Sunday 18 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: Seven-year icth

Cry of Wexford generations rings out as U-21 success over Cats provides renewed hope

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Tuesday night, Tom Dempsey was struck by the reluctance of Wexford people to head for home. Their senses alive, they seemed desperate to catch the last rays of a glorious evening.

Maybe half an hour after the game had ended, the field was still thronged with pockets of men and women, conducting animated seminars. Wexford's U-21 hurlers had just beaten Kilkenny and it felt like the earth's plates had begun to shift.

Well, perhaps not. But the night, at least, offered respite from a misbegotten history, so they savoured the bragging rights like a fine wine, suspending context for another day.

What had it all signified?

In his trawl of the county for hurlers, Colm Bonnar has watched his nets snag on many rocks.

Some of those who played last Tuesday would have long since declined his invitation to join the senior panel. Why? Because Bonnar was deemed to be at the wheel of a heaving ship.

Better to let it sink than risk guilt by association.

Late last year, the Cashel man phoned a former county player, asking him to draw up a list of any young hurlers worth adding to the senior squad. When the list was produced, there wasn't a single name on it with which Bonnar was unfamiliar.

The former county player recalls being startled by two things. Firstly, the breadth of Bonnar's knowledge of Wexford club hurling. Secondly, the scale of rejection he had encountered.

"To be honest, I changed my mind about Colm Bonnar then," he remembers. "I had been a bit dubious about his appointment before that. But every name I came up with, he'd already tried. He kept saying: 'Ya, asked him, wouldn't come in -- him too, him too ... ' I know he felt very frustrated."

To catch a glimpse of the mountain Wexford must try to cross this evening, you need merely imagine a young Kilkenny hurler declining Brian Cody's entreaty to report for training in Nowlan Park. It wouldn't happen.

What is deemed privilege in Kilkenny is still considered, by some, an imposition in Wexford.

This evening may, of course, change that. But it's a long shot and Bonnar knows it. That said, Wexford Park will have an undeniable radiance now.

The victory of the U-21s follows a recent clutch of achievements from the senior team that, a few weeks back, would have been considered implausible.

Survival in Division 1 of the National League was hewn out of the hardest rock, Wexford beating Cork and drawing with Tipperary to flush an unsuspecting Offaly down the relegation chute.

And, if their recent championship defeat of Antrim wasn't flawless, it still bore the comforting arithmetic of authority.

There is, too, the sense of an unfamiliar Kilkenny coming to town now. One shorn of the usual ironclad certainties. Could they be vulnerable to opponents inflamed by a fresh setting and set of circumstance?

In the last 14 years, Wexford have won just one senior championship hurling fixture against Kilkenny. Mick Jacob's injury-time strike in the 2004 Leinster semi-final -- Cody famously collapsing to his knees behind the Canal end goal -- confirmed Kilkenny's first provincial championship defeat in seven seasons.

Another seven years on, Wexford have yet to summon a reprise.

They faced Kilkenny five times in the next four championship seasons (meeting them twice in '07) and lost all five, the average deficit a demoralising 11 points.

John Conran, who was Wexford manager in '04, suggests that their victory did not quite represent the outlandish upset that some chose to subsequently portray. On the contrary, he insists, Wexford expected to beat Kilkenny in '04.

"You see we genuinely felt that '03 was the lost chance for Wexford," explained Conran this week. "We should have beaten Cork in that year's All-Ireland semi-final

(they lost after a replay). We'd played poorly against Kilkenny in the Leinster final, but we knew we were 100pc better than that.

"We had a fair team at the time. Maybe some of them like Liam Dunne and Adrian Fenlon were getting on, but still playing great stuff. I genuinely believe that, if we had beaten Cork, we definitely would have won the All-Ireland in '03.

"Because the one thing in our mind was to get at Kilkenny again. That's all that team wanted to do. So, when it came around to the following year, that hunger was still there. To get at them.

"Like, we had no fears of Kilkenny. What we wanted to do was get at their throats.

"And that's what we did in '04, but we were nearly spent after doing it. Only for Damien Fitzhenry, we wouldn't have beaten Offaly afterwards in the Leinster final. So, it was a great win, but things have got steadily worse since."

That '04 season was Larry Murphy's last in a Wexford jersey. He came on as a second-half substitute against Kilkenny and remembers the team being "very smart tactically." Wexford's puck-out strategy essentially outlawed high deliveries to the Kilkenny half-back line.

They didn't just go to battle with inflamed hearts. They travelled with a plan.

Now, as Wexford carry a similar burden of underdog worries into Wexford Park, he finds himself fighting the eternal battle between head and heart.

"You'd have to wonder where Kilkenny were mentally that day," says Murphy of '04. "They'd never say this out loud, but I don't know if Kilkenny would ever fully respect a Wexford team. Even on Tuesday night, before the match, I met a few Kilkenny lads poor-mouthing about their U-21s.

"But Kilkenny always fully expect to win every match and they'll fully expect to win this one too. There's no beating around the bush on that score. For sure, you'd have to give us a chance. But then you turn it around and ask yourself have Kilkenny really come back that far?

"You'd have to think Kilkenny's pride just won't let them get bet."

The naming of Henry Shefflin at full-forward has been interpreted in Wexford as a statement of intent faithful to the Kilkenny psyche. Shefflin will stand on the edge of the 'square' next to Matthew O'Hanlon, a full-back who would barely have been in national school when Cody first pitched the Ballyhale great into championship orbit.

Murphy believes that Cody's plan will be for a quick and clinical conclusion to business.

"Cody will be telling his team: 'You kill the crowd, you kill Wexford!'," he says. "Kilkenny's intention will be to come out and blitz Wexford. And, if they succeed, it could be a very long and sad evening.

"So, that's the fear. Getting hammered in the first 20 minutes and there's no game. You just have to hope that the Wexford players handle the occasion. Because, if the crowd gets behind them, they could play above themselves and be inspired.

"But you have to ask have Kilkenny come back to Wexford's level? Even allowing for home advantage and a big crowd? I think Kilkenny would be gutted to lose this. It would be the end for a lot of their players."

Wexford will mine hope from wherever they can find it, but the underage statistics continue to paint a picture of virtual dysfunction in the county.

Their last Leinster minor title was won in 1985, their last provincial U-21 crown in 2002. Despite featuring in seven of the first 10 All-Ireland U-21 finals, they have not been national kingpins in that grade since 1965.

The dearth of underage success sits like scar tissue on the lungs of Wexford hurling.

In 2007, three members of the '96 All-Ireland winning team -- Liam Dunne, Tom Dempsey and Billy Byrne -- were part of a new management set-up appointed to the county's minors. Wexford had lost heavily in the previous year's championship to Carlow, so morale was on the ground.

They inherited just a single player from that team and, accordingly, went to battle in '07 with a significant number of 16-year-olds. It meant most of the squad was eligible again in '08, by which time expectations had begun to soar.

But an All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Galway in Semple Stadium drew some wrath in the management's direction and that team slipped away, empty-handed from the minor grade. Today, they are men.

Dempsey reckons "10 or 11" of them played last Tuesday evening.

"We had great hopes for that team because we certainly realised it was a very talented group," he says. "We probably made mistakes on the line that day against Galway and took a good bit of criticism for losing that game. But that's life.

"We were a bit unlucky as well, but you have to take the blame on the chin. Maybe those lads finally got the break they deserved the other night."

For Dempsey, there is the palpable sense of ground beginning to shift now. He describes people as "walking on air" last Tuesday.

"I think the thing is beginning to turn a little for us," he says.

Yet, always in Wexford's relationship with Kilkenny, there's a cold breath on the neck.

"I'm sure they'll be back looking for blood now," says Dempsey. "I mean I don't know what constitutes a crisis for them. But probably losing an All-Ireland final, then a league final, then losing to Wexford at U-21, would constitute a mini-crisis in Kilkenny.

"In most counties, just getting to All-Ireland and league finals would be a cause for celebration. But they've had a couple of little setbacks that they wouldn't have been used to over the last few years.

"In a sense, it might be very worrying to see how they react. You'd be expecting a huge backlash."

If it was Croke Park they were headed for this evening, Wexford people would brace themselves for the standard repertoire of this fixture. A few flashing moments of rebellion until, eventually, the game is taken from them by a fountain of desultory scores.

But Wexford Park promises a different heat.

Tom Dempsey plans to make a day of it with his children. Larry Murphy describes the possibilities as "mouth-watering."

"This is Wexford's All-Ireland," he says. "A massive opportunity for the players. Let's be honest, they might never get the same advantages again in their hurling lives."

For John Conran, the bottom line remains the same it was seven years ago.

"You must have a game plan," he says. "There's a lot of teams have tried to go hip-to-hip with Kilkenny and where have they gone? You can't do it. But I do believe Wexford are going to give Kilkenny a great game now.

"They won't be happy about having to come down to Wexford Park.

"So, to hit them with a huge crowd that will be right in on top of them, might make things interesting. It'll definitely be worth a few points to Wexford.

"Kilkenny are probably like sleeping tigers at this stage and will come out with all guns blazing. But hurling is a religion in Wexford, even though we've been slowly sliding down the pole. The trimmings we've been getting in the last few years have been soul-destroying.

"So, having this game in Wexford is a great boost. For most of the players, it's going to be the biggest occasion they'll hurl in for a long time. And, you know, stranger things ... "

The cry of Wexford generations.

Irish Independent

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