Forget critics, we just have to get ourselves right – Liam Dunne
Wexford's status continues to rise but manager targets further improvement this summer from squad that reached the last six of championship in 2014
Published 04/06/2015 | 02:30
Three years ago, Wexford found it difficult to organise challenge games against hurling's superpowers because they didn't believe there was much to be gained from playing them.
Over recent weeks, Wexford played Clare, Tipperary, Waterford, Dublin and Galway in practice outings.
"We must have come on a bit if all these boys are happy to play us in challenge games coming up to the championship.
"I hope they got something out of it. We did and that's what counts for us at this stage," said Wexford manager Liam Dunne.
Nonetheless, reminders that Wexford are still struggling to be regarded as serious All-Ireland contenders are never far away, even if they did reach the quarter-finals last year (first time since 2008) after beating Clare and Waterford in the qualifiers.
"I was reading a preview of the championship in one of the papers lately where a so-called top pundit was on about the top fancies for the All-Ireland. He dealt with eight counties in good detail and then threw in Wexford as a sort of after-thought.
"Something along the lines of: 'Sure, we can't ignore them altogether'. We don't mind - people can think as they like. They will anyway. We just have to get ourselves right," said Dunne.
Wexford begin their 2015 campaign against Westmeath in Mullingar on Sunday, 20 years to the day since they last played the Midlanders in the Leinster Championship in Carlow in 1995.
Dunne captained Wexford from midfield on a day when Billy Byrne, Larry Murphy, Tom Dempsey and Rory McCarthy scored 6-10 between them in a 6-23 to 1-7 win.
However, their season ended abruptly next time out, exiting tamely after a poor performance against Offaly, the defending All-Ireland champions.
Remarkably, Wexford won the All-Ireland final the following year with a squad which featured no fewer than 16 of the 18 players who played against Offaly 15 months earlier.
It shows that much can change in a year and explains why Wexford supporters are so optimistic that the show is very much on the right road under Dunne.
Read more: Brogan: Still plenty of room for improvement
For while Wexford were well beaten by Limerick in last year's quarter-finals, there was a feeling that four games in 22 days played a significant role in the collapse which ultimately ended with a 24-point defeat.
Once the disappointment had subsided and thoughts turned to 2015, the prospects of promotion from 1B looked real, albeit in a group where Limerick and Waterford were also always going to be serious contenders.
It all came down to the final game for Wexford where a six-point defeat by Waterford in Innovate Wexford Park cost them promotion.
Obviously, Dunne would have liked to be promoted but his sense of loss was not as acute as it might have been in different circumstances.
"We beat Offaly by nine points and scored 3-18 against Limerick but still lost by a point. We put 5-22 on Laois.
"We didn't play well against Waterford but I wasn't as disappointed by that as I was against Cork in the quarter-final.
"I said all along that we'd target the quarter-final and try to beat one of the 1A teams. We should have beaten Cork down in Páirc Uí Rinn.
"We led for a lot of that game but got caught in the end. We had more than enough chances (Wexford shot 18 wides) but didn't put them away. But at least we were creating them, which was encouraging," said Dunne.
His post-league review showed a range of positives. Wexford came in for criticism after the Waterford game but the defeat was later put in context by the manner in which Derek McGrath's new-look outfit powered their way past Galway, Tipperary and Cork to win the title.
"I knew after playing Waterford that they were a very good team and they kept showing it over the next three games," said Dunne.
It's generally assumed that Wexford are a good distance ahead of Westmeath, although that's not supported by a form-line through Antrim.
Wexford were fortunate to beat Antrim by a point in the first round of the league in February, whereas Westmeath beat the Glensmen by 17 points in the Leinster Round Robin last month.
Westmeath also beat Carlow and lost to Laois in the Round Robin, having earlier lost the 2A final to Kerry.
"Westmeath earned the right to be here. Playing at home will be a boost for them too so we have to make sure that we do everything right. Nobody hands you anything," said Dunne.
He has first-hand experience of how difficult it can be to win in Cusack Park, having come close to presiding over a defeat in 2010 when managing Oulart-The Ballagh.
"We were playing Westmeath champions Raharney in the Leinster semi-final and the fog came down so heavily that you couldn't see across the pitch, let alone from one goal to the other. We won by a few points in the end - at least I think we did. I couldn't see the scoreboard," said Dunne.
The prize for a win next Sunday is a semi-final clash with Kilkenny on June 21. In Wexford's case that would involve a trip to Nowlan Park, a rather daunting prospect for any team.
"I'd say Brian Cody will be hoping we win so that he can get us to Nowlan Park and knock us back down the road all the way to Wexford.
"But look, we're not thinking beyond next Sunday. We certainly wouldn't want to lose this and be heading into the first round of the qualifiers. There will be some right dogfights in there."
There's a view in hurling than an increasing number of counties have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland title.
And while Wexford are priced at the outer edge of that list (25/1 ninth favourites), the fact remains that last year they beat the 2013 All-Ireland champions and a Waterford squad, most of whom were aboard for the Allianz League triumph last month.
Despite Kilkenny's close call with relegation from 1B in March, Dunne still regards them as the team to beat in the championship.
"They'll miss JJ Delaney, but then who wouldn't? We must remember though that they will have all the boys who missed the league for one reason or another and that will make a massive difference.
"I just hope we get a chance to take them on in the semi-final. That's the aim but we need to get Sunday right to make it happen," added Dunne.