1996 - the one-hit wonder that took the world by storm
“WELL, BROTHER!” As he answers the phone to me on the first time of asking, Wexford’s Larry O’Gorman tells me he’s in the middle of cutting the grass.
Later in the afternoon, he’ll be picking up the kids but I can give him a bell after that. When I get him for the second time, he tells me he’s just finished a job of work painting a garage door and, after our chat, he’ll be headed for Wexford Park to watch his beloved Faythe Harriers in action.
Nothing glamorous about that then. A fairly normal day. But just over 25 years ago, Larry was catapulted into the spotlight as an integral part of Liam Griffin’s All-Ireland winning Wexford team.
Earning hurler of the year for his exploits on the pitch, he was also in demand off it, as his wisecracking and sunny disposition meant everyone wanted a chat with the one dubbed ‘the brother’.
“Ah sure, it was a crazy time brother,” he reflects on those heady days of ‘96. “It was like being Wonderkid. It was amazing. You’re still young, you’re in your twenties, a single man going around and working away.
“I loved training, I loved going to the pub, I loved going fishing and walking, and all of a sudden you’re looking over your shoulder and there’s people walking behind you. There’s people ringing you.
“You go into the pub and instead of having two lads around you, you’ve 22 lads around you. Fellas asking you to go for a drink, all positive, but they all wanted a little bit of you.
“Liam Griffin told us when we were Leinster champions, ‘Lads, they’ll all want you. They’ll want you to go to the pub. We’re 70 minutes away, don’t lose yourselves. They’ll all want to be with us, but just give us two or three weeks. When we win the All-Ireland, I don’t care where you go, as long as you represent Wexford in the proper manner.’”
After that 70 minutes, a scrap with Galway in the semi-final, things ratcheted up a notch as the boys of ‘96 prepared for their biggest day out at Croker yet.
“When we beat Galway in the semi-final, the media started to circle,” Larry recalls. “They were nearly hiding outside my house under the car. They were coming from all over for me, Liam Griffin, Tom Dempsey, Larry Murphy. They wanted a little story from everyone.
“Liam had to more or less pull the plug on it then. It was getting so serious that all of us were doing interviews so he suggested that we leave Damien Fitzhenry or Martin Storey or one or two others to do little interviews, but not give away too much.
“I remember we had the build-up for the final. We were training up in the Park and RTÉ were down, we had media all over the place, there were kids all over the place looking for autographs. You just stop and go ‘Wow!’. You feel like U2 or something and this is only outside your own front door!
“We had all the cameras and everything and I remember saying to the lads, ‘this is grand, wouldn’t it be great to have this every year’, and Liam Griffin turned to me and said, ‘Larry, you only have to do it once. Just do it once and you’ll be remembered for life.’
“The media side of it wasn’t something we were used to, though. The only thing we were used to was Ger Hore or Pat O’Connor up taking pictures in the Park at the last training session!
“How we coped with it, I don’t know. We kind of went through the motions. But there was a nice switch-off when you went back into Wexford Park back to training. Inside the white lines, we were out to train for one hour solid. It was serious stuff.
“I remember Liam Griffin nearly choking one night on the whistle. We had 15 on 15, two weeks before the final and lads were tearing into each other. Everyone was fighting for their place.”
Always the joker in the pack, Larry certainly didn’t feel overawed by the occasion on All-Ireland final day. In fact, while taking a walk around the pitch beforehand, he sidled up to his manager and said: “Jaysus Liam, isn’t this marvellous. All these people turning out to see me play in my own back garden!”
“There was a little bit of tension. Fellas were in and out to the toilet, they didn’t know what to be doing. ‘Calm, calm,’ was the message and Liam eventually said: ‘Larry will you tell the boys a few jokes there?’ I jumped up on the table, 20 minutes before an All-Ireland hurling final, and started cracking a few jokes.
“Micheál O Muircheartaigh came in and said he never saw a team as relaxed in an All-Ireland final. Liam just told him, ‘Ah sure Larry, the brother, is in there telling them jokes!’ He just gave me the thumbs up and walked out laughing.”
What happened next is history. Wexford overcame Limerick in a hard-fought game and Martin Storey proclaimed from the steps of the Hogan Stand that the “bridesmaids of hurling” had finally got married.
Cue pandemonium in the Model county. Ending a 28-year wait was no small feat and the celebrations were long and glorious. The sad footnote is that a further 25 years later, we’re still reliving those days, keen to see a return of that party atmosphere on Slaneyside. How does Larry feel about that?
“To be honest, I thought the victory in ‘96 would’ve put a foundation down for Wexford and put us up with the big boys. We knew we were well able to do it. It was all about bringing the next generation through and how we go about it.
“Yes, in the meantime we won a couple of Leinster titles, Minor, Under-21, Senior Leinster titles, but I can’t understand how we didn’t take advantage of an All-Ireland win. Today it’s a little more professional, but there was an opportunity back in ‘96 that something serious could’ve happened if we got back to grassroots and started working hard in schools and communities.
“Even though we did try, I told people all you have to do is look at the Cork, Limerick and Tipperary set-ups and the academies.”
Larry does concede that in this day and age, with technology to the fore, it can be harder to get the youngsters hooked on the game.
“For me, turning 18 or 19, I was still out on the green in Bishopswater hurling the ball up and down; going out training to Páirc Charman and going to matches before I made the Wexford Minor team. Hurling to me was my life and my joy.
“Jimmy Magee once asked me, ‘Why do you bring the hurl to bed? Why do you bring the hurl to Mass?’.
“I said, ‘the hurl is my best friend. I get more enjoyment out of this than I would from someone giving me money or something.’ It was constantly there with me and because it gave me such enjoyment, I always thought, wouldn’t it be nice some day to get some kind of reward from it?”
For Larry and the rest of the ‘96 team, the pressure was lifted following that famous win against Limerick. The team hit all four corners of the county attending various celebrations, but he insists that, despite Liam Griffin’s departure, the focus was there for the following year.
“The cup was put on Martin Storey’s shelf at home and that was it,” he says. “Rory Kinsella came in as manager and he was able to carry most of the energy over from ‘96, but he did lose George (O’Connor) and a few lads were wondering if they were prepared to go at this again.
“We did though. We battled on. It took us a couple of months to get back into the routine and get our fitness levels back. Then you lose a game and the questions start: ‘Is there cracks showing in this Wexford team? Are they a one-hit wonder?’ People were saying Griffin should’ve stayed on, but life has to move on.
“I can tell you we never let up. Once we got into it, we left the smiles of ‘96 behind us and started into the pain of ‘97. It wasn’t a bad pain, but a pain of starting all over again. Quickly enough we were back in a great place again.
“That rolled onto the Leinster final then against Kilkenny and I remember Liam Dunne hugging me after the final whistle and saying, ‘You know what Larry, beating these bastards in a Leinster final is better than winning the All-Ireland last year!’ It felt like, here we go again.
“Then the back door came in and we got caught on the hop when we met Tipperary. They were much more experienced than us. But if you ask Larry Murphy, myself, Feno (Adrian Fenlon), Liam Dunne, you could talk to them and they’d say that we slipped up. We missed out on another great opportunity. We had it within our grasp and for some reason, we were just rocked on the day.”
Opportunities were to be few and far between in the intervening decades. In fact, it was a similar story in 2019 with Wexford spurning a great opportunity against Tipperary again in an All-Ireland semi-final. While he loves dusting off the old war stories, it is a sore point for Larry that the next generation of Wexford hurlers still haven’t tasted the glory of bringing a Liam MacCarthy back to the Model county.
“We certainly shouldn’t be looking at another 20-year wait. We left it behind us in 2019 and now the Limericks and Corks are pulling away again. We only seem to get that opportunity at an All-Ireland title every 20 years or so, and that shouldn’t be acceptable for what is one of the most passionate hurling counties in Ireland.
“It’s all about getting the right structures in place. I don’t want you to be ringing me up in another 20 years’ time still as the last Wexford town man to win an All-Ireland title. People think it must be nice being the only man from town with an All-Ireland medal in his back pocket, but I’d rather see a couple more come to Wexford. Why should all other counties have it and we not?”
Although things didn’t quite click again for Wexford post-’96, that team does occupy a somewhat unique space in the hearts and minds of GAA fans, not just in Wexford, but across the country. What’s seldom is beautiful.
“I think we had ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ playing in every nightclub in the country. The whole world was rocking with us. Someone even told me the Pope was blaring it! It brought a great feel for everyone.
“People look on ‘96 as a one-hit wonder, but if it was, it was a one-hit wonder that took the world by storm! That journey was such a happy occasion for the people of Wexford. There was a great connection between everyone. There were things happening that you felt, you couldn’t make this up. I’m raging it was never videoed.”
Speaking to Larry 25 years on from his absolute pomp, it’s clear that his passion for the game has never waned. Over the years, his reputation as a joker and a figure of fun has come more to the fore in people’s minds as the memories of a stylish hurler and fierce competitor perhaps grow fainter with every passing year.
However, beneath the jokes and yarns, there’s a clear wisdom. There’s an unshakeable optimism that served him well on the pitch, but now serves him well in life too.
“If you don’t enjoy these things, you might regret it for the rest of your life,” he says, opening up the conversation from just hurling. “I enjoy going down to the pub with a group of lads. I enjoy going crab fishing with the little ones. I enjoy going training with the boys.
“I enjoy everything in life as much as possible, because I think you get more out of it that way.
“If you start doubting yourself and judging other people and stuff like that, to me there’s a bit of weakness there with you.
“If you can be more positive than the rest of them, you’ve more chance of being happy and making people around you happy.”