'When every player is willing to die for that jersey, you've a chance' - Martin Storey
Wexford are no longer happy with being competitive, insists Martin Storey
Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30
So Wexford nose into the tiger's lair tomorrow, nobody quite sure if it's time for rosary beads or trumpets?
Henry Shefflin lost just one championship game to them in 16 seasons as, mostly, they existed as just smallprint in his world. Wexford fell off the face of the earth around the time Kilkenny became unbeatable and, thus, the relationship became dysfunctional, a marriage programmed to one-sided harm.
Now Henry is gone just as Wexford find a bounce in their stride and, so, they pitch up in Nowlan Park looking for a first summer victory over the stripey men since a grey and distant time Lance Armstrong was still stockpiling stolen goods in France.
Their Leinster semi-final win in '04 delivered to us the iconic image of Brian Cody slumping to his knees behind the Canal End goal as Mick Jacob set the rigging dancing. Back then, the Kilkenny manager was still fooling the world into believing he was mere flesh and bone. Now we associate him with that secretive chap working for the Daily Planet.
Wexford have met so much misfortune in the shadow of Cody's Kilkenny it could make the stones cry. But they've discovered the tonic of self-help in recent times and, if few enough predict that Liam Dunne's boys will take the game's biggest scalp tomorrow, not many see their job as trying to hold humiliation at bay either.
That page has turned for Wexford. The feeling within the county is that those days of wheezy deference have passed and they now have a team capable of hurling up a storm again.
John Conran was the manager behind that '04 win and he says he will go to Kilkenny tomorrow energised by a sense of optimism that had, maybe, become dormant in the recent past. The Wexford support travelling might even outnumber the locals this time and Conran is anticipating a momentous gathering now.
"First of all, Wexford have no problems playing in Nowlan Park," he stresses. "It's like a second home to them. We've beaten Kilkenny there at underage and had some really good performances there, so it suits Wexford.
"If anything, it might even take a little pressure off the team. And if Wexford are able to move on from last year a bit, who knows? I think Kilkenny are - maybe - vulnerable. Now, maybe they're not. God knows they could come out and pull stuff out from under the woodwork.
"But it looks as if they might be in a little bit of a transition and it could be the chance that Wexford need. Look, it's hard to say that Wexford will win, but I think we could come out of it with a hell of a good display. Now, having said that, I know from talking to any of the players, a performance won't be any consolation to them if they're beaten.
"They're going out to win this game and I think these fellas have the confidence to go ahead and push that on."
Yet, how can we truly judge where Wexford now stand in the land of giants? They did not escape Division 1B in the National League and, if they were far from embarrassed by Cork in the subsequent quarter-finals, that measuring tape hasn't exactly held up to rigorous scrutiny since. Our optimism for Wexford this time is franked, largely, by a journey travelled last summer.
So is there anything concrete this term to point to a graph still rising?
Conran believes that, at the best of times, the league is an untrustworthy gauge. "Go back to '04, we had a disastrous league (Wexford won two out of a possible eight games). We were lucky, we stuttered out over a couple of teams. We drew with Laois who weren't good at the time, no more than ourselves.
"But the league didn't really affect us. We just got into the zone at the right time and that's the thing to do. Look, it would be a dream come true if this team can beat Kilkenny now, but I know the team themselves are confident that they can do it."
Trouble is, nobody can ever be in much doubt about the readiness of a Cody team for championship and, if the only recent form-guide available is a single challenge game, it did end in a pretty resounding rout of Limerick.
Cody's Kilkenny doesn't tend to have a fluctuating heartbeat. They just seem relentless and eternal as the summers roll. Of the team that won last year's All-Ireland, only JJ Delaney's retirement was a bullet taken to the preferred starting 15. Win impressively against Wexford and, chances are, they will take to their beds tomorrow night as odds-on favourites to retain the Liam MacCarthy.
Martin Storey, Wexford's All-Ireland-winning captain of '96, doesn't quite trust the narrative brewing.
"I don't buy this thing of Kilkenny being in transition," he says. "I'd love to be in transition and have the team that they have. I'm not a gambler, but I put a tenner on them at the start of the year to win the All-Ireland again. I mean the team that won everything might be coming to an end, but there's a new one coming that might be as good. That's how I'm looking at it.
"If you were to pick your best 15 in the country, you'd still have maybe eight Kilkenny lads on it. Well, I would anyway. So how could you really say they're in transition?"
That said, Storey shares Conran's belief that something is, palpably, now stirring in Wexford. He served three years as the county's minor manager, so maybe half of the current senior squad hurled under his tutelage.
"The difference now is that our younger players don't have the baggage of being beaten by 20 points by Kilkenny," he stresses. "That hasn't happened in the last four or five years. We have young lads going out now believing they can win.
"Whereas you go back six or seven years, we had lads going out trying to do a damage limitation job. If you got beat by eight points, it was, 'Oh Jesus, it was a good performance!'
"Our lads don't have that big fear in the back of their heads now, where they're thinking, 'I hope we don't get destroyed today!' They're going in saying, 'If we compete today, we can win this!' There's no comparison in those two mindsets.
"Remember when Kilkenny were destroying everybody? Well, we probably got the brunt of that. We got beaten by margins like 19 and 21 points. Like, that's soul-destroying, that's heavy to come back from. It starts to feel pointless when you're getting beat like that.
"So it's nice to be a Wexford supporter again, which it hasn't been. It was nice last year being a Wexford man, that you weren't getting your arse kicked everywhere you went. It was lovely travelling to Nowlan Park and Ennis, knowing you were able to walk in with your chest out and your head up.
"That's a lovely feeling for Wexford supporters now."
Last year brought a season of real renewal under Dunne's impressive management, the victories over Clare and Waterford electrifying a county desperate for a team to follow. People conditioned to that eternal circle of frustration and regret suddenly had reason to wear the colours again.
But Wexford have often been capable of hurling up a storm only to find themselves prone to listlessness in the same season.
Their All-Ireland quarter-final hammering by Limerick last year left worrying shadows in the mind and, to this day, Storey admits he is not sure of what exactly was behind it. "Look, I don't think we deserved what happened that day," he says now. "But I can't put my finger on whether it was tiredness or the build-up getting to the younger players.
"We just never came out of the traps that day at all."
They will need to be stirringly sure-footed tomorrow and prepared to sustain that tempo for 70-plus minutes. Kilkenny's way against Wexford has invariably been to look for a quick, clean kill. Conran's suspicion is that his county men will need goals tomorrow.
"Tactics have been beaten to death recently, so it's difficult to come up with new ones at this stage," he says. "But I do think if we're able to feed our full-forward line with decent balls, there are goals to be had in there. Hurling isn't really that difficult a game, provided everybody is working really, really hard.
"Waterford are displaying that. Sure there are tactics involved, bringing back players, packing defences and all that. And I'm sure Liam Dunne has a good few of those tricks up his sleeve. But the reality is it's about work rate and belief. If they have both of those things, they'll put it up to Kilkenny, that's for sure.
"I mean Waterford must be an absolute shining example for Wexford at this stage. "As things transpired, Wexford probably gave them as tough a game in the league as anyone managed. Yet, when I was walking out of Wexford Park that day, all I could hear was, 'Jesus, Wexford are gone back a lot!'
"But it was actually Waterford had stepped up, so there's nothing to say that Wexford can't do that too. Because, in my book, they're as good as Waterford any day."
Dunne's management has been tested this week by the controversial dropping of Jack Guiney, albeit most evidence suggests a thoroughly united squad behind the disciplinary decision taken.
Storey suspects that, much as Guiney's ability will be missed tomorrow, it won't cost the group a backward step.
"I think it'll unite the lads more," he suggests. "Once there's a bit of a problem like that, fellas are just inclined to plough in behind one another. You often see it when a man gets sent off, the 14 drive on to win the match.
"Look, he did what he did, he's been disciplined, he's not playing, that's it. The squad are united behind the decision. These young lads - and I had a lot of them with the minors - they're real, good, dedicated young lads."
So can Wexford bridge that 11-year gap now and beat Kilkenny again in the championship?
"It would be a major, major scalp," reasons Storey.
"Last year, Wexford proved that they were as good as nearly any team around, except the big couple (Kilkenny and Tipperary). We hadn't been competitive I'd say in eight years, but we were competitive last year. I'm hoping for a big performance, that these lads will go out and compete on an even keel with Kilkenny.
"Being honest, I couldn't see us beating them. But the Wexford players are clearly buying into what Liam is doing. And when that's the case, when every player is willing to virtually die for that jersey, you have a chance. I'd be absolutely thrilled if we do".
"I think they'll give a good account of themselves," he says. "God I hope they do anyway, because it would be three steps back if they don't.
"But I genuinely do believe they can even win it. Or, if not, definitely come out of there with a hell of a performance.
"A lot of what happens after that depends on the Kilkenny we get to see."