, whose ability to snatch key scores when coming off the bench was a key factor in securing Wexford the Liam MacCarthy Cup 24 years ago.

"When I was a young fella it was mesmerizing to see the two lads strolling around the club."

But though McDonald has yet to win a Celtic Cross, he does have a Wexford senior hurling championship medal which neither Cushe or Byrne managed to win during their distinguished careers.

"From talking to both of them I know how much that medal would have meant to them."

McDonald appreciates being part of a history-making Naomh Éanna squad.

"The club has only ever played in four senior semi-finals and I was lucky to be involved in three of them.

A teenage prodigy, he was only 16 when he featured on the club's adult team which won the Wexford Intermediate 'A' championship in 2012.

Three years later he was again to the fore when they won the Intermediate title proper and by 2018 they were celebrating their first ever Senior title.

Their legacy depends on them winning a second title and every player will be conscious of what a victory today would do for the people of Gorey.

Pandemic

"For ourselves, we are trying to prove that 2018 wasn't just a once off but a victory would give a massive lift to everybody in Gorey who have endured a difficult few months due to the pandemic."

Having opened a gym in the grounds of Naomh Éanna in he spring of 2018, the lockdown presented him with particular challenged. But he used the break to re-model his business and he does most of his personal training on-line.

A versatile sportsman, he was once tipped for greatness in the boxing ring.

His last fight was in a schoolboy international against England.

He is friendly with local heavyweight professional Niall Kennedy and got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness a spar between the Gorey fighter and World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in 2017.

"I was in Nottingham and Niall gave me a call and asked me to come to Sheffield.

"I was doing Niall's corner but in the first round I forget about my duties as I couldn't take my eyes off Joshua.

"It was his last spar before one of his World title fights (against Kubrat Pulev) and it was cool to be there for it."

After Wexford's heart-breaking loss to Tipperary in last year All-Ireland semi-final and Naomh Éanna's surprise quarter-final loss in the Wexford championship, McDonald was looking forward to some down time. Fate decreed otherwise.

He ended up running the Dublin Marathon, crossing the finishing line in a respectable four hours and 27 minutes.

His biggest job was convincing Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald to let him run the race.

"He was reluctant enough but it is easier to break news like that over the phone."

But today it's all about hurling and that second title.

His last fight was in a schoolboy international against England.

He is friendly with local heavyweight professional Niall Kennedy and got a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a spar between the Gorey fighter and World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in 2017.

"I was in Nottingham and Niall gave me a call and asked me could to come to Sheffield.

"I was doing Niall's corner but in the first round I completely forget about my duties as I couldn't take my eyes off Joshua.

"It was his last spar before one of his World title fights (against Kubrat Pulev) and it was kinda cool to be there for it."

After Wexford's heart-breaking loss to Tipperary in last year All-Ireland semi-final and Naomh Éanna's surprise quarter-final loss in the Wexford championship, McDoanld was looking forward to some down time. Fate decreed otherwise.

He ended up running the Dublin marathon crossing the finishing line in a respectable four hours and 27 minutes.

His biggest job was convining Wexford boss Davy Fitzgerald to let him run the race.

"He was reluctant enough but it is easier to break news like that over the phone."

But today it's all about hurling and that second title.