Sinéad Kissane: 'Did Wexford's pride in their history and identity help reboot their success?'
County’s first Leinster senior hurling title since 2004 ended long tale of hurt and brought renewed hope for what could yet come
He can't see into the future but he knew what was going to happen next. As Wexford sub goalkeeper Éanna Martin watched his fellow goalie Mark Fanning run up to take the penalty against Kilkenny at Croke Park last Sunday, he knew what was coming because he'd witnessed it up close at training.
Fanning had sharpened up on his penalty-taking with Martin facing him between the posts in the week before the Leinster final. Martin was confident Fanning's penalty would not be stopped and dared to hope that this could be the decisive swing for Wexford.
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Suspense is a currency that radio commentators thrive on and in the press box high up in the Hogan Stand, South East Radio commentator Liam Spratt let his commentary flow as fast as Fanning's strike.
"Just himself and Eoin Murphy. Two of the best goalkeepers in the country. Mark drives it. Brilliant goooooooooaaaallll. Wexford are in front at a crucial time in the game," Spratt gushed. "Let's not get carried away. Six minutes remaining. Munster hurling me backside."
Sitting below in the lower tier of the Hogan Stand were John and Trish O'Connor. They watch games through a different lens. John says he doesn't get carried away, unlike Trish.
But the parental pull is the same - their two sons, Jack and Rory, were playing in the forwards for Wexford. It was a foul on Rory which led to Wexford getting the penalty that Fanning scored. John was part of the Wexford glory days and won an All-Ireland medal in 1996. The family is steeped in hurling and GAA history. Now the present and future were in the hands of their sons and their team-mates.
Anxious John remained relatively calm through-out last Sunday. "You do become a little bit anxious especially when it's your own lads that are playing. I would tend to be more analytical of the game and watching where it's been won and lost. Emotionally, I leave that to the other side of the family. My wife gets quite excited alright but she's very passionate."
John and Trish O'Connor lived in Waterford for seven years with three of their four kids born there. When the time came for each of the new-born babies - Jack, Harry and Rory - to be brought to Wexford for the first time, Trish chose a different route to their usual one.
For these three occasions they would get the car ferry from Passage East in Co Waterford to Ballyhack in Co Wexford and drive on from there. If they took their normal driving route from Waterford it would mean passing through south Co Kilkenny. But Trish didn't want her kids to set foot in Kilkenny before Wexford. It had to be Wexford first. "That would sum her up now," John laughs.
Over near the Wexford sideline, Dermot Howlin was counting down the seconds to the end of added time. Howlin has been part of Wexford hurling backroom teams for 11 seasons - from the Colm Bonnar days through to Liam Dunne's to Davy Fitzgerald's. He always felt the disappointment over a championship exit was at its most unfiltered and severe on the return journeys home on the team bus.
"Something that always struck a chord with me was getting to an All Ireland quarter-final - or whatever your endgame of the season was - and you get back on the bus, you'd have that lonely, sickening feeling," Howlin recalled.
"For me, that's heavy in my system for a long time, that we'd get so far over the years with everybody doing their best. But still at the end of the year (there's) that sickening feeling of, 'here we go again, we just can't get over that step'."
When that step was finally overcome last Sunday, something became unlocked.
"When the final whistle went the tears just came out of my eyes. I just couldn't stop crying. Even as I'm thinking about it now, it's still emotional. I suppose it was just the release of waiting for something like this to happen," Howlin said. "Then you look up in the stand and you see the happy faces of Wexford people. And everybody just hungry for a bit of silverware."
Éanna Martin, the longest-serving player in the Wexford panel, had been waiting for a day like last Sunday since he joined the Wexford panel in the winter of 2006 after John Meyler took over as manager.
Since then Wexford had played three and lost three Leinster finals. When their championship was ended by Clare in last summer's All-Ireland quarter-final, Martin considered whether his time with Wexford might also be up.
But when Fitzgerald decided to stay on, he wanted Martin to remain too. But he wanted him back as a goalkeeper rather than as an outfield player. It was a decision that "rejuvenated" Martin, so he returned for his 13th inter-county season. Thirteen. Lucky for some.
But this wasn't luck. Even though the win unwound an emotional rush for him too, Martin says he didn't need the validation of a victory to fully appreciate what playing for Wexford meant to him because he always understood what that meant. "I know exactly how much it means to me really. I wasn't one bit surprised by the Wexford people and I wasn't surprised by the reaction of the Wexford players."
Near the steps of the Hogan afterwards, the O'Connor family all found each other. As if the day couldn't get any sweeter Rory was named man of the match and he and Jack brought their younger sister, Grace, out onto the pitch for photographs with them.
"Ah very special, that was a very special moment alright," John O'Connor said. "They didn't panic (during the game). But that's the belief that Davy has put into the team. And that's the belief Davy has in himself."
From his vantage point up in the Hogan, Spratt watched the glorious scenes open up before him. "We're kind of a mad, generous, welcoming county and I think that was proven. We're a big county and our hurling and football is equally spread - there's no specific area where there's hurling or football."
Spratt got a bit of stick for his "Munster hurling me backside" line. "I've been listening to it for the last 40, 50 years. Even the media last Sunday with the senior press men covering the Munster final. I just think they've hyped it up, now obviously with justification, but how many All-Irelands have Munster won in the last 20 years?" he quipped.
Last Sunday was the first time since 1970 that Wexford won the minor and senior Leinster hurling finals (adding to the Leinster Intermediate Cup won by the Wexford women's Gaelic football team and, later in the week, the U-20s' Leinster hurling semi-final win over Offaly).
The success seems to have re-energised their identity or maybe that's for those of us watching in from the outside. For their Leinster round robin game with Galway in May, Wexford wore their new alternate jersey for the first time. These jerseys have the image of the 'Pikeman' - in reference to the 1798 Rebellion - and Vinegar Hill, taken from the county crest, on the front.
"Wexford in 1798 formed an independent state for 22 days. We were the only ones who took on the Brits really and Davy has harped on that in the last week," Spratt says. "The pride that Wexford people stand up. Pride in our history."
Did their history and identity also help reboot their success? Martin says Fitzgerald drew on the county's history "a small bit" in the build-up to last Sunday.
"I think the Wexford history is very important to everyone from Wexford," Martin added.
"I was in primary school when the anniversary of 1798 - the 200th anniversary in 1998 - and you would have learned all about the history of Wexford back then I think Wexford people understand their history and they're proud of it."
Later last Sunday evening, the team made that long-awaited return journey home.
They took the train from Connolly to Arklow, and then got on the bus into Inch and past the bonfires, through the thousands of supporters lined up in Gorey, then onto Ferns, Enniscorthy and to their final destination in Wexford Town.
But they don't want this to be their final stop this summer. After a hectic week, the players were back at training on Thursday night.
They've got an All-Ireland semi-final to prepare for, another rising to plan. Maybe Wexford's history is also a key to their future.