Ghosts of Wexford’s triumphant past stirred

Hurling nostalgia is different in a county that has had heady days but epic victory over All-Ireland champions brings back memories

Wed, Jul 16, 2014, 09:00

The ghosts of Wexford Park were stirring early on Saturday evening. An hour and a half before Saturday’s qualifier replay against Clare, the public address system was piping out Dancing at the Crossroads, the tune that soundtracked the county’s last All-Ireland in 1996 and was in itself an update of a ballad about the earlier 1968 championship success.

The biggest match crowd in the town since the ground was redeveloped 13 years ago saw a throwback to the great days. There was a young team, many of them with the strapping physiques that are most associated with the legends of Wexford hurling, never giving up and finally ousting the reigning All-Ireland champions.

Hurling nostalgia is different in Wexford. In the big counties it’s a winning tradition passed on at mostly frequent intervals from generation to generation, enabling a category of “favourite All-Irelands”.

It also differs from the pioneering model of counties like newcomers Offaly or Clare, whose 1995 success was so distant from the previous that few people if any could lay claim to having seen both.

Coincidentally, Wexford’s most recent in 1996 came 12 months after Clare had won and you could discern the difference between the victories. Clare had got up so high for their first Munster title in over 60 years that there wasn’t much room for further elevation.

Bigger thrill

People in the county actually said that the provincial win gave them a bigger thrill than the All-Ireland, if only because they were so charged during those two spell-binding months they could hardly register the additional voltage.

In Wexford, however, there was a more fretful and hungrier edge to the celebrations. This was a county that had spent 20 years or so amongst the game’s elite. Between 1955 and ’68 only Tipperary had won the Liam MacCarthy on more occasions.

The county was thrilled to win Leinster in 1996 but they badly wanted the All-Ireland. Unlike Clare, Wexford had a hurling community of a certain age that carried a sense of loss about the fall from grace and status and knew what they’d lost across the barren years since the 1960s. Liam MacCarthy would represent Paradise Regained.

Nor did that sense of historical significance escape those who were bridging the gap. Even at the glorious climax of the 1996 championship, manager Liam Griffin was able to move with enough calculating foresight despite the tightness of the final against Limerick to bring on one of his youngest replacements, Paul Codd, so Wexford would have a hurler who’d played on a winning All-Ireland team at their disposal for another 10 to 15 years.

Why is the county so popular? Maybe it’s because with their one All-Ireland in 46 years, Wexford are more happily indulged than a county like Clare with their three in the last 20. Maybe it’s because their swiftly aroused enthusiasm for the game draws the biggest crowds in Leinster hurling. But at their height in the 1950s Wexford were charismatic. They set attendance records that still stand for hurling in the finals against Cork in 1954 and ’56

According to the late Paddy Downey formerly of these pages, writing in the 1960s: “Wexford’s style brought new and dazzling colour to the game. Mostly big men they were also big hitters, enjoying the opportunity to belt the ball about, even when the prizes at stake might well have clamped cautious tactics on the urge to enjoy themselves.

“They were exponents of the game’s natural spectacle, which had often been lost in the dourness of Munster’s internal rivalry and even when Kilkenny’s stylists met Munster rivals.”

He also cited a quality that seems as old-fashioned as the late Billy Rackard’s description of All-Ireland crowds in the 1950s – “hardly any women and every car on the road was black”: sportsmanship.

Tim Flood, sadly lost to this world hardly a week before last Saturday’s great occasion, features in one example. Dublin goalkeeper Jimmy Grey recounted how Flood had charged in on goal with the ball, blocked by Grey, lying invitingly on the ground beside the prone goalkeeper’s head.

The attacker raised his stick but at the last moment simply hurdled over his opponent and into the net. “Why didn’t you take your chance,” asked a perplexed Grey later. “A goal isn’t worth a cracked skull,” came the reply.

Breakthrough victories

Liam Griffin is still involved with the team as a forwards’ coach. Chatting briefly after beating Clare, he said how important it had been for the team to win after all of the possession and chances they had enjoyed over the two matches. But all teams on the way up, like Wexford, have to spend disproportionately to secure breakthrough victories like Saturday’s.

A year ago the extra-time winners of the Clare-Wexford qualifier went on and won the All-Ireland. With no guarantee that Liam Dunne’s team can beat Waterford in three days, mentioning silverware may sound like a major leap to conclusions.

Yet over the years since 1996, and far from their heyday or realistic prospects of the MacCarthy Cup, Wexford have managed to beat teams with apparently greater momentum, including Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford as well as Kilkenny. In All-Ireland semi-finals they’ve taken Cork and Tipp to replays.

I remember after the latter draw, this newspaper’s hurling analyst and then Tipperary manager Nicky English, pausing on his way to the dressing rooms and said: “You’d take that, wouldn’t you?”

In the years since he’s always maintained that with just another couple of minutes Wexford, with Larry O’Gorman rampant at full forward, would have put paid to what became Tipp’s 2001 All-Ireland.

The ghosts of Wexford Park haven’t been easily summoned through the salty breezes and narrow, atmospheric streets of recent decades but when they are, hurling feels the presence.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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