Monday 18 December 2017

Wexford's woes cast a long shadow

Wexford captain Darren Stamp makes his way out for the start of the game against Offaly last Sunday. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Wexford captain Darren Stamp makes his way out for the start of the game against Offaly last Sunday. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Harry Kehoe cuts a disconsolate figure after the defeat. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

In summer 1993, the late Raymond Smith, a man who delighted in decorating his opinions with provocative flourishes, wrote in the Sunday Independent that Clare might benefit from a rehabilitation period in the All-Ireland 'B' hurling championship.

It was just after Tipperary had beaten them by 18 points in the Munster final and Smith chose the 'B' championship suggestion to characterise the perceived difference in class. There was, no doubt, a mischievous sub-text to his comments since Clare had beaten Limerick and Cork to reach the final, but it certainly stoked up a fiery reaction among aggrieved Banner supporters.

Two years later, Clare were All-Ireland champions for the first time in 81 years. And when their supporters took to gleefully reminding Smith of his 1993 forecast, he would laugh heartily and say: "But sure look at the effect it had."

Quite whether there will be a similarly happy turnaround in Wexford remains to be seen, but their supporters certainly have much to ponder following a warning that the county could be on its way to Christy Ring Cup level. That such a stark prognosis has come from one of their own, a man immersed in the game all his life, makes it all the more troubling.

Liam Dunne's assessment that Wexford may not have a viable future at top level will surprise even those outside the county who have noted the decline.

This, after all, is the proud earth of the Rackards, the Quigleys, O'Donnell, Doran, O'Connor, Storey, Fitzhenry, Conran and, of course, Dunne. Surely it couldn't drop out of the elite orbit permanently.

And yet, people like Dunne have been warning of problems for years.

"We are in deep trouble. Say we don't win another All-Ireland title by 2008 -- and that is quite likely -- it will mean that Wexford will have won the Liam MacCarthy Cup just twice in 40 years. If that happens, it's a bloody serious problem in anyone's language," wrote Dunne in his book in 2004.

At the time, Wexford were Leinster senior champions, having beaten Kilkenny (All-Ireland champions for the previous two years) and Offaly. And while Cork demolished Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was difficult to equate being Leinster champions with Dunne's pessimistic prediction.

However, he explained it thus: "Juvenile structures in Wexford are a shambles. There are too many people with too many private agendas and not all of them are about trying to get Wexford hurling back to where it should be. If this situation persists, we're in big trouble regardless of the relative success of 2004."

Seven years on, Wexford are still waiting for their first Leinster minor title since 1985, their first All-Ireland minor title since 1968, their first Leinster U-21 title since 2002 or their first All-Ireland U-21 title since 1965.

Unsurprisingly, the feed through to senior level has been poor. Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Cork and Galway have been the five top teams in recent years, but Wexford haven't recorded a win against any of them in league or championship since beating Waterford by a point in the opening round of the NHL on February 10, 2008.

Granted, Wexford spent 2009 and 2010 in Division 2, but were in the top flight in 2008 and again this year. Technically, Wexford could still avoid relegation this season, but given that they have lost their five games by an average of eight points, it's difficult to see them taking anything from Cork or Tipperary.

Wexford were worryingly uncompetitive in last year's championship and Dunne has warned that they could struggle against Antrim or Laois next May. If Wexford survive that, they will have home advantage against Kilkenny, a fixture which would normally stir the blood, especially since it's fixed for Wexford Park.

Sadly for Wexford, it has come at a time in their history when there's no longer a real prospect of beating Kilkenny.

One of the more startling aspects of Dunne's comments is his claim that there's little talk about hurling in Wexford at present. Once apathy sets in, it's a seriously corrosive rust.

Nor did he widen the blame game, pointing out that the problems were of Wexford's own making.

Coincidentally, president-elect, Liam O'Neill, commenting in yesterday's Irish Independent on proposals to streamline the fixtures programme for weaker counties, remarked: "We've spent 125 years promoting hurling and we haven't exactly succeeded."

How sad if that were now to extend to the likes of Wexford.

Irish Independent

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