And then there were seven.
To Nowlan Park tonight, then, for the concluding episode of a tumultuous All-Ireland qualifier phase and a fight for the middleweight championship of the south-east. (The other team in the region box is in a heavier division.) A nicely matched bout too. Like versus like. Have a glance over at the other team and it’s almost the same as looking in the mirror.
Two counties with bright young managers. Both with largely inexperienced crews, complemented by a leavening of salty old sea dogs. Both of having departed their respective provincial championships with regrets, one because they weren’t quite savvy enough to hold onto their lead, the other because they weren’t quite accurate enough to make their opponents really squirm. Both of them with, inarguably, better days ahead of them. Victory this evening will announce that in 144-point CAPITALS, bolded, and send their fans home smiling to spend the winter dreaming of still greater joys in 2015.
Reach an All-Ireland quarter-final and Waterford’s season automatically becomes a success. Wexford’s season already is a success. In fact, it is one of the stories of summer, irrespective of the outcome here. No appearance in a quarter-final since 2008 — now back, from outer space.
We predicted here on the eve of the Championship that Wexford would “take a scalp”. No need for the congratulatory telegrams; it was evident from the league that something was gently bubbling under on Slaneyside, and Liam Dunne’s increasingly upbeat pronouncements added to the impression that this was a happy camp, with everyone pulling in the same — and the right — direction.
But fair’s fair: we didn’t foresee the scalp being that of the All-Ireland champions. Nobody could have.
If he’s been blessed with the emergence of both Conor McDonald and Liam Óg McGovern — what were the odds of Wexford, of all people, producing two vibrant young forwards simultaneously? — nobody can doubt but that Dunne has crafted his own luck. He’s crafted his own team too, one that’s not even a distant cousin of last year’s edition. Remember the crowd who finished with 13 men, and it would have been 12 but for some judiciously benevolent refereeing, against Dublin in Parnell Park? That side had so many razor edges they could have carried a health warning. This year they’re model — no pun intended — citizens. Not something that their manager was often accused of being during his playing days.
His autobiography, an unusually intimate one by GAA norms, was titled I Crossed The Line, like something straight out of Johnny Cash. Dunne was a man who in fact crossed several lines, a man who’s fought more demons — off the field and on — than an overworked exorcist. Being a walking cautionary tale, one crucial quality he possesses as a consequence is perspective. Let’s face it, anyone who was sent off in three successive championships ought to be well equipped to impart a few life lessons to his players.
As well as clearly doing all the right things on the training field, he’s been saying all the right things off it. Every new game, from the visit of Kilkenny to Wexford Park for the league quarter-final March to the trip to Ennis to the hosting of Clare, is a challenge to be welcomed, an opportunity for his lads to measure themselves against the best. The positive is perpetually accentuated, the negative — well, what negative? Bearing in mind Wexford’s starting point and the length of road they’ve travelled under Dunne, there are no negatives any more.
Seeing off Clare was a signal triumph on a multiplicity of levels. Better to have won against 15 men than against 13. Better to have faced the stupefying fear of victory, and eventually overcome it, than to have coasted home. Better that their wides were largely the result of bad shooting as opposed to bad decision-making and thus more easily remediable.
While Dublin’s return to the winners’ podium last summer was widely and rightly welcomed, it is not more important for hurling that Dublin flourish than that Wexford do. After all, Dublin have the numbers, the coaches and the money: a top-down process. Wexford’s progress has been silent, organic and all the more welcome as a result. God, whatever Voltaire contended, isn’t always on the side of the big battalions. Sometimes She helps those who help themselves. What’s more, folk with long memories will welcome the emergence of Wexford’s right-corner back. Alan Cadogan may be the front runner for the Deb of the Year award but Liam Ryan from Enniscorthy can’t be far behind. Ryan is a grandson of a man who won All-Ireland medals with Wexford in 1955-56, and quite a character Tom Ryan was too. There are few more cheering sights in hurling than bloodlines refreshed.
It could yet end gruesomely for Ryan and Dunne and the rest of them. Some afternoon or evening, they’ll run out of road, they’ll run out of legs and the other crowd will go to town on them. It’ll be a horrid, painful letdown but that’s all. A letdown, not a trauma.
It’s easy to forget that Waterford are the other team on view in Nowlan Park. Having over-performed against a somnolent Cork first time out, they under-performed in the replay. No shame there and no surprise. The kind of thing that happens to a young team at the start of its curve.
Another viewing of Austin Gleeson, who was merely sensational in the drawn game and then — predictably — didn’t get a look-in next day out, is to be welcomed. The same for Tadhg De Burca, a poised and composed young defender, and also the return of Noel Connors, badly missed after being forced to retire four minutes into the second game against Cork.
And then there were seven. After tonight there’ll be six. Wexford, assuming they don’t hit the wall just yet, probably among them.
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