Clare v Wexford meeting brings back memories of epic 2014 qualifier tussles

Former Wexford manager Liam Dunne on how his young side dethroned the All-Ireland champions

It may well have been Davy Fitzgerald's first time in a Wexford dressingroom and it wasn't especially pleasant for him. As Clare manager, he had gone to the opposition after a two-match epic to wish them well and urge them on in the championship.

He had just seen his team lose their All-Ireland title after extra-time in the replay of the 2014 first-round qualifier exactly seven years ago this week. On Saturday he takes Wexford this time into another round one qualifier against Clare.

Looking at the teams back then, it's striking how many players are still involved. Clare were famously a very young team when winning the All-Ireland and Wexford manager Liam Dunne had gambled on bringing in a battalion of the minors who he had trained from under-16 up.

"They won the Leinster senior two years ago [2019] and Shaun Murphy got a picture and sent it on to me. It was seven of the minors that I'd had: Mark Fanning, Matthew O'Hanlon, Harry Kehoe, Liam Óg McGovern, Diarmuid O'Keeffe, Paul Morris and Shaun Murphy. There had been 11 who made it to senior but seven were still there."


It was actually the first time in 30 years that Wexford had defeated reigning champions. Dunne’s team would be the bedrock of the side that has campaigned agonisingly close to the top of the game in the past few years.

Reflecting on that famous night in Wexford Park, Dunne recalls that the confidence to take on Clare had been forged a year earlier.

"In 2013 when they won the All-Ireland we brought Clare to extra time in Thurles. Tomás Waters suffered his career-ending injury that day, cruciate, medial ligaments and bone damage. He was down injured when they scored two points but we were close to beating them and had no fear of them the following year."

When the opportunity arose 12 months later they were ready and Dunne made sure that they were well briefed.

"I gave the lads videos of the Clare-Cork All-Ireland final from the previous year and we analysed them and knew where we had to be."

When they got to Cusack Park, however, an unpleasant surprise awaited them.

“My abiding memory of the first day down in Ennis was that our dressingroom had so much water on the floor that we couldn’t put our bags down. The Clare county board apologised afterwards.

"The second thing was that going down to Ennis, Tim Flood, Seánie's father who had won three All-Ireland medals, was getting buried that day. If there was ever going to be fight in a Wexford man coming out of a dressingroom – particularly given the state of it!"

It was an epic contest, which went to extra time and just when it looked like Clare had survived a serious assault of their title and would progress, there was a sting in the tail.

“Paul Morris scored a fantastic point with less than a minute to go to bring it to a replay,” says Dunne. “It was a ding-dong battle and tension in the crowd. The lads were ready for it. They were a young team and there are still more than half of them involved.”

A week later and the balance had shifted. Wexford were no longer complete outsiders, even if the champions remained favourites. What remains the biggest crowd to attend a match at the redeveloped Wexford Park, just over 15,000, saw another thriller.

“The next week in Wexford Park was bedlam. After what happened us in Ennis, we rolled out the red carpet for them. They were treated 100 per cent by the county board with the whole works. We said ‘we’ll beat them fair and square on the field’.

"I felt sorry for Brendan Bugler, who got sent off. I thought it was harsh on him. They were down to 13 for a while [Jack Browne got a second yellow card] but the ref evened it out I thought by disallowing a goal we scored in the second half. They were back up to 15 for extra time so we did beat them fair and square."

He looks back fondly on the occasion. “It was a good night in Wexford town – or so I’m told; I wasn’t there. We didn’t need any sweeper system to beat the All-Ireland champions. If we were going to win we just had to score more than them.”

They went on to beat Waterford that year and eventually fell to Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final. As a team they weren't done and in 2016 recorded a landmark victory over Cork – the county's first in championship since the 1956 All-Ireland.

If he has a regret it’s that he had to bring in so many youngsters immediately instead of introducing them on a more gradual basis.

“Unfortunately I had to bring in too many very young players, which isn’t ideal. Now it’s the case that we haven’t brought in enough over the past four years and we paid the price against Kilkenny because younger lads hadn’t the game time.”

This weekend's fixture, spiced as it is by the antagonism between Fitzgerald and his Clare counterpart and former team-mate Brian Lohan, will be hugely significant for both counties. Clare came out on top eight months ago when they last met in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

“This is massive,” says Dunne. “We haven’t beaten a Munster team in championship since 2016. The pressure is on Wexford this year.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times