Responding to the challenge
Aidan O'Brien insists that a Leinster title is Wexford's big target, writes Dermot Crowe
IN the late 1980s, the road from New Ross to Athlone became increasingly familiar to Aidan O'Brien. "I remember it well," says the Wexford senior football manager, "114 miles each way". A ritual formed where he drove twice a week to train with the Westmeath county panel, finishing his work as a teacher in Good Counsel College in the afternoon and journeying north before returning in darkness.
The roads weren't great and the league started in autumn and ran through winter. His father shook his head and rolled his eyes. "He would have said to me, 'you must be absolutely cracked driving all those miles up and down the country like that, are you mad?' At that time Gerry McEntee was driving up and down from Limerick to Navan and I often said, 'I bet people aren't saying Gerry McEntee is mad'.
"But because it was Westmeath people thought: what is the point when you are playing with a team that is struggling down in Division 4. But that was not my attitude. Westmeath were the only team I could play for, the only county I wanted to play for. I wanted to be able to say I played for my county; to me that was substantial. I loved playing football. Being very limited in ability I was anxious to make the most of whatever opportunities came my way. Look it, I wouldn't get next nor near the Westmeath team today."
Aidan O'Brien came to Wexford as a young man in 1986 to join the teaching staff at Good Counsel and is today the school's deputy principal. Last year, after a long and varied coaching career, at schools and club level primarily, he succeeded Jason Ryan as manager of Wexford. Ryan was famously youthful when he came on board; O'Brien is the half century, a late beginner in today's terms.
He played football until he was 42, finishing a winner with the Adamstown junior team in 2005. "I played a junior county final against Rathnure in Wexford Park. We won. I handed my wife my boots as I walked off the pitch. And she didn't hand them back to me. Well, it was a good way to go."
Only two weeks later he was orchestrating an historic Horeswood senior championship final win over Adamstown, the club to which he is affiliated and where his children play. It was one of those things he didn't contemplate happening on taking the job. Horeswood reached a county final two years before on his watch but were destroyed. Nobody expected to see them back in a final again. Adamstown weren't attracting much punter interest either. But as luck would have it they met in the county final and Horeswood triumphed.
He has extraordinary knowledge of Wexford football gleaned from nearly 30 years of absorption in Gaelic football at every conceivable level. He helped guide Good Counsel to a Hogan Cup in 1999. He has had multiple successful club interests and stints at county minor, under 21 and senior grades. In 1988, he assisted Brian Teague, a teaching colleague at Good Counsel who was then managing the Wexford seniors. A year later, he found himself playing for Westmeath against a Teague-managed Wexford in the Leinster championship. Westmeath had a surprise win in Mullingar. To add further intrigue, Seán McCormack, another Good Counsel colleague, lined out for Wexford. Offaly defeated Westmeath in the quarter-finals in Tullamore with a late Brendan Lowry goal. A couple of years later, O'Brien's inter-county career petered out.
Randomly, he selects a year coaching New Ross outfit Geraldine O'Hanrahan's when he led them to a county title as an experience that provided deep satisfaction given that it's the town he works in. Managing the Wexford senior team is at the other end of the scale, his biggest brief by far, but it was not a surprise that he was asked. He was always a contender but you don't jump into a role like that lightly. Ultimately, he felt he could not say no. "I'd feel I'd have ducked out of a challenge. That would be something I'd have to live with."
The spring brought the disappointment of failing to remain in Division 2 but that has been eased by an epic win in Drogheda in the championship which leaves them knocking on the door of another Leinster final. Meath, a county Wexford have defeated in their last two championship meetings, stand in their way. His own county won promotion and defeated Wexford along the way but they are out of the provincial championship, emphatically beaten by Dublin. He makes the point that Wexford is the only county from Division 2 left in the provincial championships.
Westmeath still has a hold on him. "I'm here (in Wexford) 27 years. One of the things I find reassuring is you think being away from Westmeath as long as I have been you'd almost be forgotten, but I would only be home five minutes when I'd feel I was never away. They would all know you, all about you, suppose your family are so well-established. You never feel anything but part of that. I really enjoy that. I love going home to Westmeath."
Over the period of his gradual transition from playing into management, across the years he has spent in Wexford, the GAA has undergone phenomenal changes, notably in the preparation of teams. His background is in physical education, being a graduate of Thomond College. There were times he arrived in Athlone from New Ross as a 20-something to see 14 players togged for training.
"Obviously in terms of what happens with teams now, it was a different world. The support we would have had, the ancillaries, would have been very, very basic; in relation to food or physiotherapy or the gear. There was a frustration I suppose. I had a physical education background; you would be conscious that this could be done better. But when you are part of a team you have to comply with the instructions.
"And I don't have any hard feelings about it; I enjoyed my time playing with Westmeath and was grateful for the opportunity. Because I was no star player, I was a grafter. The fact I was playing at all was probably down to having a tremendous desire to be there. I would have been very committed I suppose in my attitude to the training."
His playing career saw him line out for the county under 21s and have a spell with the senior squad, followed by a hiatus and a second coming. The first match on his return was a league game in Casement Park. "We had four subs, one a goalkeeper, and even with that I didn't get a run. I remember being at a wedding the day before and minding myself and doing all the right things. And I was tempted to, you know, (leave the squad) but I hung in there. And in the next game I was picked as a sub and one of our players who was working as a Guard up in Donegal, Pat Murray, got stuck in Donegal, I don't know what happened, I started against Sligo in Mullingar and kept my place through the '88/'89 league campaign.
"I think I marked Paul Seevers, he was a very lively fella anyway. I usually found the fellas I was marking were fairly trying. I was prone to feeling the quality of the jersey, trying to hang on. As I say, I was very average."
His home club is St Malachy's, with Castletown-Geoghegan the hurling wing. His brother hurled county and his father won a string of county hurling medals in the 1950s and once scored two goals off the great Nick O'Donnell. But football was his game. His other passion is horse racing and he has taken school groups to Aintree over a long number of years. A number of Good Counsel alumni made their mark in racing, including his namesake, the trainer Aidan O'Brien.
The Wexford job has consumed him, and surprised him, especially the amount of time it preys on the mind. The league goal wasn't attained but the second target is still visible. They'll keep chipping away and stay positive. "The previous time Wexford were in Division 2 they had no points going back down the next year. Longford went up with us as champions and they went down with no points. So we can feel we made some little bit of progress in that regard. We were in contention until the last day."
He was happy with the players' response. The next target is to win a Leinster championship. "On the basis of the last few years why shouldn't they feel that that is a
sensible goal to aim at? I don't think there was ever a question that they were giving up on this thing. The ambition was still there."
He adds cautiously that close-run battles with Dublin in recent years have coloured the perception of Wexford and overshadowed less auspicious days in the company of Limerick and Tipperary in the qualifiers. Both of these counties, he notes, were crushed this year.
In 2008, he saw the team shredded by Dublin in the Leinster final and felt "sorry" for the players, knowing it was a false depiction of reality. "It reminds me of a line from a Josephine Hart novel – a Westmeath woman – Damage where she says that damaged people are dangerous, they have nothing left to lose.
"I suppose Wexford were damaged, they didn't have anything left to lose after that. And as a consequence maybe we took advantage of that. It was a tremendous achievement to get to an All-Ireland semi-final after that defeat.
"If something like that happened to Kerry or one of the more established counties like Mayo or Galway, there would be a crisis in the county. But for Wexford, it was taken somewhat phlegmatically, whereas in other counties it might have led to all sorts of recriminations. People appreciated that that wasn't where they were truly at that allowed them to bounce back."
Wexford, the only Division 2 team left in the provincial championships, face a Meath team headed back from Division 3, on the rise but some way short of the heyday of Gerry McEntee and co.
"I am very conscious that they seem to be doing things right and moving in a sort of unified way," says O'Brien. He has a good track record in winning but he knows that most of sport must exist in the absence of winning, for most teams lose.
He talks of some higher meaning. A satisfaction "beyond success". Of doing things well, and the players responding. He seems happy they have prepared well. The response is almost upon us.