Every year it seems to suffer one battering after another, either at semi-final or final stage – could this debacle in Croke Park yesterday be the death-knell?
The irony is that this was one of those games where hurling supporters actually had a little hope that maybe, just maybe, something different was about to happen. Just over two months ago these two had met in the National League semi-final, Wexford spirits rising after a rousing win over Galway in the quarter-final on the previous weekend; Kilkenny gave them a pasting, 2-22 to 2-7, but the feeling was that Wexford were caught on the hop, unprepared, were still on too much of a high.
They would learn from that, went the wisdom; with John Meyler in charge, one of their own but one who knew life from the outside, one who knew life primarily as a winner as both player and manager, they would really be ready for the Leinster final. Patently, they were not.
Wexford were the ones who needed the fast start, the early goal; they got it, but unfortunately for them, it was an own goal, Willie O’Dwyer’s shot deflected past the helpless Damien Fitzhenry by full-back Declan Ruth, putting Wexford ahead 1-0 to 0-1 in the fourth minute. Didn’t get any better for Declan or for Wexford; just over five minutes later, Kilkenny captain Henry Shefflin, lining out at full-forward, beat the veteran Ruth with hurling’s equivalent of a nutmeg, flicking the ball over the full-back’s head, collecting it on the drop before hand-passing to the lurking O’Dwyer – goal number two for Willie and for Kilkenny.
We could go on to describe the remainder of this game at length, but we’ll spare you the gory details. Suffice to say that with the Wexford forwards making absolutely no impression on a completely dominant Kilkenny defence, with Martin Comerford winning puck-out after puck-out for the Cats and with Henry having one of those days where he’s just a treat to watch this became a procession, one well-fashioned Kilkenny point after another.
Only Eoin Quigley, defenders Richie Keogh, Keith Rossiter, Mal Travers and Paul Roche, along with keeper Damien Fitzpatrick, emerged with any honour, but even their best efforts weren’t enough to step the rising Kilkenny tide. 2-11 to 0-6 it was at the break, 2-15 to 0-6 four minutes after the restart. Double-score defeat for Wexford at the finish, the 15 point loss of a few months ago duplicated – no wonder John Meyler was so disappointed at the end.
The walls of dressing-rooms under the Hogan Stand are thick, pretty well sound-proofed, but still they couldn’t contain the anger in Meyler’s voice as he vented his spleen afterwards. It was more than anger, in fact; this was anguish, this was pain, this was humiliation, and if his players weren’t already feeling bad enough, Meyler’s tirade would surely have cut to the core.
“I hope ye didn’t have the recorders on” he said, when told that we had overheard what he said; we didn’t, nor would it be fair to make public here what was obviously meant to be private. Still, what Meyler did say, on the record, gives a flavour of his emotion, the depth of his pain.
“Are ye going to have a field day off me?” he began – “Give it to me straight,” he said before then proceeding to give it straighter than many a manager for many a day. The bulk of his quotes are elsewhere on these pages but pride was at its core, the kind of pride that was sorely lacking in this performance yesterday.
“We’re better than that but Kilkenny smothered us, they won’t let you off. The game was over at half-time, we were 11 points behind, the game was over. The same in the league semi-final, they smothered us again; you have got to stay up with them, you have got to mark them, but their touch was superb. They’re going, moving with the ball – the ball is played into Shefflin, he’s gone, there’s another man gone outside him. I said we’d compete; I go out in all games to win, that’s my nature, that’s what I want to do, but that’s not good enough. We didn’t compete in terms of speed, touch or strength. In the first-half we had six or eight shooting chances which we didn’t take – you need to take all of those when you’re playing Kilkenny. It was the same with Dublin yesterday against Cork, they were five points down at one stage, needed to score, had two or three wides. You need to be taking those against Cork and Kilkenny.”
Indeed you do, but then again, Kilkenny were just as profligate as Wexford yesterday, 14 wides for Wexford against 13 for the Cats. No, this wasn’t just about not missing chances, this was about something bigger. The sad fact is that Kilkenny have built up such a winning record in Leinster, have pulverised teams so regularly and so mercilessly, that the likes of Offaly and Wexford, their two most recent rivals in the province, are beaten almost before the throw-in. Like it or not there is a culture of defeat now in both those counties when Kilkenny are the opposition — at senior level at any rate.
Meyler, though neither likes nor accepts that proposition. “We need to sit down and look at that, cut out this thing about defeat or pessimism, we need to look at ourselves and get it back right, get Wexford back to where they were even a few years ago, 2004 and that performance. There are good hurlers in there, they’re not going to be bad hurlers overnight. It’s my job to pick them up and if I can’t, I should be kicked out, simple as that.
“We used the league semi-final defeat to call on pride, we trained really hard that week. The expectation levels went through the roof after beating Galway but we didn’t perform against Kilkenny that day. They had found out a few weaknesses, we said right, we fix A, B, C and D, but then we come along today and they open up X, Y and Z. It’s hard to take, it’s hard to look at, but I’ve got to get it right for three weeks time, the players have got to get it right and if we don’t, are we looking at Kilkenny and Cork every year?”
I’m afraid, John, very much afraid, that on the evidence of this game, we are. The one hope in Leinster, Dublin had a convincing and well-deserved minor win over Kilkenny. What odds, however, that Kilkenny learn from that, come back stronger? Made for depressing viewing, this final.