Saturday 25 November 2017

Parity time in Wexford as hard graft puts football on new level

Hurling has long been No 1 in Wexford but the orthodoxy is being challenged, writes John O'Brien

You ask him about the summer of '96 and, instantly, he knows where you're going. Not to the sea of purple and gold that enveloped Croke Park in the first week of September and the hurling gods who banished the ghosts of Rackard and the 1950s but to Dr Cullen Park four months earlier where the Wexford footballers crashed to a 15-point defeat to Carlow. The first team, in either code, out of the All-Ireland championship. No second chances. Goodbye and good riddance.

"Ah that black day." John Hegarty heaves a wistful sigh. As bad as it was, though, life wasn't all doom and gloom. He was also part of a talented Wexford under 21 hurling team that would win a Leinster title and contest an All-Ireland final against Galway. For the hurlers the future dripped with promise. Hegarty's sporting destiny lay splendidly in front of him if only he'd choose it.

What was stopping him? Four years earlier he'd featured on a minor football team that had beaten Dublin and pushed Meath, the eventual All-Ireland champions, hard in the Leinster final. Yet progress was difficult to sustain. From that team Rory McCarthy and Damien Fitzhenry would soon decide to focus their energy on hurling. Others would follow. It seemed like common sense. Hurling was the road well travelled.

He looks back sometimes and wonders if the passing years haven't rationalised his thoughts at the time. Maybe the success that finally came their way diluted his memory somewhat. Still, he doesn't remember feeling any tortuous dilemma or sleepless nights examining his conscience. His club, Kilanerin, were county football champions at the time and that was where his affections lay. Hegarty's heart skipped to a football beat.

"Ah look," he says. "They were bad times alright. People would always ask you why choose football? And you'd be scratching your head watching the Wexford hurlers playing in Croke Park year after year, saying this is another fine mess you've got yourself in. But I never had any regrets. The only way Wexford football would go anywhere was because of lads making those kind of decisions and sticking with it."

Year after year they came back. Dusted themselves down and returned for more. Beaten by Westmeath in '97. Beaten by Longford and Westmeath in '98. Beaten by Longford in '99. Managed with the help of the round-robin system to get four games in Leinster the following year before getting minced by Dublin. Progress of sorts. "I remember asking one of the older players how long he'd been playing. Twelve years, he said. And how many games had he won? Two. I thought that's no good to me. I need more than that."

At the time Hegarty sensed it was a question of attitude. He studied at University College Dublin and won a Sigerson alongside some of the best young players in the country: Trevor Giles, Ciarán McManus, Brian Dooher, Anthony Finnerty, David Nestor. He wasn't inclined to accord them god-like status, though. He knew there were footballers back home -- the likes of Scott Doran and Matty Forde -- who were just as talented. Did they believe it, though? Could they ever believe it?

Belief came gradually. Inch by painful inch. Before that they needed the tenacity to stay going through bleak times. He thinks of the men who watched over them at a time when it wasn't fashionable and when there was no glory or favour in it: the likes of Liam Fardy and the late Seamus Keevans. Men not inclined to quit even when they hit the choppiest waters.

And then the good years came. They reached the summit of Division One and a league final against Armagh in 2005. "The thing was," says Hegarty, "a lot of lads from my first years were still involved against Armagh. They didn't appear out of nowhere. They'd stuck with it. Learned from the defeats. That's what was so nice about it."

* * * * *

Scratch a little under the surface of Wexford football and a common thread appears. Hegarty is a teacher at Wexford CBS. Liam Fardy, a former Wexford manager, was principal of Ramsgrange Community School in New Ross. Michael Caulfield, a former player, is a coach at St Peter's. Aidan O'Brien, one of Wexford football's greatest mentors, coaches at Good Counsel in New Ross. Leigh O'Brien, a former player, has joined the staff there now. Between them, Peter's and Good Counsel won four Leinster colleges' titles in the 1990s.

This year Kevin Kehoe drove the Wexford under 21s to an All-Ireland semi-final they lost to Cavan. Kehoe has been a football coach at Good Counsel since he returned to his native home 20 years ago after a stint teaching in Newbridge where the likes of Niall Buckley, Dermot Earley and Pádraig Brennan came under his wing. Before that he was a PE student at Thomond College in the mid-1970s, tapping into some of the best sporting knowledge in the country.

In Limerick, he shared a house with Eddie O'Sullivan. Fardy had left the year he arrived. Aidan O'Brien would come a couple of years after. On the team that won the All-Ireland club title in 1978 another Wexford man, Eddie Mahon, would soldier alongside the likes of Brian Talty and the Spillane brothers. It isn't a stretch to suggest those years provided a launching pad for the current success of Wexford football.

Kehoe could see it stirring in the early '90s. Peter's won a Leinster title in 1992 while O'Brien led Good Counsel to an All-Ireland 'B' title a year later. In 1995, Good Counsel achieved an unprecedented Leinster double in hurling and football. The following year they won the football again and, by 1999, they could call themselves All-Ireland champions. The ripples from that breakthrough are still keenly felt.

"You can trace a lot of the current team from that era," says Kehoe. "Eric Bradley and Niall Murphy were on the '99 team. Shane Cullen would be among the top three or four in the county but for injuries. From St Peter's you got good players like Richie Purcell and Jason Lawlor. The funny thing was that the tightest games we often had were against St Peter's and Mick Caulfield, my own club man. Whoever won South Leinster stood a great chance of going all the way."

They haven't managed to win a Leinster title in the meantime but Good Counsel remain grittily competitive. Kehoe thinks of 2006 when they let it slip against St Patrick's, Navan, in the Leinster final.

From that team came Ben Brosnan and Shane Roche. Brosnan is a neat illustration of a new kind of dual player: a talented footballer and a promising soccer player with Wexford Youths. Now he concentrates on football. A few years ago that would have seemed inconceivable.

"I look at our under 14s now," says Kehoe. "We won Leinster this year. Last year we won it as well. The previous year was my first taking the under 14s. Peter's beat us by a point in the South Leinster final and went on to win Leinster handy. This year we won the Leinster under 16s with pretty much the same team I had two years ago. That's very significant when you begin to see the outcome of that."

They think of the day when such strength replicates itself at senior level. To an extent it already has.

* * * * *

On Wednesday, the Wexford under-21 hurlers face Dublin in the Leinster final. Kehoe figures as many as eight of his football panel will be involved. Because the football and hurling championships are staggered and not run concurrently, the potential for friction between the two was reduced considerably. Kehoe thinks it would help nationally, and not just in dual counties like Wexford, if they did the same at minor level.

For Wexford football over the years the greatest struggle has often been against their lowly status within their own county. Even now a perception exists that hurling mentors will push their players harder, particularly since Kilkenny under Brian Cody raised the bar so high over the past decade.

This year, for example, the under-21 footballers began training in January, eight weeks before their first championship game while the hurlers commenced their programme last October although their championship didn't begin until June. "There's an idea in Wexford hurling," says Kehoe, "that if you don't work your socks off you're going to get hammered. There's fierce pressure on them."

Kehoe is no football hardliner. Under Christy Keogh in 1993 he trained the hurlers to League and Leinster finals. He had hurling blood too. When they made the breakthrough in 1996 he noticed that it was almost exactly with the same team as three years earlier. That kind of continuity didn't exist in football. They had no winning culture and no reason to expect it.

The landscape has changed fundamentally. Over the years it was a regular occurrence for Wexford hurling people to portray football as an irritant that was hampering their progress and while the footballers languished in the lower reaches of the league that argument carried considerable traction. The gap has closed now and, if anything, the footballers have pushed ahead. A second Leinster final in three years while the hurlers lose ground.

And while the feeling persists that hurling remains the favoured outlet in the county there is an acknowledgement too that when issues with dual players arise it is incumbent on the county board to search for solutions that are fair to football and recognise the admirable progress they have made. A little bit of respect. It is all they hope for.

"I think there are still people who see football as a threat to hurling," says Hegarty, Wexford's forwards coach now. "To be fair, not as many as before but there's still an element. You have to remember when I started playing the hurlers were treated far better than the footballers. But the hurlers were performing better so that was fair enough. People respect us more now but we've earned it the hard way.

"I like to think that because of where we've come from we won't go back to nothing. Things change and Matty [Forde] has moved on but I'd still be hopeful. I don't want us to end up like a Fermanagh, coming out of nowhere for a couple of years and then disappearing again. We need to be a Division One team. Keep pushing ahead. Inch by inch."

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