Dunne buying time to continue Wexford revival
Published 22/07/2016 | 02:30
Four days after Wexford were hammered in last year's Qualifiers by Cork, Liam Dunne met Billy Walsh in the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel in Dublin.
Dunne was unsure about his future or where he was going with Wexford. Walsh gave it to him straight, like a thunderous jab he coaches his boxers to deliver.
A discussion that lasted over four hours still didn't end with a settled conclusion. Three days later, the two met again. They thrashed everything out over another four hours. Walsh knew that Dunne needed to excavate deeper, from within himself and his squad, to find out if they could continue on the same journey together.
A review meeting with the Wexford players, independent of Dunne, was set up. Walsh organised a facilitator, someone he had worked with at the High Performance Unit, to chair the meeting. Nothing was held back. Dunne's own performance was taken apart.
Some players felt overtrained. The hurling coaching needed to improve. Other areas of the overall management structure needed to be overhauled. Dunne held his hands up. He took all the feedback on board. He made the changes the players wanted, and felt necessary.
The county board also wanted change, especially in shaking up his backroom team. Tom Foley and Aidan O'Connor arrived as selectors. Willie Cleary, a respected young coach from Clonard, who had worked with UCD, De La Salle in Waterford and Carrickshock in Kilkenny, was brought in as hurling coach. Improving the pace of their hurling and speed of striking was a priority after Wexford bombed in the 2015 championship.
Fitness was an issue in Dunne's earlier years of management before being firmly addressed by the highly respected Gerry Fitzpatrick. The squad are now another year into Fitzpatrick's programme. He told them during the spring that if they did the fitness tests he set for them a few years back, they would blow those results to smithereens.
Adherence to gym-programmes, proper hydration and recovery reached a new level of monitoring. Nutrition was also stepped up. The Wexford set-up had never been more professional and yet their form continued to get worse as the season progressed. After being hammered by Dublin in May, Dunne looked a dead manager walking.
A fifth season in charge was winding, and grinding, down to a halt but the countdown clock had been ticking long before that Dublin defeat. Dunne's reappointment by the county board was messy. Their regular league campaign was a write-off. They beat Laois by one point in their final game to spare themselves a relegation/promotion play-off with Westmeath.
When Dunne took a four-night break in Spain ahead of the league quarter-final against Waterford, missing just one training session, a bushfire of innuendo and speculation about his future blew up. Dunne responded by saying that the county should focus on producing better hurlers instead of trying to "stick knives" in his back.
The endgame still seemed imminent. Less than two weeks before they played Offaly in the qualifiers, a depleted Laois side trimmed Wexford in a challenge game. Laois were surprised by how poor Wexford were, and by how dispirited they looked.
Offaly were fancied to beat them in Wexford Park but Wexford finally delivered a performance to turn their season around. A week later, they upset the odds to defeat Cork in the championship for the first time in 60 years. After craving something all season, Wexford have now found some form and momentum at just the right time of the season.
It has also lifted the cloud that was hanging over Dunne and the players all season like a pall of dead air. "We needed a break," said Dunne after the Cork game. "IC needed a break. Everyone needed a break. A lot of hard work has gone in over the last couple of years. People don't realise there has been a phenomenal transition of the team over the last two years."
The reconstruction has been radical. Eleven of the 20 players which featured against Cork played no part in the huge Qualifier win against Waterford two years ago. Twelve of that 25-man squad are under 22.
The hope and hype that followed Wexford through that 2014 summer had long evaporated over the last two seasons and Dunne has been pushing the boulder up the hill ever since.
The slippage began in spring 2015 when they failed to build on that momentum. In that campaign, they led Limerick at one stage by eight points and lost by one. Wexford still had a chance of promotion until Waterford bossed them in their last match. Their summer collapsed with hammerings to Kilkenny and Cork.
Winning three Leinster U-21 titles in a row last summer for the first time in 44 years was a huge achievement but it still camouflaged the reality of an incomparable level of young talent to counties like Clare, Limerick and Waterford. One of those Wexford U-21 teams lost to Antrim. Last year's side was hammered by Limerick.
Oulart-The Ballagh are the current Leinster club hurling champions but Oulart no longer provide the same strong framework to Wexford that they routinely did over the last decade.
When the current Oulart side contested their first Leinster final in 2010, they had eight starters on the Wexford team, most of them key leaders. Against Cork two weeks ago, they had just one starter - Eoin Moore.
This is a young squad. Eanna Martin is the eldest at just 29. Eight players were gone from last year's panel at the outset of the season but the panel have been decimated with injuries all year. Andrew Shore did his cruciate knee ligament. Shaun Murphy and David Redmond are also out with long-term injuries.
Lee Chin missed the Dublin game after damaging his knee. Liam Ryan broke his thumb in a club game. Podge Doran and James Breen, who was excellent against Cork, are now doubtful for Sunday too.
One starter from last year left the panel in frustration at the outset of the summer. Other talented players haven't committed. There has been talk of some player unrest but Dunne has always retained total support of the core group of leaders and most influential players within the squad.
Their big guns, especially up front, delivered big-time against Cork. Chin was the best player on the field, scoring four points from six shots. McGovern scored two points from ten plays. McDonald had his best match in almost two years, nailing 13 of 14 scoring chances.
Wexford's work ethic also reflected a team with a strong team spirit. They won the hook-block-tackle count (30-26). They won 60pc of the battles in the air and on the ground. When Cork hit them with a late goal, Wexford overcame that setback and outscored their opponents by 0-6 to 0-2.
Where does Dunne go now from here? Sunday will tell a great deal.
A win would secure his future, if he decides to go back anyway. A defeat, narrow or significant, may convince him to walk away. Dunne may have already had enough but nobody can ever question the immense commitment he has given to Wexford hurling, especially to this job.
And whatever happens, he has constructed the framework of a young team that the next manager will ultimately benefit from.