Three days after Wexford lost to Westmeath in May a picture of Darragh Egan appeared on the front page of the Wexford People; it was a side-on shot of his face bathed in half-light against a hard, black background. “A call to arms as Wexford GAA faces its darkest hour” ran the headline. Inside, anguish and hand-wringing leaked across five pages, like an oil slick.
The blackness of the image on the front talked over the words. Mood always has a colour. The events didn’t need any dramatisation. Wexford had surrendered a 17-point lead to Westmeath, losing to them in the championship for the first time in 83 years. With just one win in the Leinster round-robin they were facing relegation to the second tier of the hurling championship for the first time.
On the following weekend Kilkenny were coming to town with looting on their minds. To survive, Wexford needed to win. How do you manage that? How do you take a team from Z to A in seven days? What does the anatomy of that week look like?
As a manager, Egan was a second-season novice. Year one had been a qualified success. Up to that point, year two had yielded two wins from nine league and championship matches. At least three of the defeats had landed on them like the anvil in the old Road Runner cartoons, flattening the coyote.
Egan needed to know first if they were still together. Two hours after the Westmeath match they gathered in the meeting room in Wexford Park. “Everyone was gone home, shocked and stunned,” says Egan, “and we sat together. We knew we were going to get absolutely slated, left, right and centre, and deservedly so.
“I said to the lads that Sunday evening, ‘You need to go to ground for the week. Social media, get rid of it. Delete Twitter, delete whatever you have, because nobody is going to help you for the week. You have to help yourself.’ We had some very honest conversations, but the most honest conversation was two hours after the final whistle. What I remember is how tight we binded the group that week.”
The most extraordinary thing about the performance against Kilkenny a week later was how they spun silk from a sow’s ear. Where were the grounds for confidence? In the league they had lost to Clare by 22 points, at home. Cork mugged them with a stoppage-time goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. In the championship they mustered nearly twice as many shots as Dublin in Croke Park, and still lost. Other defeats were more prosaic, but all of it collected like cholesterol in their veins.
Every new manager welcomes the sugar rush of a league win and Egan’s first league campaign had delivered five victories from five games in the group stages. His approach to year two, though, was deliberately different. “We just needed to develop the playing pool, and that’s what we did. I suppose I could have protected myself a lot better [with team selection] but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see a load of players, so we consciously did that.
“Now, never mind that, no matter who we had some of our performances weren’t up to it. The Clare game? We wanted to have a look at lads that day, but we were just absolutely terrible. No matter who was on the pitch we just didn’t perform and that did leave a bit of a sour taste.
“We felt we could get it going for the championship again, but it never took off. The Dublin game was a killer. I think we had 42 shots to Dublin’s 23 and we were beaten by two points. I’ll never forget it. I shook hands with Micheál Donoghue [the Dublin manager] after that game and we were just looking at each other. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘I’ll talk to you later’. He knew he was after getting out of jail. Unfortunately, our lads just pucked the game away.”
During the year they were crucified by injuries to load-bearing players: Lee Chin, Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon, Damien Reck, and others. Before the opening championship match against Galway they lost two players in the warm-up. But with any team, anywhere, only so much forgiveness is budgeted for injuries.
While I’m disappointed, I’m not one bit bitter towards the Wexford county board. They were nothing but good to me over my two years
What were they clinging to? In 2022 they had beaten Kilkenny in the championship in Nowlan Park for the first time in decades, a week after being held to a wounding draw by Westmeath. They lost pints of blood that week too.
Before the Kilkenny game, did Egan still believe he had the trust of the players? “Yeah. Definitely. I felt the players always had our back. They showed that in the Kilkenny game and they obviously spoke about it a bit after we exited the championship as well. Some of the performances that day were just ... like we had a rookie halfback line. When the chips were really down they came out swinging. It was a crazy, crazy game.”
He wanted to carry on. He believed the players wanted him to stay. He thought the county board were open to it. The dialogue suggested to him that there would be another year. Seven weeks after the Kilkenny victory, though, Egan was relieved of his duties. By a freak of circumstances, he became the first manager in the history of hurling to lose his job after beating Kilkenny in the championship two years in a row.
“I’m very into reviews and debriefs – I’m very into the CPD [continuous professional development] of coaching and how I can progress. We had a very tight-knit group. The players were very much on board. We met loads of times [after the championship ended]. We thrashed through a few things. We met Michael [Martin, Wexford chair] and the county board a few times, thrashed through a few things, and we were very much on our way to seeing what we needed to do, what we needed to fix.
“I was building a fresh back room team, which I think was needed as well. We were 90 per cent complete on that. But look, it’s a results driven business, I understand that. I suppose my only disappointment is that the county board got a small bit spooked and moved in a different direction. It was like trial by South East Radio for a few weeks.
“While I’m disappointed, I’m not one bit bitter towards them [the Wexford county board]. They were nothing but good to me over my two years.”
Egan rerouted his energy. At home in north Tipperary Kiladangan were only on the starting grid, revving their engines. Egan lives in the middle of Puckaun, one of two villages in a sprawling parish of fewer than 1,500 people. His home is next to the church and less than 100 yards from the primary school where he is principal.
When he was appointed to that job he was just 28 years of age, which followed a framing pattern in his life. He was 24 when he took over as chair of the juvenile club, around the time that he was sub goalkeeper with Tipp. He was 32 when Liam Sheedy asked him to be a Tipperary selector. He was 35 when he was offered the Wexford job. What people saw in him was a safe place for their trust.
Two months ago, when Kiladangan won their second county title in three years, Egan was part of the set-up again. After the match Alan Flynn, their captain, took a bazooka to the Tipp management for dropping a bunch of Kiladangan players last year, and he saved some fire for the Wexford county board too. “He dies for this club,” said Flynn. “He’s an unbelievable club man.”
For Egan, the club campaign was the sun kissing his face. “I couldn’t wait to get back into it. I was definitely a freer person involved with Kiladangan this year. I just felt because of that experience with Wexford in late May I was able to block out any rubbish stuff that may have impacted me in years gone by.
“I learned so much about myself that week [between the Westmeath and Kilkenny games]. I learned who I have in my support network. It’s an experience I’ll never, ever forget. I think it will transform the way I’ll approach things.”
Another chance will come. Soon.