Vincent Hogan: ‘We just want to try and get a bit of the fire back’
Diarmuid Lyng can't say for sure what it was that tugged him home. He could spin some convenient guff about hurling and Wexford, but that would be edging towards a lie.
Just one February morning in Vietnam, something told him it was time. He had an onward flight already booked to Sydney, but he'd been exploring the world for 18 months now and, over breakfast, a decision came upon him.
"I think I just reached a point where I realised that to go on would be gluttony," he reflected on Wednesday evening. "I'd succeeded in going to places I wanted to go, gotten in touch with things I wanted to get in touch with.
"I was having breakfast one morning and everything changed. Just out of the blue it came to me. This is done. It's time to go home."
Today, he anticipates a "surreal" feeling as that familiar, edgy frisson rolls off the crowd just before throw-in in Tullamore. When Wexford began their championship campaign last year, he was pulling pints in a New York bar as morning customers oooohed and aaaahed to Kilkenny's efficient excellence on the big screen.
The experience was, he admits, "horrendous". Every fibre in his body yearned for old friends like Keith Rossiter and Eoin Quigley to pull off a famous victory. Yet, there was a selfish voice in his head too. One asking, what if they did win? What if leaving had been some terrible mistake?
To be fair, that voice followed him all around the globe.
He'd been hurling for Wexford since '04, the year they dished out Kilkenny's only Leinster championship defeat of the last 14 years. Lyng was an unused sub that day, but it felt like a great tyranny was ending and the future would be all sunshine and great, big open skies.
Turned out, of course, the tyrants were merely dozing.
Wexford had long since lost their innocence by the time 'Gizzy' stepped through Dublin Airport departures' hall in 2010 and set off on his personal safari. His last championship game was an 11-point Leinster quarter-final whipping by Galway. The result had a humdrum feel.
So what has changed since? Statistically, nothing. But some strange and unfamiliar energy is building under the watch of new county board chairman, Diarmuid Devereux.
Recently, he launched an impressively comprehensive GAA strategic plan and he seems drawn to a professional candour the county has, hitherto, been unaccustomed to.
Devereux sees a hundred disparate agendas all pulling people different ways and, for Wexford, the end result has been a deadening inertia.
Unforgivably, the county of the Rackards, Tony Doran and Nick O'Donnell has won just a single senior All-Ireland in 44 years and has not captured a minor All-Ireland since '68, an U-21 All-Ireland since '65 or a colleges' All-Ireland since '73.
And the popular price being offered on Wexford lifting the Liam MacCarthy next September? 225/1. The arithmetic is mortifying, but then it has been for some time. Liam Griffin has long sensed an attitude of broad ambivalence.
"Wexford hurling people just aren't outraged," suggested the All-Ireland-winning manager of '96 this week. "Or, if they are, I never saw it, never sensed it. You get the odd passionate person, but how many people do you actually hear speak out? I mean those All-Ireland odds are beyond belief, but Wexford have been in denial for years.
"I'm a broken record on this, which doesn't do anything for me in the popularity stakes. But that's unimportant. The facts can't be denied. We won an All-Ireland in 1910 and didn't win another until '55. And we're right back into that kind of gulf again.
"For a county with the tradition that was there from the '50s into the '60s and early '70s, that's just not good enough. But we've had a series of compromise chairmen over the years, fellas who are half-right for football, half-right for hurling. They've tried to satisfy everybody and ended up satisfying nobody.
"That's why this new man has come in like a breath of fresh air. He seems to want to get things done."
Devereux is a successful businessman and a chartered engineer. He has set a deadline of 2015 to have the detail of his plan in place and a coherent, unified voice audible across the landscape of Wexford GAA. Lyng says he has returned to a county in which tangible change seems, at last, to be on the horizon.
"Finally, maybe we're starting to work together," he says.
Today, admittedly, will find a narrative entirely independent of any ambitious blueprint. To the greater hurling world, Wexford v Offaly is a peripheral argument. Both teams arrive in Tullamore devoid of fanfare or, frankly, long-term expectation. They are, to put it bluntly, the invisible men of Leinster.
Today's winner will, most probably, encounter Galway in the provincial semi-final. Cross that peak and it'll likely be Kilkenny or Dublin in the final. Chances?
"It's very low key right enough," agrees Lyng. "I suppose the general public would perceive both teams as kind of bit-players. It's no different to getting ready, maybe, for something like Bolton against West Ham over in England. We're not the teams that everyone wants to be talking about.
"I mean we (Wexford) can't look at Kilkenny and say honestly, 'Ya, I think we can beat them on any given Sunday'. But I know this might sound weird and it could partly be to do with the fact that I wasn't around last year, but there's no other team that I really fear that much in the country.
"I think on any given Sunday, we can beat anybody else. But then that goes for Offaly too."
There are, sensibly, no miracles promised in the short-term and everything about Liam Dunne's management of the senior team has, thus far, referenced an unemotional acceptance that plenty more hard days loom.
Wexford had a poor league in Division 1B and, with four championship debutants on duty today, it's hard to make a case for them being the cause of summer bonfires.
Dunne doesn't suffer fools and some of his early season comments haven't been to everybody's taste in the county. But, if there's anybody alive equipped to unwrap that old obstinacy in Wexford, it's probably the Oulart man.
Griffin, who has been assisting Dunne's clubmate, Martin Storey, with the county's minors, is unequivocal in that belief.
"People will find Liam Dunne controversial and I don't suggest that he's not," he says of his former centre-back. "But, when he was playing for the county, he gave everything that he possibly could. So I think that people in Wexford have got to stop worrying about how intense Liam can get. And he can get intense.
"But, if we don't play with passion, we don't have much to offer. I've never seen Wexford win anything without lots of passion, and Liam Dunne brings that to it. It will be controversial but, listen, strap on your seatbelt and just go with it. That's the bottom line.
"What do you want? Do you want somebody who's going to be placatory at all stages? If that's what you want, Liam Dunne is not your man. He has no degrees in diplomacy, that's for sure. And that can be difficult. But, sometimes, you're better off living on the edge than having something passionless.
"That's who he is, that's where he comes from. Yes, his methodology can be abrasive, I won't deny that. He's said things that might make a few people cringe. But, listen, so what if he puts his foot in it the odd time across the airwaves? If that's what's needed to unleash the passion, let it off."
Lyng starts at midfield today and admits he feared that this stage might have been lost to him. He explains: "Every day I pull on that jersey is always a massive, massive day for me, so to get to do it again ... I was dealing with those thoughts all the time that I was travelling. 'Am I being ridiculous, am I just throwing away the rest of my career?'. I battled with that for a long time."
Coming home in February, he had mountains to climb in terms of touch, co-ordination and simple readiness to absorb pain. He doesn't pretend he's yet at the pitch he needs to be, but he avoided alcohol on his travels and made a point of eating well.
The hurling is beginning to come. And, bottom line, he feels back in a place he wants to be.
"When I decided to travel, hurling just wasn't ticking the boxes like it used to for me," he reflects. "I wasn't enjoying it as much. It was becoming much more of a strain and I just felt there was no point flogging a dead horse here. It seemed a good time to take a break and I knew it was possible to go away and not drink, not abuse myself."
In Dunne, he has returned to a manager with a famously serious focus.
"He's been to the coalface" says Lyng of the former All Star. "And he's very realistic about where we're at. In the last few years, I think we've lost a little of the hand on heart thing that was associated with Wexford. The fire, I suppose. We just want to try and get a bit of that back and build on it for the kids that are coming through.
"It would be great to get a win against Offaly. But, if we don't, everything isn't suddenly scuppered. As long as we tear into it. If you do your absolute maximum, if you've lived that way, trained that way, then you can walk out of that dressing-room with your head held high."
Griffin expects to see a Wexford team going "hell for leather" today.
But he is adamant that nothing we see in Tullamore will obscure the need for fundamental change in the county. Devereux seems like a man the county can believe in. But it is critical he holds his nerve.
"I do sense a coming together of a lot of things at the moment," agrees Griffin. "But there have been false dawns in the past. Like, '96 was a complete false dawn. Nothing was developed from there, nothing ever happened as a result of it. It might sound a bit strange coming from someone who was involved, but I think it set us back in real terms. Because complacency set in.
"I'm certain that any true hurling person will want Wexford back at the top table, warts and all. But, if dust is let gather on this blueprint, there won't be another one. Or, if there is, it'll just be p***ing in the wind. Because it'll be too late by far.
"This is it now. We're down to the wire. Look at the graph. We were top of the pile in the '50s, now we're through the floor.
"To be fair, a dictator usually arrives when he's needed and our chairman needs to have a dictatorial attitude with this. He needs to take the view, 'If it fails, burn me at the stake'. Don't worry about being re-elected. Just leave your mark. Because too many people haven't been putting Wexford first in terms of their thought processes.
"And that's cheating a proud county. It's actually treasonable. This is part of our heritage and we're not fighting hard enough for it at all."