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Wexford pure class of '76

'Prophet' Quigley recalls Kilkenny's last bid for six of best

JOHN QUIGLEY prophesised it. He saw Kilkenny as a tired, old tree, beginning to lean. True, Wexford themselves weren't exactly saplings in the first bloom.

But they had the hunger of desperate men. And he could sense their storm brew.

Two weeks before the game, he met Irish Independent journalist, Con Kenealy, in a Rathmines pub. Kenealy, an irascible soul, told him that Kilkenny's record sixth Leinster crown was already all but writ in stone. He believed Wexford to be on a peasant's errand.

"I'm telling you, we'll beat them," argued Quigley.

"Ye have no chance," scoffed Kenealy.

"I'll bet you anything you like," said the Wexford man.

"Look, if ye beat Kilkenny, I'll make you our 'Sport Star of the Week'," cackled the journalist.

The little bronze statuette still sits proudly on John Quigley's mantelpiece. Five days after Wexford's 17 points hammering of the champions, Kenealy had kept his word.

John Quigley, scorer of 1-3 against the Cats, was named Irish Independent Sport Star of the Week.

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So Kilkenny never made it six-in-a-row. They just blundered into their neighbours' blades and died. For the happenings of July 18, 1976 stretched beyond arithmetic. That Kilkenny team, perhaps the greatest of all time, never picked themselves up again. They had simply run their race.

And, in a small lifetime of chasing, Wexford had all but hit the crescent too.

It is Wednesday morning in Inistioge and, for Eddie Keher, hindsight brings strange clarity. He sits on a deck at the back of his home and looks down across the village below, a place so rich with grainy memories.

Keher's childhood coincided with the pomp of Wexford hurling. He grew up enthralled by the mastery of men like the Rackards and Ned Wheeler. Kilkenny, at the time, were just peripheral.

The Rower-end of the parish stretches right down to the border at New Ross and, back then, nothing seemed more compelling than a great line of Wexford cars - A40s and Morris Minors - snaking through the village, headed for Nowlan Park.

Keher and his friends would spend those Sundays, scribbling down the registration numbers of every car that came through Inistioge. Innocent times.

It was as if their sheets of paper offered a connection to the game. And that made them more interesting than conkers.

When Kilkenny finally beat Wexford in the Leinster final of '57, it felt tumultuous. Father Meagher had taken to coaching the county team and he - clearly - had Wexford's measure. Kilkenny won the next three Leinster titles but, by decade's end, Wexford were back and strong again.

So, Eddie Keher grew up first loving, then fearing Wexford. They were giants of the game. And, deep within his hurling brain, they never truly ceased to be.

So we are talking about '76 now. About Kilkenny's doomed bid for six-in-a-row. And there is a logic to the story that, on reflection, seems utterly inescapable. Even great teams get worn out, you see. Fatigue just tracks them down and tightens the percentages.

By '76, Kilkenny had become hurling's Globetrotters. Exhibitionists almost. So gifted, they had become a curiosity. Their omnipotence stretched beyond the province. If the Cats were going for a sixth, consecutive Leinster crown, they were also chasing their fourth All-Ireland in five years. And they had played in five successive finals. So this business had a routine feel.

True, John Quigley says he had seen little "cracks" appear.

And maybe others were just blind. After all, Cork had taken them to a replay in the league semi-final and Clare did likewise in the final. But, then, they had come home from a 10-day All Star trip to America to plant six goals past the Banner in that final replay.

Perhaps the real "cracks" were in a burgeoning itinerary.

They played an exhibition game against Cork to officially open the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh and then, on a steaming, hot day in Mullingar, beat Westmeath in the Leinster semi-final.

The following Sunday, a full round of club championship matches was played in Kilkenny. Wexford were now just seven days away. And presumption was in full flood. Keher remembers "There was a feeling developing in Kilkenny that this team was nearly unbeatable.

"The supporters thought it was just a matter of form. But we were real sluggish in the game against Westmeath. I felt it myself. We were beginning to get tired. The whole atmosphere was totally wrong. There were certainly seeds of doubt in my own mind.

"Then the county board decided to go ahead with the club games just a week before the Leinster final. They thought this team was invincible.

"There was attitude of 'Ah, sure they'll beat Wexford'."

Maybe 40 miles away in Monamolin, Tony Doran didn't quite get a scent of uprising. He had won an All-Ireland in '68 but Kilkenny had claimed six of the next seven Leinster titles, beating Wexford every day. It wasn't that a gulf existed. In fact, it didn't. Of all their battles, '73 was the only year Kilkenny beat them easily.

In '72, Wexford had blown a 10-point lead against 14 Kilkenny men only to see Mick Crotty equalise with the last puck of the game.

And, of course, Kilkenny were never inclined to blow up in replays. In '74, an injured Phil Wilson got sent off for a sideline altercation while in the process of being replaced and 14-man Wexford were only beaten by Keher's last-second free.

"T'was scandalous" recalls John Quigley "that we didn't beat them at least once or twice. Because there was nothing ever between us."

Nothing but the secrets of the mind.

Doran says Wexford, back then, were accustomed to defeat, yet never resigned to it. "I suppose, looking back over the previous five years, we hadn't much reason to be confident of beating Kilkenny in '76," he says. "And maybe everyone, outside of ourselves, would have been inclined to give us no chance.

"I mean we barely scraped over Kildare in our semi-final in Athy. But, a funny thing, we always felt we were only a puck of a ball away from Kilkenny. They were winning everything but people used to say we were the second best team in Ireland at the time. And maybe we were. But there were never any trophies for that."

The game itself was a merciless flogging.

'Wexford Waltz' was the heading on Kenealy's Monday morning match-report. Kilkenny managed just a single point from play and Keher recalls long periods of standing as a hapless bystander, just watching Wexford go to town. But for Noel Skehan's brilliance in Kilkenny's goal, the margin might have been doubled.

"They were due to catch us," reflects Ger Henderson. "And they just had a super day. But my abiding memory of '76 is that someone came up with the bright idea of us wearing black togs. Some kind of fashion statement. Well those togs were never seen again after Wexford had finished trouncing us."

It ought to be have been the beginning of something momentous for Wexford hurling. But, in effect, it amounted to an ending.

They had grown old chasing Kilkenny so relentlessly. And, by the time they broke free, another monolith was in place. Cork - young, sassy and ever so sweet on the eye - would win the next three All-Irelands, beating Wexford in two finals.

"By the time we finally beat Kilkenny, I'd say half of us were over thirty," remembers Doran. "We had very few young fellas. In fact, we had probably been a better team in the early 70s. But now we had grown old together.

"And we ended up I suppose kind of getting sandwiched between maybe two of the greatest teams of all time.

"I mean we never hit the same form again after beating Kilkenny that day in '76. For us, at the time, it was like winning several All-Irelands in one go. Just our misfortune that Cork were waiting down the road for us.

"But we could have no complaints. That's the luck of the thing."

Twenty-seven years on, Keher believes Wexford would have beaten Kilkenny in '76, whatever the champions' itinerary. For there is a natural grain to these summer days.

Across the years, perhaps no county has suffered more at Kilkenny hands than Wexford, yet - conversely - no county seems more energised by their colours.

Keher is friendly with many of that Wexford team now. The Dorans, the Quigleys, Teddy O'Connor, Willie Murphy and Mick Jacob. So, when he thinks of '76, it is not with the faintest sense of melancholy.

"We had a fantastic era," he smiles.

"We had been in five All-Ireland finals, gone on five or six trips to America. And it was now obvious we had gone past it. Unfortunately for Wexford, they were sort of gone over that hill too. So while '76 finished off most of our team, it kind of did theirs too.

"And that was the biggest sadness."

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