Slaneysiders can hold heads up again even if their clash with Limerick ends in defeat tomorrow.
ALL-IRELAND SHC QUARTER FINAL:
Limerick v Wexford
“We can talk hurling again now”
– Wexford man overheard in the New Stand after the match last Saturday.
It was the second Sunday in June, the afternoon of the Cork/Waterford replay, and Tom Dempsey popped up in the press box in Semple Stadium, full of the joys of spring.
Now fair enough: Tom Dempsey is normally full of the joys of spring anyway, but that day he was even fuller of the joys of spring because Wexford were hosting Dublin the following Saturday and he couldn’t wait.
There’d be a huge crowd in Wexford Park, he informed us, and for the first time in aeons they’d be going there with hope — nay, with genuine optimism — in their hearts. And while Dempsey has been too long on the road to go in for making wild and whirling forecasts, he was clearly quietly confident his lads might do a job on the Leinster champions.
It didn’t happen and the next time he was sighted Tom Dempsey for once wasn’t full of the joys of spring. In fact he looked and sounded like he’d looked and sounded back in the late summer of 1993, shortly after he’d hurled in five finals in the space of two months and, God love him, won none of them. (Tom: if you’re reading, apologies for mentioning the war. Really.)
But then something did happen, something that neither Tom Dempsey nor anyone else, give or take Liam Dunne in an
extravagantly wild dream, could possibly have visualised. Having failed to unhorse the provincial champions Wexford went and by way of compensation merely unhorsed the All-Ireland champions. And now they’ve taken out two Munster teams and fetched up in the quarter-finals. The heather is blazing again.
They’re the story of the summer. They’re this season’s saffron and blue. They’re another bunch of young lads for the nation to fall in love with.
What does Dempsey ascribe this purple and gold delirium to? “A very good manager. A very good backroom team. Players who’ve achieved the standards required of them in training. And above all, character. The character to bounce back against Clare after they hadn’t done themselves justice against Dublin. I actually didn’t think they hurled badly that night, to be fair, but they were very disappointed with themselves.”
Let’s be sensible here. Wexford won’t win the All-Ireland. They won’t reach the final. They may well not reach the semi-final. But none of that matters. Not really. What does matter is that they’ve crammed a degree course’s worth of learning into the space of a couple of months. For Dunne and his men, the 2014 campaign was never just about the 2014 campaign. It was also about, because it had to be about, the 2015 and ’16 campaigns.
Next season’s Leinster championship has suddenly and improbably become the hottest ticket in town.
They’re playing more precise hurling than any Wexford team has ever played before. If that sounds a backhanded compliment, well, it’s intended to be. If you didn’t see the Wexford of the late 1980s and early 1990s, well, give thanks. These forwards, on the other hand, are running into unpopulated grass and the guys behind them, primarily Lee Chin and David Redmond, are finding the gaps with deliveries that haven’t been as neatly calibrated since Dunne himself was zapping guided missiles forward in his mid-1990s pomp.
Apropos of Chin, he resembles one of those ironmen characters who can run 26 marathons in 26 days, then balance a tractor on their chest. Last year he looked little more than a fine athlete who dabbled in hurling; this year he’s a midfield machine.
The run of matches has patently helped Chin’s striking, but one trusts Dunne has told him he has no need to shoot from distance, particularly not off his left. He’s there for other reasons.
Their game management isn’t bad either. One element of the plan for Nowlan Park necessitated preventing Kevin Moran’s upfield sallies. They restricted him to one. It produced a goal. Not a coincidence.
But there are worries for tomorrow and plenty of them. They can’t do a lot at this stage when it comes to petrol rationing, and one of these days the tank will run dry. They can’t do a lot about the weather, unhelpful to their recovery protocols. They can but pray that Keith Rossiter, a steadying influence for the youngsters around him and dreadfully missed when forced off after 27 minutes against Waterford, has recovered.
More worryingly still, when it got all squeaky-bummy in the second half last Saturday they missed a 65’ and two frees. At this stage of the championship the amateurs have been seen off and it’s 10,000 dollars into the pot, then more to see and raise. This is Vegas. Wexford hit wides like snuff at a wake against Clare but were let off the hook. Limerick, who pack more heft than the Banner and more scoring power than Waterford, will not blink.
A shame that not everyone who deserves to see this match will get to do so, yet for once it’s not anybody’s fault. If you billed it as a standalone fixture they’d come. Oh, how they’d come. Probably 40,000 of them.
It’ll be odd to see Wexford not playing in front of a full house for the first time in four weekends. The word ‘cauldron’ is wildly overused in these cases, but that’s exactly what Nowlan Park was seven nights ago and Wexford Park was seven nights before that. A cauldron, bubbling with hope and expectation and excitement and, at the end, scarcely comprehensible joy.
Sorry. Limerick’s line of form against Cork is better than Wexford’s line of form against Waterford, and every cent of fuel the Slaneysiders use brings them closer to the red line. Not that a narrow defeat after a heroic effort would be the worst of outcomes.
But whatever happens, so what? Wexford folk can talk hurling again now.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved