Monday 23 April 2018

Dunne: 'I won't let what went on behind my back change how I feel about being a Wexford man'

Liam Dunne is angry about the circumstances under which he lost the Model job, but he has nothing but good wishes for his successor Davy Fitzgerald and his players, and has backed them to 'go on and win things'

'Hurling has been so pivotal to the rhythms of Dunne’s adult life, he can’t be certain now about the ease of adjustment looming.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Hurling has been so pivotal to the rhythms of Dunne’s adult life, he can’t be certain now about the ease of adjustment looming.' Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Liam Dunne never really mistook the race he entered into as one he could ever win, but it didn't stop him trying. Maybe surrender is incompatible with his personality, or perhaps it was just that a part of him felt a principle needed defending here.

Either way, long before Wexford had a new hurling manager, he knew his own chances had sunk to the ocean bed.

So he parked whatever resentments might have been tugging at him within and took to getting a message across that nobody should sidestep the position out of sensitivity for his feelings. A message through a third party to Davy Fitzgerald. A phone-call to Frank Flannery.

"Lads, Santa Claus will get this before I will!"

He feels hurt, unequivocally. His final year in the job seemed mined with all manner of negative energies. The week they played Offaly in the National League, he took a phone-call from someone claiming they'd just been invited onto a committee being set up to select a new Wexford manager.

In the build-up to the National League quarter-final, an acquaintance confirmed that he'd been approached with a view to taking up Dunne's position on the basis that things were about to "go belly-up" against Waterford.

Liam Dunne wanted to continue on as Wexford manager but wishes Davy Fitzgerald – the man who replaced him – every success in the future. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam Dunne wanted to continue on as Wexford manager but wishes Davy Fitzgerald – the man who replaced him – every success in the future. Photo: Sportsfile

That was the week his four-day break in Spain made headlines too, a bizarre story suggesting that his absence from a single training session had created unrest in the camp. The story was sent to news desks by a local journalist with the proviso that anyone seeking further information should contact county chairman Diarmuid Devereux.

Three selectors, two physios and a doctor oversaw the session in question, yet the inference seemed to be that Dunne's absence had pitched Wexford into turmoil.

"I just felt the thing was a fiasco," he reflects now. "A county board meeting had been re-arranged to be held the Tuesday night after we played that game against Waterford. It felt like a set-up, so that they could get rid of me if we got a bad beating, I'd imagine. The distractions coming my way before that game were horrendous."

Yet Wexford lost it by just a single point to the defending champions, Dunne's players leaving the Wexford Park pitch to a standing ovation.

He recognises the legitimacy of a view that five years is long enough for any one voice to be heard in a hurling dressing-room. On his watch, Wexford never escaped the marshy world of League hurling in Division 1B and, other than the summer commotion raised in 2014, their Championships lacked compelling momentum.

But Dunne believes that something important was growing within the group this year. For the first time, he could see players challenging one another, mandating dressing-room standards that would have been unimaginable to the group he inherited in 2012.

Back then, Gerry Fitzpatrick conducted a fitness test on Wexford's players, Dunne choosing to with-hold the results until they were evicted from the Championship with a ten-point defeat to Cork in the qualifiers.

Jack Guiney.
Jack Guiney

Uniquely, he called a players' meeting the following week, and only two of the panel, Jack Guiney (who had travelled to America) and Darren Stamp (who had retired) did not attend.

Fitzpatrick told the meeting that, based on the earlier test, their levels of fitness were simply incompatible with the standards embraced by serious inter-county teams.

"He said we'd last 35 minutes against a top team if we were lucky," recalls Dunne. "But we'd be blown away by 40 minutes. And that became our starting point."

One year later, they took a Clare team destined to win that year's All-Ireland to extra-time in a Phase Three qualifier and, having then beaten Davy Fitz's men one year later (as well as Derek McGrath's Waterford), they ran aground in 2015 with heavy Championship defeats to Kilkenny and Cork.

Out of contention then by early July, Dunne was informed that he would not have Devereux's support unless a complete overhaul of his backroom team was undertaken.

This he initially refused to do on the basis that "it would look as if I was just blaming everybody else when, in fact, I had fantastic people working with me."

As it happened, Tomas Codd, Damien Fitzhenry and Murty Dempsey all stepped away voluntarily, allowing new men Tom Foley, Aidan O'Connor, Tom Mullally and hurling coach Willie Cleary to come on board.

But what exactly were the changes communicating about Wexford hurling? That selectorial changes might translate into some kind of magic ticket?

There is a photograph taken of the Wexford squad before their Leinster Championship meeting with Kilkenny in 2015, a game in which they would have all but required a concentration of naval and air firepower on their side to survive against venomous hosts.

Fifteen of those in the picture were not with Wexford this summer. Circumstance forced Dunne to transition minors directly into the senior ranks far quicker than he would ideally have chosen.

"At one stage this year, eight guys couldn't play with us because of injury," he reflects. "And what people forget is we had another five who had retired. That's nearly a full team gone from last year.

Martin Storey raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1996
Martin Storey

"What I would have given to have had a Billy Byrne, a George O'Connor, a Martin Storey, a Larry O'Gorman, a Ger Cushe to call on. . . When I came into the Wexford team in '88, you had the John Conrans of this world, the Martin Quigleys, you had Billy, you had George.

"Because you see young lads coming in for the first time now and they're like aliens compared to the lads who've been there two or three years.

"I'd have huge respect for the core lads we have now, the Lee Chins, the Matthew O'Hanlons, the Paudie Foleys and Liam Ryans the Conor McDonalds and others, all playing pivotal positions, all still young - yet lads who are real f***ing men when you want them.

"And I'd like to think they respect me as well because they understand what this has taken."

A meeting with Billy Walsh after last year's Championship persuaded him to undertake a total review of the Wexford senior hurling operation; 51 people participated online, commenting anonymously on what they felt might be lacking within the set-up.

Even those who had already left the panel as well as former selectors were invited to contribute, the review overseen by judo High Performance director Ciaran Ward.

Dunne admits that he himself "took some heavy shots, but it needed to be done". The exercise, he believed, was cathartic for everyone, some players arguing that he had been taking too much upon himself, that he needed to delegate more.

But one comment, especially, jarred. It proposed that the shortcomings of 2015 might have been down to the group suffering "a hangover" from the highs of the year before. And Dunne just could not let that pass.

"Think about that lads," he counselled. "A hangover from winning two qualifier games. We have to learn from that."

The day after he became Wexford manager in November 2011, Liam Dunne was called to a meeting in Hayes's Hotel, Thurles and made redundant from his job.

"I've been on the dole twice," he reflects now. "Couldn't get a job anywhere for a long time, people saying to me 'Sure you're the Wexford manager, where would you get the time?' I used feel desperate going in to train the lads until Stafford Fuels hired me. And I'd like it said that I owe a huge debt to their MD, Andy Maher, for the opportunity he gave me.

"All my time, all my life has been put into hurling. I neglected everything else. Selfishly. Things have suffered because of that, my life has suffered because of it. Would I change it? I'd certainly change lots of things.

"But the hurling I see as having been a huge help to me in developing my personality too, given what I had to deal with, how I've had to manage people. Like, I sincerely hope that this group of players will go on and win things. I've spoken to several of them and said that.

"I've reminded them that I didn't win a Leinster medal until I was 28. Martin Storey was 32. George (O'Connor) 37. This team has taken time to develop and I'm just disappointed that I'm not there to finish the job.

"But I'll go to a lot of matches now. I'll follow them through thick and thin. I wouldn't let what went on behind my back change how I feel about being a Wexford man."

Hurling has been so pivotal to the rhythms of Dunne's adult life, he can't be certain now about the ease of adjustment looming.

He certainly intends throwing himself even more forcefully into his work with Staffords, but this is such a fundamental way of life about to change, he finds himself naturally wary.

Sixteen years an inter-county player, he immediately took charge of Wexford's juveniles for two years, spent two years alongside Tom Dempsey with the minors, then three years as manager of Oulart before Devereux came calling.

Dunne says he has often regretted not spending a third year with the county minors and reveals he had no intention of leaving the Oulart job when Wexford approached him.

But if this has been arguably the most chastening year of his hurling life, he looks back on the worst of it as an education. He admits he reacted particularly badly to the ten-point League defeat against Offaly in March, even feeling a need to apologise to some of the players individually afterwards.

"I just let everything that was going on in the background get to me," he says. "And I handled the pressure very badly in the dressing-room at half-time and even worse after. I had a bit of a rant.

"Afterwards, I sent separate messages to Lee Chin and Matthew O'Hanlon, asking them to come back to me with responses. And what they came back with was really good. Two fellas I'd go to war with any day of the week. I got a lot out of what they sent me back."

Thereafter, Wexford scored three injury-time points to complete a tense 0-22 to 0-21 victory against Laois in Portlaoise that secured their place in the League quarter-finals. Dunne could hear only grumbling all around him, but he himself felt enlivened by the character shown.

Although a heavy summer loss to Dublin decanted more negativity, Wexford looked to have redeemed themselves with Championship wins against Offaly and Cork (their first since 1956) before slipping relatively meekly out of contention with a ten-point All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford on July 24.

By then, Dunne had already decided that he wanted to continue.

"I just think there are some fantastic fellas in the group, young men who've been asked to take leadership roles almost before they've even become settled as inter-county hurlers themselves," he says.

"And I could see these fellas slowly getting to a totally different place. They're the reason I wanted to stay on."

Throughout his hurling life, great Wexford men like Liam Griffin, Jim Bolger, Tom Doyle and Dave Bernie have freely offered him wise counsel and he again sought Griffin's company when meeting the county chairman at Monart, where all three were in agreement that an independent committee should oversee the appointment of the next Wexford hurling manager.

Dunne's view is that that committee was never formed. His recall of being subsequently interviewed for the job in the Ferrycarrig Hotel is rinsed with disdain for the process.

"The most disappointing thing for me is that it wasn't fairly done," he says flatly. "I didn't get a fair crack of the whip. Clubs had two weeks to nominate someone for the position. Five clubs nominated me, nobody nominated anyone else.

"Yet, suddenly, there were 19 interested in the job seemingly. Three weeks later, the number was said to be up to 27! And still there were no names mentioned other than mine, yet I hadn't heard a word from anybody.

"I still wanted the job and I was going to fight tooth and nail to keep it. But when I gradually realised that that just wasn't going to happen, I felt it would be wrong for me to stop someone coming in if it was going to help Wexford.

"So I knew going in the whole thing was a charade. I knew I hadn't a hope. I'd say some of the fellas interviewing me never hurled in their life. It was like looking at a few headstones really. And the chairman never asked me a question."

Why would he have bothered in such circumstances?

"My mother even asked me that," Dunne acknowledges. "But all I was looking for was backing. That's all. Senior inter-county management is a serious business. It's just phenomenal, there are so many different aspects to it. I learned a lot.

"And there's been a whole new team coming over the last two years. It takes time for players to mature and develop.

"But there's some really fantastic fellas in the Wexford dressing-room now and I honestly believe that they can win things in the years ahead."

Much has been made of the absences of Jack Guiney and Kevin Foley from the panel (for very different reasons), but Dunne had arguments with neither. On the contrary, both texted their congratulations to the manager after the Championship defeat of Cork.

Dunne's own suspicion is that Wexford had no clear-cut candidate to replace him until Davy Fitz vacated the Clare job in late September and, while he has major issues with Devereux's handling of the succession process, he does concede that the chairman did honour commitments made to him during his time as Wexford manager.

But time moves on, as his nine-year-old son Jack averred recently with the comment to his father "Davy's the man now, dad!"

That he is too and Dunne is adamant that the county should get right behind Fitzgerald.

"The whole process was the most disappointing thing to me," he says. "People at ground level have no voice anymore. They're listening to waffle.

"But look there's a new man in with new ideas who will bring new enthusiasm.

"Davy has a lot of experience and he has a good group of players to work with. It'll be good for them and they need to get behind him now. Everyone needs to do that."

When Fitzgerald's appointment was confirmed, Dunne texted his congratulations.

Davy responded with a request to meet him, albeit acknowledging that he would fully understand if his predecessor chose not to.

And Dunne's answer was unequivocal.

"Davy, I'm a Wexford man. If my meeting you helps these players one per cent, I've no problem doing it. One hundred per cent I'll meet you."

Irish Independent

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