Twenty years ago, Wexford lit up the hurling summer and Tom Dempsey remembers every step of a magical journey, writes Enda McEvoy
By the end of the year, he was dancing at the crossroads like the rest of the county. He was a Leinster medallist, an All-Ireland medallist, the scorer of the decisive goal in the final and an All Star.
Possibly more importantly still, he’d been a guest of the RTÉ children’s programme Echo Island along with Dustin the Turkey and was also the possessor of a plaque entitling him to “free coffee for the rest of his life” in Murphy Flood’s hotel in Enniscorthy. A weird and wonderful time.
Getting to the crossroads in the first place — well, that had been quite another job for Tom Dempsey. He’d been off the team at the start of the season. He’d been off the team for the first round of the championship against Kilkenny. He hadn’t been seeing eye to eye with Liam Griffin, and for a while he laboured under the delusion that this was a battle he could win. (Such naivety.) “I kind of felt the world was on my back and would have walked, but for the support of some good friends. Fintan Farrell, Aidan O’Connor, and Mick Kinsella, the then county secretary.”
Around then, something happened off the field that put Dempsey’s hurling woes into context. His brother in law Niall Glynn, a wonderful friend and a very knowledgeable hurling man, died in an accident. It was a terrible tragedy for Niall’s wife Susan and young son Michael, and it shook Tom Dempsey as well. It couldn’t but have shaken him. When eventually he came to try and rationalise the situation, clarity dawned. He just had to knuckle down and carry on. He did.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster, 1996. Everything that happened. By the end of the year, I had an All-Ireland medal and was an All Star. There’s a lesson there for every player. Things can change very quickly. You don’t know how close you are to success before you give up.”
In a sense Dempsey’s entire career had been a rollercoaster up to that. Most of the time the rollercoaster was wheezing uphill rather than swooping downwards. He played in an All-Ireland colleges final for St Peter’s against St Flannan’s: St Peter’s lost. He appeared in an All-Ireland U21 final against Joe Cooney’s Galway: Wexford lost. He made his National League debut at the age of 19 against Kilkenny in Callan: Wexford lost. He made his championship debut against Laois the following summer. Wexford — oh go on, you can probably guess this one yourself. In the space of a couple of months in 1993, he appeared in five finals — the National League three-parter against Cork and the two-part Leinster decider with Kilkenny — and won none.
How did he keep going? Quite easily, it seems. “We always felt we had a chance. The big problem was that the championship was a one-shot thing at the time and we always ended up playing Kilkenny or Offaly — who were winning All-Irelands. We might have been the second-best team in Ireland some of those years but it was no good to us. Offaly were the real problem. Against Kilkenny, we could hurl. Against Offaly, we couldn’t. They stopped you hurling.”
True, he did win an All-Ireland club title with Buffers Alley in 1989, alongside a 43-year-old youngster called Tony Doran. But his good club form was actually part of Dempsey’s problem. While he was skilful and stylish and accurate, he was frequently accused of putting it in more for Buffers Alley than for Wexford. The other part of the problem was that Dempsey didn’t look like a typical Wexford hurler. He wasn’t big or bustling or roguish or formidable in the air, and being the cerebral type he was probably a better midfielder than a forward. If anything he resembled a Kilkenny hurler more than a Wexford hurler, and that wasn’t a blessing.
One year, they tried Cyril Farrell as manager. It made no difference. “He was very very good but he inherited the psychological ailments we had. He was tough too. I broke my cheekbone in a club match 12 days before we were due to meet Laois. ‘If you’re tough enough you’ll play,’ he told me. I played.”
And then there was 1993. Had it not been for 1996, the pathologists would find 1993 engraved on Dempsey’s heart when he dies. The Semple Stadium saga with Cork had brought Wexford to concert-pitch for the Leinster final. Facing the reigning All-Ireland champions, Kilkenny’s best team in 10 years, they hurled hard and hurled beautifully and led by four points with six minutes remaining. Had they been as psychologically sound as they would be in 1996, they’d have won, Dempsey sighs.
“Kilkenny stayed calm and picked us off, point by point. Ollie Walsh was eating a piece of grass on the sideline, not a bother on him. Wexford, we were busy making changes for the sake of it when all we need to do was stay going as we were.” Eamon Morrissey levelled it in injury time with a point from the end of the world, Kilkenny having worked the sliotar up the field with coolness and precision: Pat Dwyer to Liam Simpson to Bill Hennessy to Adrian Ronan to Morrissey. There was only going to be one winner in the replay. Another sigh from Dempsey: Kilkenny crushed Antrim in the All- Ireland semi-final, with Galway and Tipperary on the other side of the draw.
“It was set up for us to win. And had we won that All- Ireland I honestly believe we’d have won two or three.” So there he was at the start of the 1996 championship. Aged 31. A member of a team three years past its best. Veteran of four Leinster final defeats. Beginning to hear the soft tick of a clock not too far away. Not getting on with Liam Griffin, which wasn’t good either. Dempsey’s stubbornness cut absolutely no ice with Griffin, who was far more stubborn and just happened to be the boss. This was a fight Dempsey was never going to win, although it took a while for the penny to drop. “Liam was magnificent and he was lucky. He’ll smile when he sees me say that.”
Due to Paul Codd’s broken leg, Dempsey found himself on the team for the provincial semi-final against Dublin. There he would stay. Then came the day of the Leinster final. It was the afternoon into which all of Griffin’s plans and ideas — some of them commonsensical, some of them plucked from left field — had been poured. The tactical and coaching nous of Rory Kinsella and avuncular manner of Seamus Barron, his two selectors.
The psychology sessions with Niamh Fitzpatrick. The accessibility and expertise of Stephen Bowe, the team doctor, and the attention to detail of Pat Murphy, the kitman. The boxing with Sean Collier, a national kickboxing champion. John O’Leary’s match statistics, O’Leary being a mild mannered, opera-loving solicitor whose stats routinely and irritatingly fingered Dempsey for shooting from improbable angles in the corner.
This was the day they did go over from the corner for Dempsey, the day they went over from all distances for Larry Murphy. The day that Wexford finally truly believed.
“We believed every year. But when it came down to putting Kilkenny away in the last few minutes, we weren’t able to, whereas against Offaly in 1996 we went from three points up with five minutes left to winning by eight points. Total belief.
“And total relief. I was 31. I came from a club that lived for hurling, from a family that lived for hurling. My father Ger was wonderfully fanatical. I was institutionalised. My fear was that all of this was just going to fizzle out and I’d never win an All-Ireland. That was one of my biggest motivational factors.”
Beating Offaly changed everything, both within themselves and around them. At long last, they were winners. At long last they were in an All-Ireland series. At long last they were hurling in August. They were able to work on tactics, which they’d never had the chance to do before. So there were formations for long-range frees and formations for puck-outs and dummy runs and gaps and avenues and balls laid off to runners, and there was a drill for Rory McCarthy to come steaming through down the right and get a shot on goal. It was new and it was refreshing and it was good.
And against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, McCarthy did come steaming through down the right and did get a shot on goal and sent the rigging billowing. And now they were into an All- Ireland final and training took on a life of its own.
“People talk about Kilkenny’s training sessions. Well, that year I was being marked in training by the likes of Shane Carley and Jim Byrne. Same thing.”
One night leading up to the All-Ireland semi-final, the ball dropped between George O’Connor and Tomás Codd. The two of them started pulling. For what seemed like five minutes they continued pulling. The sliotar didn’t move an inch. Dempsey spent most of his time in training marked by Colm Kehoe. After learning to cope with Kehoe — “the tightest corner-back in the country” — he had no doubts he’d perform in the final.
One last hitch remained. Seanie Flood’s shin. Seanie was popular. Seanie was Wexford hurling royalty, the son of the Tim Flood. But Seanie had received a belt in the closing stages against Galway and he still wasn’t right.
The morning of the final they had a meeting in the Stillorgan Park Hotel. Griffin, “who was brilliant at gauging the temperature of a situation”, left the last word to Seanie. Seanie, who played guitar and loved AC/DC, wasn’t a man of many words. But now he found exactly the right words. “You never know what an opportunity you have in life until it’s taken away from you.”
That was all he said. That was all he had to say. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Every player walked by him, tapped him on the shoulder and walked out to the bus.
Midway through the first half Dempsey scored the only goal. The sliotar broke his way on the right-hand side of the edge of the square. “I always saw myself as a midfielder but I was nifty enough around the goal and was good at reading a breaking ball. I was always trying to get a tap-in. I intended to put it in the top corner. I went to get a full contact. It spun off my hurl and wrongfooted poor Joe Quaid. A lucky stroke. It was probably the only way he was going to be beaten that day.”
That it was by and large an ageing Wexford team explains not only why they 1996 wasn’t repeated but also why it occurred in the first place. “Maturity. It helped us. I think there was a general realisation the chance might not come again. I felt we deserved for it to happen. Wexford had entertained people, entertained hurling, for years. What also helped was that Rory McCarthy and Garry Laffan went from being fringe players to becoming first-teamers. New faces. New impetus. The one sad part was that guys like Jimmy Holohan and Sean Whelan and John Conran and Eamon Cleary, who I’d hurled with for years, were gone by then.”
Not that Dempsey lost the run of himself afterwards. He was at work in the bank a few weeks later when a young lad came in with his autograph book. “You’re Tom Dempsey. You played in the All-Ireland final.” Dempsey nodded, flattered, and was reaching to sign the book when the young lad continued: “You wouldn’t be able to do me a favour and get Martin Storey’s autograph, would you?”
Two decades later 1996 remains “a good conversation opener”. Still, he’d like Wexford to be able to move on. He hopes that on Sunday they’ll take another step. He admires the current generation. The tactics, the training, the commitment, the effort. Yet are they knocking as much enjoyment out of it as he did? He hopes so but isn’t so sure.
Wexford’s 1996 adventure in a word? He offers two. “Some laugh.” They were dancing at the crossroads. Some part of Tom Dempsey always will be.
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