Wexford to emerge from close contest
How dramatically the Wexford football landscape has changed. Having achieved promotion from Division 4 they went on to suffer three successive defeats: two confidence-shattering efforts against Westmeath, plus one in between against Carlow whom they come up against in their Leinster Senior championship game at Netwatch Cullen Park on Sunday (3 p.m.).
That they had achieved their primary target for 2017, promotion out of Division 4, with two games to spare speaks volumes for the team's rising graph, and somewhat explains those group defeats to both Westmeath and Carlow when second string sides were fielded.
However, their final loss to the midlanders in Croke Park put a dent in their earlier campaign when they were the only county to take maximum points from their opening five league games.
At the time manager Seamus McEnaney was just five months into his latest managerial role. He said he had expected a top two finish in the basement tier, but didn't envisage Division 3 football for 2018 to be consolidated at such breakneck speed.
'The single most important thing for Wexford football in 2017 was to get out of Division 4,' he remarked. 'The longer you are in Division 4, the quicker you become a Division 4 team. This was Wexford's second year in it and they didn't need to be in it any longer.'
Wexford have left their league campaign behind them and are now looking forward to the championship and their opening clash with Carlow. They will be encouraged by their promotion, and they pride themselves on the manner in which they achieved that goal so early, but they still will need to be on top of their game to fashion a result against an ever-improving Carlow outfit.
Carlow's record in the league was quite admirable, finishing just a point adrift of second-placed Wexford, while they were left to rue a shock defeat to London which killed off their promotion prospects. Their home record makes for quite good reading under manager Turlough O'Brien, so it's widely expected that they will pose a serious test for the Model county side.
To be honest, it's difficult to say who will be favourites going into this game. Calling this clash isn't made any easier by the fact that Carlow recorded a league victory over their opponents, as the Model county were in experimental mode.
Still, the Barrowsiders have some key players who missed that clash to come back into their side, most notably their outstanding midfielder, Brendan Murphy, along with Kildavin-Clonegal clubman Daniel St Ledger, two players of immense talent who will be heavily involved in the outfield battles.
Even the fact that the winners will face Leinster and All-Ireland champions, Dublin, in the provincial quarter-final will take nothing from this game, which has all the hallmarks of a close and tense struggle.
Wexford will be geared for a battle having completed their intense preparations over the weekend in Carton House. Wexford will need a big performance to achieve a result but their neighbours will also feel that this is a game they are capable of taking, and a win is not beyond them.
It matters hugely for Wexford football that a victory is achieved in this opening championship clash. Despite their league finish, Wexford are still in control of their own destiny.
One could never view any game as easy pickings but it could come down to confidence in the end or perhaps the outcome of a couple of individual duels.
McEnaney will be desperate to see Wexford pull off a victory, and the impact of players like Brian Malone, Daithí Waters, Colm Kehoe, Kevin O'Grady, Ciarán Lyng, P.J. Banville and Ben Brosnan will have a crucial bearing on what will happen in this game.
Wexford have produced a fantastic effort in securing promotion, but their championship destiny could be decided on the outcome of the expected battle involving Waters and Brendan Murphy. Both players are powerful in the air, bringing a real physical presence to midfield, and this duel could prove decisive.
One is aware of the pressure that championship football brings, but Wexford have experienced players in each line of the team, players capable of leading by example. Now the whole panel should be showing the benefits of their preparations for this game, so they should be buying into a winning mentality.
Both sides will match each other for intensity but at the end of the 70 minutes it should be Wexford who have set the bar higher and qualified for a home clash with the All-Ireland champions, although it will be mighty close.