Wednesday 21 August 2019

'Everyone said the show was over after last year but the resilience of this group is unbelievable' - Oulart refuse to give up on their Holy Grail

Unshakeable belief has brought Wexford kingpins back to the cusp of elusive Leinster title

Barry Kehoe lifts the trophy after Oulart-The Ballagh’s win over St Martin’s in this year’s county final
Barry Kehoe lifts the trophy after Oulart-The Ballagh’s win over St Martin’s in this year’s county final
Willie Sunderland

Christy O'Connor

With the last play of last year's Wexford senior quarter-final, Glynn-Barntown floated a '65 into the Oulart-The Ballagh danger zone to try and save the game.

Oulart had 11 players dotted around the square, like bees around a honey jar, but Michael Doyle still managed to flick the ball to the bottom corner of the net to give Glynn-Barntown a one-point win. 

Oulart's Paul Roche slumped to ground with his hands over his head. David Redmond collapsed in a heap, overcome with disappointment. Keith Rossiter's visible devastation was also frozen in the moment. The image represented more than just a harrowing defeat at the death; it looked like the end of an era, the final stop on a journey that this group of players had dedicated their lives in trying to reach.

Oulart were going for six in a row in Wexford but the quest to win a Leinster title had been deeply interwoven into an obsessive crusade.

Barry Kehoe lifts the trophy after Oulart-The Ballagh’s win over St Martin’s in this year’s county final
Barry Kehoe lifts the trophy after Oulart-The Ballagh’s win over St Martin’s in this year’s county final

Four successive Leinster final defeats between 2010-2014 had been devastating setbacks but they had still regrouped and resumed the charge each time. Now, where did they go? Had those defeats finally broken Oulart?

In their collective mindset, though, nothing had really changed. They had come back from bigger and harder defeats before. The players had never allowed those dog days to attack their belief-system like a virus. They had always gathered as a group within a couple of weeks to confront and examine the reasons why they had failed again.

When they gathered again after the Glynn-Barntown defeat, their spirit was battered and bruised but their ambition was still as strong and constant as ever. The story of this team had never been a linear narrative anyway. The script just remained unfinished. And there was only one way to finish it.

"Everyone said the show was over after last year but the resilience of this group is unbelievable," says Willie Sunderland, an Oulart selector in 2013 and 2014.

The Oulart-The Ballagh squad before Sunday's victory over Clonkill in Cusack Park, Mullingar
The Oulart-The Ballagh squad before Sunday's victory over Clonkill in Cusack Park, Mullingar

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"They've been knocked down so often in Leinster but they have still achieved so much. For them, it's always about the next game, not the last one. They have always tried to learn from those defeats and just go again. That's what they have done. It's a credit to them that they're back again."

For the last 21 years, Oulart have dominated the Wexford championship, winning 12 titles in that timespan. Between 2004-2013, they contested every Wexford final, winning eight titles. The five-in-a-row between 2009-'13 was a record but crossing the next frontier in Leinster continues to define this squad's existence.

They have done everything bar win a provincial final. In the last six years, no other club has taken down as many big names as Oulart; Ballyhale Shamrocks, James Stephens, Clara, Kilcormac-Killoughey, Kilmacud Crokes. They just haven't been able to get the job done on the biggest day of all.

Oulart narrowly lost to O'Loughlin Gaels in 2010. They lost to Coolderry in 2011 by four points, hitting 17 wides and dropping seven balls into the 'keeper's hand. They never performed against Kilcormac-Killoughey in the 2012 decider. After beating Clara and Kilcormac in the 2013 championship, they faced Carlow's Mount Leinster Rangers in the final. Oulart were raging favourites but Mount Leinster turned them over in a dogfight.

"I think they felt the hard work was done," says Bertie Sherlock, who trained the team in 2013. "I thought they took Mount Leinster for granted and I had that fear all week coming into the match.

"No matter how much we spoke to them in the lead-up, we couldn't seem to generate any life in the dressing-room. There was no life even in the warm-up. They got a great start but when Mount Leinster came at them, Oulart froze. They were like a team in shock."

Rory Jacob, Oulart the Ballagh, in action against Darragh Egerton, Clonkill duirng their AIB Leinster GAA Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-final clash
Rory Jacob, Oulart the Ballagh, in action against Darragh Egerton, Clonkill duirng their AIB Leinster GAA Senior Club Hurling Championship semi-final clash

Sunderland remembered the mood in the dressing-room after the Kilcormac win when word came through that Mount Leinster Rangers had beaten Ballyboden St Enda's in the other semi-final.

"With every respect to Mount Leinster, I remember thinking, 'I'd rather play Ballyboden in the final'," says Sunderland.

"Given where we were as a team at the time, maybe the challenge of a bigger name might have focused us more.

"We didn't underestimate Mount Leinster but no matter how hard you try sometimes, it can get into players' heads that no matter what happens, we will win.

Before you know it, it's gone and you can't do anything about it. You always try and see what you could have done differently but it's impossible to put your finger on it. You just hope the lessons have been learned."

Excuses are even more invalid with the team's experience. Fourteen of the squad have played senior for Wexford. They have county U-21s on the bench. They've had big-name managers: Liam Dunne, Pat Herbert, Martin Storey. Frank Flannery was a Waterford selector in 2014 when he came on board in the middle of last season for one month.

Flannery took over at the outset of 2015 and subtle changes have become more evident as the season has progressed.

Shaun Murphy went to centre-back. Rory Jacob has been operating in a playmaking role at midfield. Dessie Mythen is on fire since returning from injury. Young players have re-energised the team.

In such a competitive Wexford championship, Oulart have also been better road-tested heading into Leinster than they often were in the past.

They may be ready to peak now but the team's style has also been tweaked slightly. They have been generating more space up front, have become tighter at the back. They've kept clean sheets in their last three matches.

"They seem to be making better use of possession now," says Sunderland. "That didn't always happen in the past. They're defending really well as a team too."

Sunderland was manager in 2004 and 2005, when the modern crusade really began. He was also part of the management in 1994 when Oulart won their first county title.

Prior to that breakthrough, Oulart had only ever known heartbreak. In the previous 20 years, they had lost five county finals, some of them in devastating circumstances.

Tom Neville, who had won an All-Ireland club title with Kilkenny's St Martin's in 1985, transformed the mentality and ambition in Oulart. After winning that first county title in 1994, they retained it a year later.

They also reached Leinster finals in both years, losing to Birr (after a replay) in 1994, and to Glenmore in 1995. After winning a third county title in 1997, Oulart's Leinster ambitions perished at the hands of Laois' Castletown.

Most of that team never got another chance to win Leinster but the next generation have been leading the charge ever since.

"The hunger in Oulart knows no bounds," says Sunderland. "I don't know what's going to happen on Sunday but I know one thing for sure; win, lose or draw, these fellas will return to the drawing board next year, train as hard as ever and be just as hard to beat.

"They are a unique bunch of players. They have laid great foundations for our club's future. They live for the game. That's what they have built their lives around.

"Nobody deserves success more than they do but these players have established a great culture in Oulart. What more could anyone ask for?"

Sherlock has coached teams all around the country. He was involved with Toomevara for nine of the 11 Tipperary county titles they won between 1992 and 2007.

That Toomevara team won three Munster titles but they had the unfortunate legacy of being one of the best club teams never to win an All-Ireland.

"I'd put Oulart on the same level as those Toomevara teams," says Sherlock. "They're a huge club, really well run. They're as good as any club in the country. They've a great underage structure.

"They have a brilliant camogie club. They have leaders everywhere, on and off the field. They have the potential to win Leinster and All-Ireland titles but it doesn't just happen. I just hope they have learned their lesson but if Oulart believe in themselves, there is no reason why they can't win this one."

Can they finally cross that threshold now? Oulart have always managed to use disappointment as a springboard for the following year's campaign.

Defeat has made them hungrier for atonement. They beat Glynn-Barntown in this year's Wexford quarter-final with a last-minute goal, turning the tables from last year.

They have negative history from Leinster finals but at least they have the experience to draw on of being there so often.

What some see as baggage is just perception; Oulart have chosen to look at it differently, adopting the growth mindset where defeats have merely been seen as part of the learning process.

Oulart have always sought to grow, to get better, to do things differently. They haven't always got it right.

They didn't always fully absorb the harsh experiences of the past. They still have to prove they can scale that summit in Leinster but the long and difficult climb has never stopped them from trying.

"When you lose the first (Leinster) final, you think, 'Will we ever get another chance?'" said Darren Stamp before the 2013 Leinster semi-final. "When you lose the second one you think, 'That's it now, that's finished.'

You get to a third one, lose, and you think, 'That's definitely it.' Everyone's telling you, 'That's it.'" We've been knocked back so many times but we've regrouped each time. It shows how good a team we are to keep getting back up."

Losing a fourth Leinster final soon afterwards seemed like the deepest cut of all, one they would never recover from.

The Glynn-Barntown defeat appeared to confirm as much but Oulart have regrouped again.

Still going. Still heroically trying.

Still desperately searching for what Oulart see as their destiny.

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