Wednesday 26 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: Striving for greater good

Dunne's Oulart side out to alter broad canvas of Wexford hurling by sweeping to title success

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The candour of his autobiography is faithful to the sharp edges of Liam Dunne's personality.

It shines a light in uncomfortable places. For a time, mirrors showed him all the things he hated and he doesn't spare the birch in exploring his relationship with defeat, foul play and -- maybe as a consequence -- alcohol.

The book is polemical and confessional in equal measure, a ground-breaking leap in a genre that, at the time, sided largely with politesse and woolly euphemism.

Dunne was the first player to be red-carded in three consecutive championships (2000-'02) and suggested in 'I Crossed The Line' that "most GAA fans think of me as a dirty little b*****d who broke fingers for a living."

In this, he was certainly wrong. For, while the latter end of his inter-county career would chafe with indiscipline and regret, he had long since established himself -- as Tom Dempsey averred this week -- as "probably the most skilful hurler in Wexford over the last 25 years".

Dempsey and Dunne are close friends, despite their clubs -- Buffers Alley and Oulart -- being among the more venomous of rivals within the county.

In fact, Dempsey recalls how, after winning the All-Ireland club championship in 1989 (Wexford's sole triumph), The Alley almost instantly became preoccupied with a worry that Oulart might "take the gloss off" their win in the subsequent county championship.

The hard, internecine edge to local business is something that Dunne himself has always seen as an impediment to Wexford hurling.

Agonising

After their agonising extra-time defeat to eventual All-Ireland champions, Ballyhale, in last year's Leinster quarter-final, the Oulart manager was still smoking like a coal fire as he reflected: "I'd say there were lots of people from Wexford here today that didn't want us to win to be honest with you.

"But that's the club rivalry that's in it. You take it on the chin, try to win a county final and shove it down their necks."

Oulart have been in the last seven Wexford finals, winning five. Despite only making the senior breakthrough in '94 (having lost their first 10 finals), they now stand an improbable fifth in the county roll of honour with eight titles.

Dunne was still a player up to '08 and was a member of Oulart teams beaten in successive Leinster finals in '94 and '95. This is his second year in management and, other than a difficult opening-round game against St Anne's, Oulart secured this year's title without ever having to visibly over-stretch themselves -- a reality that Liam Griffin worries might tilt tomorrow's business against them.

Dunne was, of course, man-of-the-match when Griffin's Wexford won the Liam McCarthy Cup in September of '96, but hurling in the county seemed to take little enough wind in its sails from that victory.

As such, the Oulart team facing up to Kilkenny champions, O'Loughlin Gaels, in tomorrow's Leinster final, must do so from a fundamentally compromised position.

Griffin explains: "Make no mistake, Liam Dunne has done a fantastic job with Oulart. The dedication that has gone into this team has been extraordinary. But that doesn't guarantee anything.

"Our biggest Achilles heel is that the quality of hurling in Wexford is not good enough. In other words, the level of competition Oulart have been subjected to will have been nothing of the same order that, say, O'Loughlins faced in Kilkenny.

"You always want to go into big games battle-hardened, but Oulart didn't need to be match-ready for some of the games they played in Wexford.

"So, they're coming from different roads and another thing that doesn't help Oulart is, with the greatest respect to everybody, they are a summer team. They're not big, they're not physical, their forwards are small.

"Winter hurling militates against them. It's a slower game. Still, that doesn't mean they can't do it on the day. They might well. They're an extremely good hurling team."

This week, Oulart centre-back, Darren Stamp, spoke rather pointedly of their determination that O'Loughlins will play "a Wexford team without a Wexford mentality" in Dr Cullen Park tomorrow.

Stamp, who has recovered from a broken knuckle sustained in the county final against St Martin's, anticipates that the Kilkenny champions might not harbour a whole lot of respect for anyone representing a county now without a Leinster club title since Rathnure's last win in '98.

"If so, they will get a fright," said Stamp. For Dunne, the chance of beating Kilkenny champions in a Leinster final would be freighted with the kind of energies that have, essentially, defined him as a hurling man.

In size (5' 8") and background (neither the jersies of Kilmuckridge Vocational School nor Oulart were fashionable in his earliest memories), the three-times All Star made a virtual art-form of flying in the face of convention.

Oulart endured its share of tragedy during his childhood. A couple of members of the U-21 team that won the county championship in '85, Anthony Stamp and Richard Ormond, were killed in separate accidents two years later.

And Dunne describes the emotion of subsequently winning the club's first county title in '94 alongside brothers of the dead men, Declan Stamp and James Ormond, as "the best feeling of my sporting life".

In fact, he believes that the importance of that day to the village far transcended the game of hurling. "Winning that cup prolonged some lives in the parish by three or four years, such happiness did the locals get out of it," he wrote in his autobiography.

Dempsey is certain that his former county team-mate is a future Wexford manager and suggests that, for this weekend at least, Oulart will have the backing of an entire county.

"We've had a few very rocky years in Wexford hurling," suggests the Buffers Alley man. "Last year never took off for us in senior. We met Tipperary and Galway in the championship, two of the best three teams in Ireland, and suffered accordingly.

"So, Oulart are seen as something of a bright light at the moment, a team giving people in Wexford something to follow. I would imagine there'll be a big Wexford crowd in Carlow for this game."

Those close to him say Dunne is still irked by the memory of last year's defeat to Ballyhale, Oulart having twice built up commanding leads against the eventual All-Ireland champions. Just 22 minutes into that game, they led 1-10 to 0-4. Yet, they eventually fell by two points after 80 pulsating minutes of hurling and Griffin suggests that they were, perhaps, authors of their own downfall in the end.

The closer the Wexford champions came to victory, the louder the crowd roared and, accordingly, the higher the players' blood pressure seemed to rise.

"I just think that the players lost a little bit of focus coming towards the end of that game," suggests Griffin. "They dropped their concentration levels. And, if you do that, who better than a Kilkenny team to punish you?"

Immediately after that game, Dunne talked of "trying to make a stand as Wexford men against these (Kilkenny) boys." He admitted that Oulart were down, "but we're not going to stay down." It was rousing talk that rose to a tenor so utterly in keeping with his hurling life. And, tomorrow, opportunity returns for Dunne and Oulart to bring that defiance into vivid colour. Griffin is unequivocal about what impact victory might yet have on the broad canvas of Wexford hurling.

"Look, Wexford needs some kind of a light to shine into the place," he says. "If Oulart could win, it would certainly be a massive help to Wexford hurling. And it would be an example to the rest of the county.

"We haven't won a Leinster club since Rathnure in the late '90s and that's not good. Because you have to have a certain amount of self-esteem as a county, you have to feel good about yourself. That's not possible if you're constantly coming up short.

"So, all of us as Wexford people will buy into the Oulart win, if they do it. We'll all feel good about ourselves on Monday morning."

Irish Independent

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