“DON’T GIVE up, because you never know how close you are.”
Those wise words from Tom Dempsey are delivered from the heart, with his own experience in the months before All-Ireland glory serving as a salutary lesson to any sportsperson harbouring doubt in their own mind.
To the generation fortunate enough to witness the thrills of 1996, the Buffers Alley stalwart will always be remembered with fondness as the man who scored one of the most important goals in Wexford hurling history.
However, he’s gained notoriety for another reason since Covid abruptly changed our way of living.
“I got used to being associated with that goal alright, but time has moved on. I’ve been calling the bingo for Glynn-Barntown over the last six months, and it led to a funny incident recently.
“I met a father and son, and the dad said to the young lad, ‘do you know who that is? I do daddy, that’s the bingo man,’ was his answer, so I might have finally shaken off that goalscorer tag!”
While 1996 ultimately delivered sporting riches beyond his wildest dreams, there was turbulence in the months beforehand and only the wise counsel of family and close friends persuaded Tom to stay with the Wexford squad and bide his time.
“The National League started pre-Christmas in those days, and I was displaced from the panel,” Tom recalls. “Liam Griffin told me to take a bit of a break, and I was resigned to the fact that my time was up. I felt people had lost confidence in me, and I wasn’t totally sure whether it was a break or something more permanent.”
Tom had started Griffin’s first big test as manager – the Leinster semi-final of 1995 against Offaly – at centre-forward, scoring three points including two from play.
He had turned 30 in April of that year, and he wasn’t involved with the squad for the Division 2 league clashes with Laois and Westmeath that kick-started the ’95-’96 campaign. “Dublin were up next, and a number of forwards were missing, so Liam rang and said he wanted to bring me on to the panel for that weekend.”
Tom came off the bench in that game in Parnell Park, replacing the injured Billy Byrne and scoring a point in a low-scoring 0-11 to 0-7 win. “I had a reasonable game, and that was the start of me gradually being embedded back in the panel.”
However, strong doubts still lingered in his mind as the months rolled on and 1996 progressed without any initial hint of the amazing highs that would follow.
A four-point haul from play in the league quarter-final victory over Offaly in Thurles on April 14 – the day before his 31st birthday – was an impressive return. A fortnight later, though, Tom was held scoreless and replaced in a comprehensive 2-15 to 1-10 defeat to Galway in Limerick.
“A couple of experiments weren’t repeated after that day, trying Damien (Fitzhenry) at wing-back and Ger (Cushe) at centre-back.
“And I started to wonder too if it was going to work out for me.
“I was 31 by then and had a touch of a hamstring injury before the Kilkenny game. Liam rang me on the Monday or Tuesday to say they weren’t starting me, and you can imagine the conversation after that.
“To be fair, Liam stressed that I would have a role to play. And, unlike a lot of managers, the lines of communication were always open between him and the players, I’d have to give him full credit for that.
“Still, I was very disappointed. Sinéad and I were living in Farnogue in Wexford town at the time. I was useless around the house, so that very same night, my brother-in-law, Niall Glynn, arrived to help me hang curtain-rails.
“I told him I was on the verge of retiring, but he urged me to have a re-think and not to make a hasty decision. I came on against Kilkenny on the Sunday and we won by a goal, but it didn’t alter my mood.
“On the Monday or Tuesday afterwards, I went down to see Mick Kinsella, who was County Board Secretary, in his office in Murphy-Flood’s Hotel. I asked him to let people know I was retiring but, like Niall, he tried to talk me out of it.
“Mick rang his brother Rory, who was a selector, and I also got a lot of sound advice around that time from Sinéad, who has always been a rock of sense and a great support, and from good friends like Fintan Farrell, Seán Whelan and Aidan O’Connor.
“I got my head down after that, but I was nearly finished. You can really feel so down as a hurler at times, almost as if the whole world is against you.”
A cruel tragedy would strike Tom’s family in between the Kilkenny and Dublin games. Niall, who was married to his sister Susan and the vice-principal of Kilmuckridge Vocational School, died in a freak accident at the age of 44.
“It was so sad that he never got to see that All-Ireland win after his sound advice had kept me going. It was such a shock but in one sense it took my mind away from having a full focus on hurling. It helped my game in that regard.”
Tom got his chance to nail down a regular place again when Paul Codd sustained a leg injury before the Leinster semi-final against Dublin. “I played but didn’t have the best of games. There was a comment line on South East Radio the next morning, and people were asking how was Tom Dempsey still on the Wexford team?
“It was probably one of my lowest points, and I felt pretty down. Then, on the Sunday morning before the Leinster final, I was on the ‘B’ team for a training game and had a bit of an argument with Liam and the selectors.
“I got a dressing down from them on the Tuesday, and I was a little bit surprised when they named the team after training that night and I was on it.”
Tom’s haul of 1-5 from play against Offaly marked a magnificent turning point, and he never looked back. “Larry O always reminds me about my first point. He broke through and could have put it over the bar himself, but instead he gave it to me and that got me going.
“The All-Ireland semi-final against Galway was my best game and, as for the final, everything about it was just a dream. The most emotional moment was when I met my late sister Majella and Susan immediately after the game. It had been such a tough time for everyone after Niall’s death.
“I remember 1996 as a very special year, but I also think back on it with great sadness because of those we have lost since.”
Tom’s parents, Breda and Ger (his biggest supporter and lifelong mentor), passed away in 2005 and 2006 respectively, while his sister Majella and her husband Barry Murphy – his former club and county hurling colleague – are sadly no longer with us either.
As an only boy with three sisters – Susan, Majella and Mary Lou (who now lives in Wales) – Tom and his father enjoyed a particularly close and special bond in their tight-knit family.
“The people in the Buffers Alley club were always very good to me too. They carried me through a lot of very tough times and I’ll always be grateful to them,” he says.
Tom and Sinéad – who were married in 1994 – have lived in Killurin for 21 years now, and he is a selector with the Glynn-Barntown Senior football team whose championship campaign will start early next month.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of my children,” he beams, when asked about Laura (24), Ger (22) and Emma (18).
Ger was a stand-out defender for Glynn-Barntown in the Pettitt’s SHC campaign, with Tom “still feeling sick” when we chatted two days after their semi-final exit. “I’m absolutely gutted for Ger and the rest of the team, because I know how much work they put in. Be kind to these lads – that’s my message – and I want to praise Denis Doyle, Jason Ryan, Shane Carley, Larry Murphy and Dara Kissane for being great mentors to them.
“The two girls were with the Wexford camogie team this year. Laura is fulfilling her dream of teaching in the Presentation, and Emma is about to start occupational therapy in UCC.”
Ger is an advertising analyst with 2K Games while Sinéad is still part of the same workforce as in 1996 – the only difference is that her company on Wexford’s industrial estate, formerly known as ABS Pumps, is now Sulzer.
Tom, a product specialist with pharmaceutical company AbbVie, is getting back into the routine of meeting clients face-to-face after a trying year and a half.
He is keen to stress that the trials and tribulations of late 1995 and early 1996 were “my own fault”, and he reserves special praise for two of the key figures behind the scenes.
“Pat Murphy (Co. PRO in 1996) was my go-to man in the dressing-room. Anything I ever wanted, he looked after it for me. And Dr. Stephen Bowe took care of everyone. You could go to him at twelve o’clock at night and he’d treat you, just to have you right for the next game.
“Maybe what I went through in the build-up to 1996 had to happen in order to get where I ended up. I won’t ever be able to thank Liam Griffin, Rory Kinsella and Seamus Barron enough for what they did for me.”