THEY were the two Cinderella stories of this year’s provincial championships, Wexford and Fermanagh, each of them reaching their respective finals.
Didn’t have any fairytale ending, however. Fermanagh at least had the consolation of putting it up to Armagh in a big way, in the first game especially, but Wexford — well, a 3-23 to 0-9 scoreline is more typical of a one-sided hurling match and represents an even heavier defeat than that suffered by the Wexford hurlers in their Leinster final loss to Kilkenny (5-21 to 0-17).
So, what happened to Wexford against the Dubs? How did a team that had been unbeaten this year in league and championship, with morale-boosting wins over Meath and Laois, collapse so badly against Dublin, go from four points down at the break to losing by 23?
Manager Jason Ryan (a Cinderella story himself: first-year manager, fresh from playing with his native Waterford and only 31) does his best to explain.
“Dublin got a great start to the second half, we weren’t able to live with it and that was it. Sometimes when a team gets on a roll like that, especially if you hadn’t beaten them for a long time, and Wexford hadn’t beaten Dublin for so, so long; when they do get a head start on you then it’s very hard to get it back.”
The damned Kilkenny/Wexford hurling syndrome transferring to the footballers then, except in this case it’s Dublin/Wexford. Nevertheless this one is tougher to explain. Whereas hurling expectations weren’t very high, Wexford had been playing superb football this year, had enjoyed several very good wins. A talented side, they are good at the back, strong in midfield, and no longer a one-trick pony up front; Matty Forde now getting plenty of scoring assistance from the likes of Red Barry and Ciarán Lyng.
They were huge underdogs going into the Leinster final, yes, but no-one saw this train coming, certainly not Jason Ryan: “They had been playing good football, we won big games where we played well rather than the opposition playing poorly. They even played well in the first-half against Dublin, but the second half performance just wasn’t good enough.”
From his vantage point on the line, Jason was practically helpless to intervene.
“On the day it was a nightmare, you couldn’t get messages anywhere, the noise levels were absolutely crazy. I had anticipated that it was going to be difficult but not to that extent. I had players standing a few feet from me and they couldn’t hear me shouting at them; then you have your runner but he can only get to a certain number of people quick enough, so when you’re trying to make changes, alterations to the gameplan, it was an absolute nightmare. That in itself was a bit of a learning curve.”
First the crash, the carnage, then the challenge — what do you do to recover? What can you salvage from the wreckage?
Today in Croke Park Wexford take on Down in the final qualifying round, a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at stake — what has Jason Ryan done to get belief back into his team? Not a lot, he says, because he didn’t have a lot to do.
“In the two weeks we’ve had since that game it’s been easy to pick ourselves up because Wexford haven’t been in an All-Ireland football quarter-final before, so that in itself is a great motivation. Maybe other counties, having lost a provincial final, mightn’t have the same motivation to go on, but for us this is another huge occasion, another huge opportunity.”
As before the Leinster final, and in huge part because of their performance in that game, Wexford are being given little chance against Down, yet a line through this year’s form sees Wexford beating Down in the league last March, 2-8 to 0-9 — in Wexford Park admittedly. But Wexford also accounted for Laois in Leinster on an 0-18 to 0-10 scoreline, while Down struggled against Laois last time out, pipped them at the post, 2-18 to 1-19.
Why this lack of respect, then, for Wexford? “That suits us just fine,” says Jason, “We’ve been written off for most of the year and we’re quite happy from that position. But Down have won two games on the trot, they’re going to be coming into this with great confidence.
“For our guys, we’re going to have to move on from our little blip, try to replicate the second-half performance against Meath, or the second-half performance against Laois.”
Bad news for Jason and Wexford this week however, was the red card rescinded for Down’s Dan Gordon, sent off against Laois. Perhaps if Dan had stayed on the field Down would have had a far easier passage, turned the form line back in favour of the men from the north. Or perhaps not — who knows, says Jason.
“It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen from one game to the next, with so many teams so evenly matched nowadays. It’s all on the day — a little bit of luck, who gets the goal, at what juncture, can a team push on from it, how much is a team hurt by it — all those factors come into play, it’s how teams deal with it.”
Well, Wexford didn’t deal with it very well on July 20; they now get another opportunity. Their hurlers raised their game hugely after their loss, losing by just a point against Jason’s native Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but went down with honour.
This time, Wexford will be looking for a little more, which in turn would mean a lot more.
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