Wexford GAA Chairman speaks to Pádraig Byrne about the desire to shed the title of ‘nearly men’ for our hurlers, the real problem with Wexford football as the search for a senior manager continues and the debate over a split club season
UP at Wexford Park, there hasn’t been much chance to take a breath. A fast-paced but ultimately frustrating inter-county campaign has given way to a frantic club hurling calendar, culminating in St Martin’s v Ferns St Aidan’s. After that there’s a week break before the county will be thrown into the football championship.
There hasn’t been a massive amount of time for reflection in the office of County Chairman Micheál Martin then. But taking a moment ahead of the County Senior Hurling Final, he looks at where the Model County is at one year into Wexford GAA’s much discussed five year plan.
“The plan is so vast, it covers eight different areas,” Mr Martin said. “The easiest thing to focus on is the infrastructure and some of the landmark things which are coming along well.
"Effectively the (flood)lights will be turned on at Wexford Park at the start of 2023, which will be a significant piece. We’ve just finished substantial work on the pitch; we spent a quarter of a million on it and it looks really well obviously and was work that needed to be done.
“The Centre of Excellence then is the other piece and we’ve a big body of work to do there which is due to start the last week in August. We have to deliver a centre of excellence that's worthy of that title.”
There’s an old saying that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan. For Micheál, he realises that it only takes one bad result at county level for the prophets of doom to make their voices heard and he believes that perspective is vital.
“My priority is the development aspect and developing the games. I think that’s progressing really well.
"Sometimes you can use focus on a particular week if a senior team or one of our county teams have a bad result, people can focus too much on that. We have to take a balanced view.
"We have a plan and I think people who really analyse it will see that. From a hurling perspective, we have a specific hurling plan and there's been private investment into that plan. We’re going to spend over a million over five years and make some specific appointments.
"But people can also see that the talent is there. If you look at the hurling championship, some of the names that are shooting out are young guys 18, 19, 20 years of age. I think we’re probably producing more talent than we ever have, and that’s off the back of things like Hurling 365 and other initiatives. There’s a huge body of work being done.
"Obviously it's frustrating if you lose a Leinster U20 final by a point and last year we lost the Minor final by a point and hit the post in the last minute. You'd love if those results were going your way but if you’re true to a plan, you have to just keep focusing on the bigger picture and ensure that structures are in place.”
At elite level, winners and losers can be decided by the finest of margins. Had Wexford not slumped to an embarrassing draw with Westmeath, we could have found ourselves in a Leinster final and perhaps things could have turned out differently.
"The reality is that it was a frustrating year,” said Micheál. “There’s no point in sugar-coating. The reality is that when you get to inter-county level and elite level, it is about results.
"I wouldn’t be one for saying ‘we were unlucky’. There's only so many years you can say that you’re unlucky. Yeah we didn’t get the breaks and they were very small margins, but that’s the way it goes.”
Having borne the title of “nearly men” for some time now, it seems Wexford GAA believe that some of Wexford hurling’s woes lie in an engrained mentality, one which they’re hoping to change in the next generation.
"We have a next generation plan for talented players between the ages of 18 and 21 and one of the key aspects of that is leadership and performance mindset,” Micheál reveals. “We feel we have a tradition of not getting over the line. If you think of all the years back to even the 80s, bar ‘96 and ‘97, the tradition is we’ve come close. We’ve got to break that cycle and there’s no point in investing and developing a structure unless you’re addressing the key issues and one of those is coming out on the wrong side.
"There were lots of near misses and it’s better to be in the mix and be competitive, but ultimately it is about getting over the line. I wouldn’t say this season was harshly judged. There's an element of frustration there. But there are definitely green shoots. We also had the transition of a senior management setup, which was very positive."
So a year on, having tasted the highs of a Championship victory over Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and the lows of that draw away to Westmeath, how does Senior Hurling Manager Darragh Egan's stock sit with the county board?
"I’m confident in him,” the Chairman affirms. “I was asked that the week of the Westmeath game and I was confident in him then as well. That’s what I mean, you have to have a balanced view. We’ve had an end of year review with Darragh and Keith (Rossiter) together and we’re about to appoint a Director of Hurling position to link in with them. There’s a huge amount of work being done in the background, all with the ultimate aim of bringing us closer to success. I’m absolutely confident from that point of view.”
In football, the goals set by the county board are vastly different. With Wexford still languishing in Division 4 following the departure of manager Shane Roche, the setup is in desperate need of some kind of injection of optimism.
“We had a very good relationship with Shane (Roche) and I absolutely respect that it's a hugely demanding role. I have kids myself,” Micheál says of Roche’s departure. “ I do think Shane was bringing the team in the right direction. I think progress was being made, certainly physically.”
It seems before addressing what needed to be done, a reality check was required for Wexford football.
“Ultimately, we’ve been in Division 4 for quite a long time.” Mr Martin said. “Within the county there’s been a realisation. When we were there for the first few years, people felt it was beneath us. We are where we are now and we haven't got out of it, so that has to be the ultimate aim – to be promoted to Division 3 and be a solid Division 3 team.”
One thing that the County Board is often criticised for is a lack of focus on football in the county. The impression is that Wexford GAA spends big on the hurlers, while the footballers are cut adrift. However, Micheál says that money is not the biggest problem for Wexford football.
"One thing I would say in terms of football is that we struggle to get people to invest their time into it, never mind money,” he said. “People say that the board don’t support football. I would say that as an executive, we certainly spend more time on football because we don’t have the same level of support from people who are willing to help. We struggled to get people involved with our development squads this year.
"Everything you do is about getting good people around you. We've been successful in a number of areas, PR, infrastructure, hurling. But we've probably been less successful from a football context and some of that is purely down to the level of volunteerism and people who are willing to give their time on the ground.
"We do have a small cohort who absolutely do a lot, but we need more always who will invest time and energy to bring things to the next level. The amount of time and energy Shane Roche invested in fairness was unreal.”
A difficult task lies ahead for the new Senior Football Manager. The appointment will have to generate a sufficient level of enthusiasm to encourage more of a buy-in from the Wexford public. Ultimately, the appointment of a big name in Paul Galvin previously was a failed project, but it did pique the interest of lapsed football fans across the county. This time around, the County Board are looking both within and from outside the county.
"We’ve started the process, we have a list and we've started to talk to a wide range of people both locally and people outside the county,” the Chairman said. “Ultimately, it comes down to the person willing to commit huge energy and bring high standards. We’d always engage with the players to get their viewpoints and I think we all agree that there was a high standard set and we need someone to match and build on that.
"It’s a very intense job and it's not an easy task to find the right person. We had expressions of interest, which we’re working through and we’ll whittle that down to a shortlist. We’ve set a deadline of mid-September and I’d be reasonably confident we’ll hit that deadline.”
With Limerick dominating the senior hurling landscape at the moment and much being made of the generous backing of JP McManus to achieve this aim, the question must be asked, can Wexford financially compete with the dominant counties?
"We are financially very strong,” Mr Martin said. “The one thing we do have to do is improve our facilities, so we have big investments coming.
"Since 2017, we put a financial governance structure in place, a commercial structure in place and I think we’re seen as an attractive kind of brand from a sponsors point of view.
"We are going to have to fundraise strongly, but we are financially very sound at the moment, but that’s with big projects ahead of us. I’m not concerned and I’d like to be delivering these projects without incurring any debt and I think we’re on track to do that.
“We’ve also put huge investment into coaching the games. We’ve gone from four full-time staff to 14 in five years and at the same time we're generating a half a million surplus for two of those years.
"We’re financially strong, but in the same way clubs are constantly fundraising to improve and update facilities, we’re no different and we have to do that too. There’s a couple of million euro required for projects, but we have a plan to ensure we remain financially sound, while at the same time ensuring our facilities are on a par with the best in the country.”
The structure of the club championship in Wexford has been a source of major debate in recent times. The decision to opt for a split season, hurling first and then football, has both its passionate supporters and bitter critics. However, given the tight deadlines to play in provincial competitions, the Chairman says that there aren't too many options. One which has not yet been discussed at length is for Wexford’s victorious clubs to withdraw from competing and provincial level.
"Our structure generates huge discussion still, the fact that we’re one of the very few counties with a split season,” Mr Martin said. “There’s been a lot of discussion and there are pros and cons. But I think it's been very successful and the standard has been good. There’s been a huge voluntary effort gone in. It's been very intense running the championship off in seven or eight weeks, not just for players, but even from office staff, PROs, volunteers on the gate. We’ll get a week break after the county final and then we’re straight into football. People will enjoy that week off I’d say.”
So, is opinion still divided or have the majority embraced the current structure.
“Four weeks ago, the feedback on the structure was probably less positive, but I think people have embraced it now,” he said. “Personally, I probably think there are some tweaks to be made. We’ll have a meeting at the end of the year and there’ll be a review and a vote on it again, but I think at this stage, I wouldn’t envisage a huge amount of change.
"The one pressure point we have that other counties don’t have is, because we’re such a dual county, it’s a very tight window. Apart from that gap week, we’re using every single week and if something were to go wrong, you'd be missing out on your champions playing in the Leinster competitions.
“We just don’t have a week to take at the moment. I think a lot of people have suggestions, but a lot of people would probably admit at the end that there is no perfect solution. Playing football and hurling in the same weekend is just not an option open to us. It's a very tight schedule.
"The one thing we probably have to throw in the mix is whether we would be willing to accept not having provincial representation. That’s the one thing that would give us more time and that’s something that maybe we need to put on the table.”
Speaking ahead of the Senior Hurling Final between St Martin's and Ferns St Aidan’s, the Chairman felt they were too close to separate and even mischievously raised the possibility of a replay taking away that breather week before the football starts in earnest. Similarly, he believes the football will be a tight affair.
"I think we’ll see a really competitive football championship too," he said. “Nobody can call it. Of the 12 teams, there’s probably eight of them that you could pick out. The Shels are probably favourites based on last year, but again it should be really close with some exciting games along the way.”