New Model army on the march as Wexford prepare to stand and fight
Thurles the perfect venue as four counties vie for two coveted semi-final places
Tipperary’s Brendan Maher comes under pressure from Dublin’s Ryan O’Dwyer. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
It is into the stadium of ghosts as the All-Ireland hurling season moves on to Thurles town, giddy with its own unpredictability and brilliance. At least Ireland has something to thank the absent country singer for.
With Croke Park scheduled to host a weekend of MOR ballads, Thurles was the designated venue for this year’s quarter finals. And given the intriguing matches on tomorrow’s double bill, there could be no better venue than Semple Stadium with accents from four counties bouncing around the hooded stand.
Of the four arriving counties, none will descend on Thurles in such high spirits as Wexford. Wexford are at once entirely fresh and somehow retro. Everyone had forgotten how much they missed the sight and sound of the Wexford hurlers on a roll until these last few weeks.
Forthright custodiansIt helps that Liam Dunne, one of the most forthright custodians of the 1996 extravaganza, is the manager and that he has enlisted Liam Griffin, the manager in that era, as an occasional skills coach.
It is Dunne’s show: we have heard nothing of the wonderful stream-of-consciousness evangelism with which Griffin marked Wexford’s sure-footed ascent 18 years ago.
But their reunion at training in Wexford Park and the assurance and audacious joy with which Dunne’s young team are hurling has made the county believe again.
Yes, they are fretting on the injury to Keith Rossiter, their storming defender, and yes, there is a nagging worry that Limerick have been ominously low-profile. But you enjoy these days when they come. Little wonder the request for a move to Croke Park came in.
On Saturday evening last, as they ventured south after their maintaining their form against Waterford, it must have seemed like everyone in the county would want a ticket.
Predictions that this weekend would bring a sell-out crowd seem a little previous: although the stands are full-up, tickets are available behind either goal.
To maximise their travelling support, the Wexford County Board have devised a ticket-swap scheme, encouraging people to pass their stand tickets on to elderly supporters or those with families and take a place in the terraces instead. It all adds to the atmosphere of a county rising as one.
And anxious as Wexford may be to return to Croke Park, Thurles is the perfect venue for this weekend. Limerick and Wexford play in the opening match (2.00pm). TJ Ryan’s Limerick team will use their Munster win against Tipperary, when they achieved a first victory against the Premier in Semple Stadium since 1965, as a reference point. Limerick are probably the team least spoken of in this championship and the county with most to prove.
So what of the local boys? Few teams keep their followers guessing as much as Tipperary.
Already, they are the chameleons of this hurling year, flirting with league relegation before finally falling just short of Kilkenny after extra time in a cracking spring final. Then losing at home to Limerick for the first time since 1965.
And as if that wasn’t enough teetering on the edge of the abyss in the same venue on a Saturday night qualifier against Galway...six points adrift in the second half and the house, it seemed, all but up for repossession.
And then...well, you remember. Suddenly Tipp can’t stop scoring and Lar is back stalking the plains with that long stride of his and the team is settled and dangerous –though Michael Cahill is said to be a late injury doubt.
Last standSo it is down to Anthony Daly, a man who has had days both glorious and miserable in Semple Stadium, to orchestrate what has the feel of a last stand for this Dublin team.
It doesn’t seem like all that long ago when the counties met in Thurles for a league relegation clash and Tipp won by a narrow margin. The consequences of defeat here are huge for both teams. The Dublin hurling era under Anthony Daly has been about passion and possibility. At the outset of the year, there was vague talk of Dublin as viable double All-Ireland contenders. That vision looks fanciful now but Daly and Dublin have made a habit out of escaping from adverse situations.
You could flick a coin for both of these matches. And somewhere in the stands, Kilkenny’s Brian Cody and Cork boss Jimmy Barry Murphy will be in the crowd, keenly watching the exchanges, and maybe just being swept along by the collision of four counties desperate to stay on at the party.