Wexford hurling is striving to reverse an alarming recent slide, says Dermot Crowe
Three years ago, a Wexford under 21 hurling team went to Parnell Park to take on Leinster hurling arrivistes, Dublin, in a provincial semi-final. The minor team of three years earlier hadn't been remarkable but when they met Dublin only four points divided the teams at the finish. Three years down the road, they looked a bunch of misfits, ill-prepared, with a management that had less than two months to acclimatise; they ended up losing by 19 points.
Many pointed the finger of blame at the county board executive for not acting quickly enough in appointing a management team. Accusations flew of a deliberate delay to reduce costs of training the team and if that were the case then clearly the committee men of this storied and colourful county weren't getting the poetry.
There was a more trivial but frankly unsettling anecdote about one of the underage mentors around that time in another championship match against Dublin pausing on his sideline travels to pose for a photograph while the contest was in full flight -- he was being accommodating, but surely the man's mind needed to be elsewhere.
So where are Wexford now? In 2006, ten years after they won the All-Ireland title, the county minors lost by seven points to Carlow and went out of the Leinster championship. Some of these score selections can be misleading and unfair in that Carlow have been upping their game considerably and are no longer an easy touch. But it still sparked concern in Wexford who haven't won a Leinster minor title since 1985.
In came Tom Dempsey and Liam Dunne to lead the next minor expedition. Over the next two years they didn't win anything but the county became competitive again. They defeated Carlow and Offaly in 2007 before losing the semi-final to Dublin, who won the final against Kilkenny convincingly. The next year they hammered Offaly and Laois, defeated Dublin in a replay and lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny.
Now Dunne has made the leap to senior manager but his start hasn't been what you could call honeymoon. Three defeats out of four, the exception being a win over Offaly engineered by an improbable comeback, they are facing Laois in the last round in Division 1B in a dead rubber. They'll have to meet again in a relegation play-off. Wexford should win that but on current form you couldn't swear on it.
"Confidence seems to be at an all-time low," admits Tom Dempsey. "Even the way we are playing, it seems to be gone through the floor. I think in fairness Liam (Dunne) and his selectors have only been in charge for two months and it will take 12 or 18 months for them to put their stamp on the team. They have to be given time."
Dempsey is confident the players are coming through in sufficient numbers and quality to make a difference. They defeated Kilkenny in the Leinster under 21 championship last year and the minors gave Dublin, eventual All-Ireland finalists, a serious grilling.
"People need to be patient. I think they have tried around ten new players in the league so far and we seem to be struggling to get a settled backbone. Against Limerick, you could see they had David Breen and Niall Moran down the middle of their attack and they had big physical presence."
A year ago, Dave Guiney took over as county games manager from Mick Kinsella and his own son, Jack, started his first senior match for Wexford against Clare last Sunday. Jack Guiney was one of last year's minors and Guiney senior missed his debut due to a coaching course commitment on the same day.
Guiney is satisfied the public appetite is there to revive the game. On Monday week last, a bronze statue of Nicky Rackard was unveiled in Wexford town. Rackard, and the '50s legends who played with him, set the gold standard that Wexford aspires to, regardless of how far-fetched those peaks may seem now.
"Okay, our senior hurling team isn't going well at the moment," says Guiney, "and it does make it difficult, but I think the Wexford people have a great grá for the game of hurling. I was at the unveiling of the (Rackard) statue and it was very well attended; the people of Wexford love hurling and I think it is only a matter of time before that energy and the work being done will bear fruit."
Liam Griffin was part of a panel that selected Liam Dunne as senior manager. Like the others, he appeals for calm, and notes that the new backroom team is only just in the door. "It's not good but the lights have not gone out," says Griffin. "Billy Rackard said after they beat Tipperary in 1960 against the odds, up on the platform for the homecoming, that the future of hurling was safe in Wexford. Well, it looked like it then, but Wexford has failed hurling."
Griffin considers what Nicky Rackard would have made of their present predicament. "I think the first thing he would say was, 'what happened?'"
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