On The Fitzy: A Dedication to Wexford’s Finest Shot Stopper

Posted on February 15, 2010

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Today marks the end of a sporting era. Not only is the game of hurling losing a man, who I believe to be the finest goalkeeper in the country (and perhaps one of the best ever), but we, in Wexford are also saying goodbye to the last remaining member of the 1996 All Ireland winning hurling team.

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We all knew this day would come. Damien Fitzhenry would have to retire eventually, and at 35 he’s fully entitled to. Sure, it’s nice to think we might have got another year or two out of him. After all, playing in the goal is not as strenuous as playing out the field is. But then again, I challenge any other keeper in the country to play for Wexford for 17 years and remain dedicated for all that time.

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How many times over the last 17 years have things looked bad for Wexford? How many times have supporters, players and management teams walked because there was just no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel?

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That’s perhaps Fitzy’s most honourable factor, that he never once threatened to leave. When others walked, Fitzy remained loyal, something which is probably more important than even talent in this county because we have such a problem with consistency.

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In ’07, Fitzy was made captain because there was no Rathnure man on the team to take that role. He captained Wexford for the entirety of the league and for the Leinster semi-final.

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A couple of weeks before the Leinster Final, Rathnure man Nigel Higgins made a sporadic return to the Wexford team and was immediately named captain for the Leinster Final, something most people saw as an insult to the great man between the posts. What followed was hefty beating by Kilkenny (that almost NEVER happens…) and Higgins left the panel again. Did Fitzy kick up? No, or at least not vocally. He took back his captaincy role and continued for the rest of the short Championship campaign, though we did beat Tipperary in the All Ireland Quarter Final that year, probably the last good Wexford hurling day.

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But this story is a very symbol of what is wrong with hurling in Wexford on a basic level. Fitzy’s loyalty puts a management team and our county board to shame. What was done to him with the captaincy that year would not have happened in any other county because there is a different level of respect. Had it happened to some of the other players on the team, I daresay there would have been an uproar, but then I can’t say I would sympathise with any of the others in the same way but that’s a completely different (and much, much longer) post about the attitude befalling our representatives on a hurling field.

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A funnier story perhaps happened in an early season game a few years ago when Wexford were beaten by Laois. Seamus Murphy entered the team dressing room asking the team themselves to assess the situation and point out what they thought were the problems. Fitzy’s response was “I have six problems: ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen” alluding to the age old Wexford problem of having no forwards capable of scoring!

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But enough of the anecdotes. This wasn’t supposed to be a long post, more of a kind of dedication to Fitzhenry, who, despite excelling in his field for 17 years has but a few accolades to his name. An All Ireland medal obviously being the highlight, 3 Leinster medals (one of which wouldn’t have been won only for his heroics in the goal that day) and two All Star Awards (should have been more than 2).

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I was struck earlier today with the story of the Mayo footballers curse, stating that Mayo would have no All Ireland joy until the last member of their last All Ireland winning team died. It’s surprising that the same hasn’t been said of Wexford by now but again, I’m not getting into a Wexford hurling rant or I’ll be writing until the Championship starts.

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As part of an era of great goalkeepers, Liam Griffin stated on local radio this morning that he felt Fitzy was the best of them. And I agree. It’s very easy for the likes of Donal Og, or Brendan Cummins to be classed as the best ever but what people don’t realise is that you will never be under more pressure than you will be in a Wexford goal, especially over the increasingly desperate past few years.

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The aforementioned keepers stopped shots with 14 good players standing in front of them. I’ll be lynched for saying this but there were times when Fitzy was lucky to have 4 good players in front of him and he still stopped the shots. By that deduction alone, he deserves the title of ‘Best in the Country’.

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So, to close off this little labour of admiration, I suppose the last thing to say,

So long Fitzy. And thanks for all the memories. The common denominator in all the good stuff that happened for Wexford in the past 17 years. Best of luck in the future.