A few years ago, myself and Ger Cunningham made the journey across the beautiful south to the Wexford riviera. George O’Connor was running a big hurling gig in the town. We were drafted in to do the goalkeeping session. We were like Father Ted and Father Dougal at a fundamentalist revival meeting.
George had a mad enthusiasm about him. Well organised, of course, but he is a burning evangelist for hurling. He had kids mesmerised. The hurley is your sword. It’s your light sabre. The things you can do with it. Never let go of it.
If the kids weren’t watching George swishing the hurley about, they were looking at his hands. Big hands, but his fingers have been broken so many times on the hurling field they grow out of him like crooked twigs from a tree. His fingers are all going off in different directions. I was waiting for one of the kids to ask did you not usually get a shield with your sword.
After we went to the religious revival meeting we had something to eat in Liam Griffin’s place, the Ferrycarrig. Then across the road to see Mick Wallace’s Wexford Youths play. People talk about Mick Wallace in the hi-visibility jacket doing his undercover ops this week. If you saw the shirt he was wearing that night, you’d know that he counts a hi-vis jacket as formal wear.
All through the grub and the soccer game, we were talking hurling. I remember Griffin brought up about the goal I let in to Martin Comerford against Kilkenny in the 2003 All-Ireland final. He wanted to know how come I had let it in. I could see Cunningham smiling to himself trying not to chip in with, ‘yeah why exactly did ya let that one in?’
Funny apart from waking up in cold sweats about that goal for years afterwards, I’d never really wondered about it.
When we were talking, two things stood out. The passion George O’Connor and Liam Griffin had for the game. Two great positive men. But you could also tell that underneath it all, they both knew that unless a huge pile of work was poured into the foundation, there would be nothing to rebuild Wexford hurling on.
I was thinking about that grand day as I was driving up to Kilkenny on Saturday.
Usually, going to matches, I arrive at the last minute and have to talk to some fella with a bib into letting me park right behind the goals or somewhere, but on Saturday I was very early.
At least I thought I was. A mile or so from Nowlan Park, I had to check the clock.
The game was over an hour off but Wexford people, thousands of them were walking towards the ground. George and his revival meetings. He had produced a generation of pilgrims.
Into Nowlan Park. Loads of Kilkenny people saying ‘welcome to Nowlan Park.’ I kept looking around to see if I was being set up on some candid camera show.
Then a familiar face from back in the war years.
— How are ya Dónal Óg, welcome to Nowlan Park.
I couldn’t help myself.
— Hey boy the last time I saw you, you were firing a hurley at Joe Deane.
On past this box which looked like it had been dropped into Nowlan Park by NASA.
There was a no-fly zone above it. A demilitarised zone all around it. People just staring at it in wonder. The Sky Sports box.
Quick word with Jamesie and Ollie Canning, who had been beamed out of it. Told Jamesie he was looking well. Few more decent outfits and he could audition for The Sunday Game. Thought to myself that Jamesie and Ollie between them have so much intensity that it must be frightening to be stuck inside the Sky box with them.
There was some sort of garden shed for the rest of us.
Sitting with Michael Duignan. So many yarns. My favourite came just after Larry O’Gorman spotted us. The usual greeting from Larry. Hello Brother. Duignan said that before the All-Ireland in ’96, Griffin had all the Wexford lads warned that to stay focused, they had to stay away from all the madness, not be out on the street listening to every dog and divil with an opinion or a cousin who needed tickets. They all got the picture except Larry, who was sighted nearly every day on his bike around Wexford more visible than a man running in a by-election. When I think of myself sitting in dark rooms, doing my yoga and finding my zone...
Myself and Duignan wander off to that funny house thing that Kilkenny have in the corner of Nowlan Park in search of tea. Inside the house, the walls were so full of framed photos of Kilkenny triumphs, that I get freaked out.
Couldn’t look at the walls in case they have a picture of me letting in that goal to Comerford in 2003. Some referees come in and that freaks out Duignan anyway.
They might give him a yellow for old times sake or some of his comments lately.
Game on. Tom Dempsey is near me. I ask him would he like to be out there. ‘I would,’ he says, ‘this is a new thing hitting ball into the inside forwards. When I was playing the only time you saw the ball was when one of the boys out the field miss-hit it or it came down off the post’.
I mentioned this to somebody afterwards. Ah no. Sure everyone knew that if you gave a ball into Dempsey, you’d never see it again. Old soldiers.
The match was a joy to watch. Who saw this coming for Wexford? When I watched them lose to Dublin earlier in the summer, they had some method about them but nobody saw this coming. After what seemed like five minutes on Saturday, the final whistle was blowing. I counted 13 Waterford lads just drop to their knees before the whistle was out of the ref’s mouth. They were there on their knees as what seemed like the whole county Wexford poured onto the pitch.
Men, women, young and old. People helping the elderly out onto the grass while kids went driving past with hurleys in their hands. Madness. And a bit moving to watch.
I understand why Croke Park has the rule about staying off the field on big days but I hope we never extend that to other grounds. We’d lose something magic on nights like this. I thought of fellas who hadn’t spoken in years bumping into each other out on the pitch and throwing their arms around each other. I thought of the queen of England and her loyal subjects watching all this across the water. Having tried to unravel the beauty of hurling for 70 minutes Sky had come back after the ad break and now the whole attendance was on the pitch, instead of going home?
Thoughts. Wexford won’t win the All-Ireland this year but whenever it ends, tomorrow or in Croke Park, one thing is for sure, when they go back training some dark night in the winter, they’ll be mad for it. Liam Dunne won’t have to do any persuading or cajoling. If they keep doing what they are doing, they are on the way.
Their full-back line is a strange one. Very often a team’s defence will carry the signs of training three times a week against their own forwards. By that I mean that they will look most comfortable playing against attacks who play like their own forwards play. The movement in Wexford’s forwards is excellent. Yet their full-back line sometimes looks a little old fashioned and vulnerable if they are being stretched by forwards who won’t stay in their box.
It may come from experience. Going from young Liam Ryan in the right corner across to Keith Rossiter in the other corner, the full-back line gets progressively more experienced. They are excellent at the basics, like letting the ball off to the keeper (who has been really good, always tries to do the right thing) but the game is so multi directional and fluid now, they need to work on their own fluidity before somebody isolates them in there.
When they played Clare, Davy used a sweeper which meant Wexford were able to use a sweeper too. That protected their full back line against maybe the most modern attack in the game. Rossiter is a natural for doing that job. They need to go to that system if they find their full-back line is getting cut off on bigger pitches.
The move to midfield for Lee Chin has worked perfectly. It was a good idea to start but he is adding to his game every time I see him. He looks as if concentrating on hurling is paying dividends. I saw Lee up close when he played in the Super 11s in Notre Dame last year and his intensity, work ethic, conditioning, attitude and his whole approach to the game made me think of him as Seán Óg 2.0.
His shooting for points is a little bit off but what he should be looking for is the opportunities to score goals. Himself and Redmond make a fairly exciting attacking midfield together and the power Chin has driving past men, he’s going to have chances to score goals, like the one Redmond scored last Saturday evening. Defences hate those runs as they are so hard to track.
Conor McDonald at full forward is a big addition for Wexford. He has almost everything. Best is he is only 18 and mad for road. He has time to get the one thing he lacks which is an extra half yard of pace. They used to say years ago you can’t coach pace. Of course you can.
If somebody who knows what they are doing works with him in the techniques of speed and acceleration, he is going to be an even better player in years to come. Unplayable.
Meanwhile, for me, Liam Óg McGovern has been one of the sights of the summer.
I love watching a forward who wants to take the defender on every time. Liam Óg does that but he adds in these surprising little touches of pure class. It’s worth winding the tape back a few times to see how confidently he let the ball run through his legs to set up Wexford’s eighth point.
I don’t understand the policy of letting Paul Morris take all the closer-in frees and turning to young Jack Guiney from distance. It’s hard on Guiney.
On Saturday he didn’t get a free for 20 minutes or more. Then he missed it.
And had to think about that until the next one. Wexford only got three points from frees on Saturday. Letting Guiney take all the more missable ones is playing with his confidence a bit. Tough gig.
Whatever happens on Sunday, Wexford know two things for sure. One: they have had a great summer between their seniors and U21s. Two. They must forget the notion that they have had a good summer. They have to remember how sick and gutted they felt last year when they lost to Clare in extra-time in the qualifiers, when Antrim beat them in the U21 semi-final.
They’ve been playing every weekend for a month. Their enemy is their own heads, the danger is getting to a point where they say, ‘well nobody can complain if we lose this one’ and then give themselves permission to lose.
The highs they have had have been unreal. When they tire, they have to remember the darkness and fight it.
On Sunday, they are playing a Limerick team who have that problem. The pattern of their Munster final loss against Cork this year matches the All-Ireland semi-final loss they had to Clare last year. Didn’t play 70 minutes to the best of their ability either day. Had early chances which they missed and then gave the momentum away. And when the other team got on top, Limerick left the game mentally. They’ll have come away both days knowing they could have done better.
Those are the questions Limerick want to answer about themselves on Sunday.
Coming out of Nowlan Park last Saturday evening, I was walking towards the car when a couple of kids ran past me in Wexford jerseys, arms raised in celebration. Sticking out of one hand they each had a hurley pointing straight up in the air. The other arm just had a fist clenched at the top of it. The pair of them were just whooping as they ran. That’s all you could think to call it.
Up the road I got stuck at a roundabout in traffic I saw a gang of about 20 kids outside a big shiny McDonalds. Twenty kids with hurleys just banging sliotars around. I wished I’d taken a photo of them. In 50 years’ time I’d be showing it to people. Ah yeah, we all hurled back then too you know. They’d look and they’d ask what was that building with the big letter M.
That was McDonald’s. You should look it up. Really popular for a while.
Then I’d tell them about George and his fingers and his light sabres and swords and I’d remember the two Wexford kids streaking past me out the gap.
The great days are the ones we are living in and it took great men to dream them up...