Wednesday 21 February 2018

Belief key to crossing psychological barrier

History is against them, but Wexford won't fear Dublin, writes John O'Brien

WHEN the end came there was no soft landing, no easy way to cushion the blow. Dublin had scraped their way to another Leinster title while, all around them, Wexford players sunk to their knees in devastation, a glorious opportunity to win the county's first provincial title since 1945 agonisingly wrenched from their grasp.

"I'm absolutely gutted," said Wexford manager Jason Ryan afterwards. "I'm sick of losing to Dublin."

Twelve months on, it is possible to interpret Ryan's reaction in two ways. In three of his four years as manager Dublin have dumped Wexford out of the Leinster championship and perhaps, like Ireland against the All Blacks, Ryan despaired of ever getting the whip hand. Alternatively, he might simply have been drawing a line in the sand. The next time they had Dublin on the ropes they would find the killer punch to finish the contest. Whatever the circumstances, you had to keep believing.

The All Blacks analogy works on a few different levels. Wexford were once capable of regularly beating Dublin, but the modern era has followed the same infuriating trend: the occasional Dublin landslide interspersed with the odd day when Wexford have got their noses in front only to be hauled back in the shadow of the winning post. It is those days, of course, that inflict the nastiest wounds and leave the most lasting compound damage.

Pat Roe can easily empathise with Ryan. Roe was in his third season as Wexford manager when they squared up to Dublin in the 2005 Leinster semi-final. At the interval Wexford led by a point and increased it to four through a PJ Banville goal early in the second half. Like last year, though, the concession of a goal at a crucial moment undermined them. Jason Sherlock struck with 10 minutes remaining and Wexford surrendered to a four-point defeat.

For Roe, the failure to grasp such a glorious opportunity carried a few glaring home truths. "You have periods of ebb and flow in every game and the difference with teams who are successful is they fight hard when the game is ebbing away from them. They stick to the game plan. Some of our lads saw the finish line. They panicked a little. When you're trying to make a breakthrough that can happen. You try to force things too much."

One thing that struck Roe about that Wexford team, though, was the belief that coursed through it. They had run Dublin close in the 2002 Leinster championship in Dr Cullen Park in Carlow and, by and large, that same group was still together three years later. Claiming a major scalp remained frustratingly elusive but believing they could do it wasn't an issue. "The thing was they didn't fear Dublin," Roe says. "I didn't have to convince them to believe they could win. They already did."

For Wexford, it wasn't a new feeling. Take the 23-point hammering in 2008 and the extra-time required to separate the sides in 2010, when Wexford blew a seven-point interval lead, out of the equation and the average margin of victory in their last four championship encounters is less than three points. In 1986, Wexford pushed the previous summer's All-Ireland finalists to a respectable five points, a year after being routed by 19. In 1993, they rattled Dublin in Wexford Park before going under by four points.

John Harrington knew the feeling intimately. An elegant midfielder who had made his Wexford debut in 1988, Harrington played his first championship game against Dublin in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise in 1992. He remembers the confidence that had gripped them in the build-up to the game. Wexford were the reigning Leinster junior champions. Their minors had toppled Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final that summer. Football in Wexford was on an upward curve.

A 10-point defeat brought them crashing back to earth. He was there again a year later when they pushed them hard in Wexford Park. "The

funny thing," says Harrington, "is that we actually played better in Portlaoise than we did in Wexford Park. It was a better performance. But we wouldn't have been happy with that. We always felt we just needed that bit of luck to make a breakthrough."

None of this was the product of misplaced arrogance or false belief. It was in the early 1990s that Good Counsel and St Peter's began to be seriously competitive in Leinster colleges football and that wave of success nurtured a rich seam of talent that they still harvest to this day. For players like Ben Brosnan, Shane Roche and Eric Bradley, the notion of beating teams from Dublin isn't particularly earth-shattering.

"It's just the way it is," says former Wexford forward John Hegarty. "Like, my club Kilanerin is closer to Dublin than it is to south Wexford and we'd play more challenges against Dublin teams than anyone. We'd have huge respect for them, particularly for the present team considering where they came from. I suppose there's a sense of familiarity about it. We play them so much at underage and senior level, they hold no mystique for us."

Hegarty doesn't subscribe to the view that Dublin enjoy an unfair advantage playing in Croke Park, an issue raised during interviews with Wexford defender Aindreas Doyle this week. "Blown totally out of proportion," Hegarty says. Doyle was asked a question and merely pointed to a glaring anomaly in the championship system. It wasn't Wexford complaining about having to tackle Dublin in their own backyard. To do so would be to expose an inferiority complex that isn't there.

Harrington figures that in his entire career he played in Croke Park no more than three times and he looks back now with regret. "To have had the chance to play Dublin in front of 80,000 in Croke Park," he says, "that is something I'd have looked forward to. It could only make you a better player. The more times you play there, the more experience you get against the top teams, the better you're going to become."

The closer they get to beating Dublin without applying the final killer blow, the more they hear the charge that Wexford simply lack the know-how to take the next vital step. That, essentially, the critical missing ingredient lies inside the players' heads. "It could be a mental thing as much as anything," says Roe. "Once you get over it, that psychological barrier disappears. But if you keep getting close without managing it, that barrier can become insurmountable."

Hegarty likes to take a different view, though. He sees a a team that has been pretty much unbeatable in Leinster for the past seven years and argues that Wexford have consistently offered stiffer resistance than most other counties, never receiving the credit they deserve. For Hegarty, the 23-point mauling Dublin inflicted upon them in 2008 was little more than an aberration, an unfair reflection of the spirited contests they have shared over the past decade and more.

He sees a vast difference between Wexford teams now and of the past. Once they might have pushed Dublin close and then disappeared off the radar for several years. Now they consistently get close and come back the following year for another go, refusing to get downhearted by a growing litany of near misses. "It depends whether you're a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person." Hegarty says. "I'm definitely in the glass half-full category."

Each year they learn from their mistakes and push on. When they drew with Dublin in 2010 they realised they'd coped efficiently with Dublin's attacking threat but hadn't offered enough of a threat themselves going forward. Last year they sought to remedy that and had got themselves into a winning position when a bizarre own goal fatally turned the tide.

"We'd got ourselves three points in front," says Hegarty. "We weren't home and dry but we were in a good position. I remember saying Dublin are going to have to come out and work very hard to get themselves back into it. Then the goal happens and without having to come at us, we'd allowed them straight back into it. Conceding soft goals at crucial times. We have to learn from things like that."

Hegarty is part of the backroom team under Ryan, coaching the forwards, and eagerly anticipating another swing at Dublin today. Not all that much has changed in 12 months, beyond Wexford's form being patchy and Dublin swatting away Louth with the kind of swagger that becomes reigning All-Ireland champions. How they try to halt Dublin's gallop will be interesting, although merely stopping Dublin from hitting their stride won't be limit of Wexford's ambition.

It's not that they don't respect Dublin, of course, or that they cherish a noble instinct for attacking football, just that employing rigidly smothering tactics, as a growing number of teams are content to do, would not play to Wexford's strengths.

"I'm not saying we'll be gung-ho," says Hegarty, "but it's no great secret that Wexford have a good forward line. That's where our strength lies. Last year we managed to be a bit more attack-minded than the year before and hopefully this year we can take it on again."

No inhibitions, no emotional baggage tugging at their shoulders. Wexford still believe. Some day, they remain convinced, it will push them over the edge.

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