T HERE was little hype or expectation when Tom Neville took the reins at Oulart-The Ballagh back in 1994. His brief was straightforward: deliver a first county senior title for the club.
Although they had always produced renowned hurlers like Mick Jacob, Chris Jacob, Jimmy Prendergast and, in more recent times, Martin Storey and Liam Dunne, they still hadn't managed to capture that elusive Dr Bob Bowe Cup, having lost their first 10 county finals over the course of their history, including five in the period before Neville took charge.
The new coach, however, was full of optimism. One of Wexford's greatest hurlers, he held five Leinster medals, two All-Irelands and three 'old' All Star awards from the 1960s.
"They'd been beaten in five county finals before I came, so people saw them as damaged goods, but I was actually looking forward to the task," he says. "They had the talent, they were all hurling-mad and it was just a case of getting them over the finishing line. Great hurlers like Mick Jacob were on those beaten teams so that had to be put right."
He appointed Jacob as a selector, and began unravelling the enigma of Oulart-The Ballagh.
"We made a few adjustments," he remembers. "Their problems were either psychological or disciplinary. But most of it was in the head. They were fine hurlers, committed, but just lacked discipline in games and we homed in on that. They were throwing games away with silly belts and frees and that."
Two local primary school teachers, Breda Jacob and Breda Flood, had invested years in developing underage hurling and the production lines were burgeoning. Neville was confident with the raw materials at hand.
By the time the championship started, he had changed the mindset and culture sufficiently and three months later, they won that elusive title. They repeated the feat in 1995. In both years, they reached Leinster finals, bringing the great Birr team to a replay first time around and then running Kilkenny's Glenmore close the following season. But 16 years later, they're still trying to end another hoodoo. A Leinster title is a bridge they haven't yet negotiated.
Neutrals wonder why a team with so many inter-county players, the likes of Liam Dunne (the current manager), Storey, Darren Stamp, the Jacob brothers, Mick and Rory, Paul Roche and Keith Rossiter didn't make the breakthrough over the years -- especially when sides such as Newtownshandrum landed titles with an over-dependence on the O'Connor twins and Pat Mulcahy.
"Sometimes there's a psychological barrier in Wexford hurling," Neville explains, "that they are almost beat before the start of a game once they see a Kilkenny team or shirt. But I don't think the current Oulart team are like that."
Martin Storey, who soldiered for so long, has his own theory for the failure to take the next step. "Liam Dunne has been over this team for the past two years and they have been geared up for an onslaught on the Leinster championship since the start of last year," he says. "But that hasn't always been the case in Oulart.
"As we didn't win our first Wexford title until '94, we were probably too happy to settle for just county titles for a while. Maybe we saw it as a job done deep down and didn't give Leinster the necessary preparation. There was huge excitement when we started winning county titles in the 1990s but we also met very good teams. Birr and Glenmore were brilliant and still we ran them close.
"The bottom line is that over the past 15 years the Wexford county championship was never as strong as the Kilkenny championship. We were just meeting better teams.
"UCD beat us in the 2004 Leinster semi-final and we lost to James Stephens the following year. Many people were critical of UCD's involvement at the time because they had an inter-county team but there was no point in whingeing. They beat us fair and square."
When Kevin Ryan stepped down as manager in late 2008, there was little doubt who would replace him. Dunne had worked hard with the Wexford underage set-up and had won county titles with most of the current team. Although newly-retired, there were no qualms that he would not make the hard calls. Since taking charge, he's clocked up another two county titles and reached today's decider. Losing to Ballyhale last year seems to have steeled him this time around.
"They're always very consistent with an ability to get goals," says South East radio commentator Liam Spratt, who has watched the club closely for years. "But this season they're faster and look stronger. They have eight senior inter-county players with seven games under their belts, but they'll get their toughest contest today."
The postponement of this fixture before Christmas won't have affected them in the slightest. They would have liked to have played it before the holidays but they've subsequently tackled CIT and Ballygunner in challenge matches and trained indoors during the big freeze. They are well set.
Their age profile has dropped dramatically too; Mick Jacob is the elder statesman at 30, while most of the starting 15 are aged between 23 and 27. A few years back, the older players were closer to 40.
Late in 2009, they were in danger of losing one of their most influential players, midfielder David Redmond, who left for a stint in Australia. Dunne knew his team would need Redmond if 2010 was to be successful so he appointed him captain before he left. The manager stayed in constant touch with him. He arrived back after spring, in better shape than most inter-county hurlers, having trained in the gym on a daily basis while away.
Redmond's conditioning sent a positive message to the rest of his team-mates. The others saw the season dawn in Seanie Collier's boxing gym and survived bonding weekends and camps in The Curragh. When the Wexford championship took off in July, they were ready. They cruised through it.
The real question is whether they can take the next step at Dr Cullen Park this afternoon.
"It would be lovely to take that step forward now," Storey agrees. "I won't say that we deserve a Leinster title because the Waterford hurlers deserve an All-Ireland and look at them. But if we work hard enough we have a great chance.
"This bullshit, though, of making us All-Ireland favourites at 2/1, having never even won a Leinster title before, is crazy. The bookies are just looking at the Wexford championship and seeing the scores that Oulart have clocked up. It will be a lot different against O'Loughlin Gaels. Winning a Leinster is not all-consuming but the odd time you would say to the lads at home: 'God, wouldn't it be great to win this'. We're a good club, we have a huge focus on hurling, have two fully-drained pitches, two complexes, a hurling wall, floodlights and a great underage structure with former players putting time and effort back into coaching. But we can only take a leaf out of Tipperary's book -- raw hunger and work ethic got them over the line against Kilkenny. And they were ruthless too."
Dunne has shown his own single-mindedness in the job, cutting the panel to 21 when he felt it was needed and blooding youth when most of his stars were tied up with the county team. Big-name players have been taken off when they haven't performed with the likes of Des Mythen not even making the starting 15 at times. They've been on their toes all year.
For all the optimism, though, O'Loughlins are an equally formidable side and have the experience of winning a provincial title.
"It's gas, because when I came aboard in 1994, Oulart were accused of being sledgers and now people say that some lads struggle with the physical side of the game," Neville continues. "I don't agree with that but either way it's time to move the club on. Although beating the Kilkenny champions in a final is some challenge."
It sure is. But it finally looks like all the boxes are ticked.
Sunday Indo Sport