Tuesday 23 July 2019

Passing of a hurling legend

Ned Wheeler tribute

A true G.A.A. legend, who delighted not alone Wexford supporters but hurling fans throughout the country in an inter-county career spanning from 1949 to 1965, has passed away following a short illness.

In a galaxy of Wexford hurling stars, Ned Wheeler was a giant among giants.

A thorough gentlemen, his passing late last week came as a shock to hurling followers in the county.

Ned, who was active on the Wexford inter-county hurling scene from 1949, became an integral part of the Senior set-up in 1951. He stayed there until 1965, with his numerous fine achievements with the county recorded elsewhere in this edition.

A native of Rathdowney, Co. Loais, Ned played his initial club hurling on arrival in the county with St. Martin's, before joining up with Wexford town side, Faythe Harriers.

In 1960, he won both Senior hurling and football titles that year with the town club, having also won a Senior football crown in 1959. He won two further Senior hurling titles with Faythe Harriers in 1962 and 1965.

Over his lengthy career he will always be remembered for his sideline pucks with the old leather ball - long, high, floating deliveries that switched defence to attack.

It was a hurling skill he brought to a fine degree of excellence, coupled with his high overhead striking, which were hallmarks of his all-round game from his favourite midfield position.

He was part of a galaxy of Wexford hurling stars, along with the likes of Nick O'Donnell, Bobby Rackard, Billy Rackard, Jim Morrissey, Paddy Kehoe, Padge Kehoe, Nickey Rackard, Martin Codd, Jim English, Art Foley and Tim Flood.

I can vividly recall Ned's giant frame on the field. He was a versatile performer, having played half-back, centrefield, half-forward and full-forward.

Despite his titanic clashes on the edge of the square with Jim 'Link' Walsh of Kilkenny and his many fine scores from that position, many felt he was best suited to the half-back line.

Hurling was in his blood. His uncle, Paddy, had played with Laois back in the 1930s, an era when the county produced many fine hurlers. At the age of five Ned left his native Laois and took up residence in Slieverue in Co. Kilkenny.

Ten years later, at the age of 15, he left Kilkenny and settled in Piercestown. His adopted county had gained a new son who in the purple and gold would adorn the hurling scene and leave a lasting imprint.

I had the privilege of having had many a chat with him, and some of the memories had remained uppermost in his mind.

He never forgot the National League final of 1956 which I attended. Playing against the wind in the first-half, Wexford fell further and further behind, until at half-time they were 15 points down.

In the first-half Ned felt that almost the entire Wexford team were unsettled and completely at sixes and sevens.

Very early in the second-half, Ned recalled doubling on a pass from Jim Morrissey. As he followed the flight of the wind-assisted sliothar, he saw it travel between the posts and rebound off the wall at the back of the goal - a distance of well over one hundred yards.

That point heralded a change into top gear by Wexford. They were on their way back from the grave. Slowly, surely, relentlessly, they chipped away at Tipp's intimidating lead, and as they did the atmosphere became super-charged.

When the final whistle blew the score was Wexford 5-9, Tipperary 2-14. The Model county had achieved an unforgettable victory.

His most bitter disappointment was the 1954 All-Ireland defeat at the hands of Cork in a game that Wexford dominated everywhere except on the scoreboard.

Over the years the team he most enjoyed playing against was Tipperary. He always regretted the downgrading of the Oireachtas and its subsequent extinction, many times recalling the great games against Galway and against Clare.

Proudly displayed in a barber's shop in Wexford was a photograph of the 1956 team. The caption was taken from Peadar Kearney's ballad 'Down by the Glenside':

'We may have great men

But we'll never have better.'

New Ross Standard