GAA summer all the better when Wexford step up to the fight

Malachy Clerkin: County with their tails up never fail to add to the party

Wexford’s Shaun Murphy takes a free during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship semi-final against Kilkenny in Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph:  Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Wexford’s Shaun Murphy takes a free during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship semi-final against Kilkenny in Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

It has been a Wexford-flavoured weekend in this small corner of your sports section. No sooner had we digested Saturday night’s hurling epic in Croke Park than we were down the road to Wexford Park for a rollicking afternoon against the All-Ireland football champions. None of it was a hardship.

Wexford never is. At an early point in Sunday’s match against the Dubs, the PA announcer came on to apologise for the fact that the scoreboard wasn’t quite working as it should be.

This column has been in dozens of grounds with hundreds of faulty scoreboards down the years and this was the first time anyone has ever said sorry. Maybe it was down to the fact that Wexford were winning at the time and the natives might have liked to grab a photo, but even so.

'We’re Wexford men. We fight, we die, we give it absolutely everything'

That’s Wexford for you. Usually grand for a bit of weather, never too difficult a drive and, of course, the world’s least threatening accent. Seriously, how hard must it be to come across as an aggressor when you talk in such a sing-song tone? If a Wexford person ever tried to rob a bank, they’d be laughed out the door and asked if they had any strawberries.

You’d be half-thinking maybe that’s what threw Dublin off kilter yesterday. For most Dubs, Wexford means holidays, it means ice cream, it means a mobile home in Curracloe and being surprised at getting change out of 20 quid for a round. What it doesn’t tend to mean is having the lard beaten out of you every time you turn sideways with a football in your hand.

Say this much for Shane Roche’s Wexford – when they hit the Dubs yesterday, the Dubs stayed hit. People go on about Brian Fenton’s unbeaten championship streak and with good reason. But his streak of games completed without losing his rag ended here – he took grave exception to a foul by Wexford centre-forward Tom Byrne in the closing stages. We don’t usually see angry, finger-jabbing Brian Fenton in the wild. Wexford brought it out of him.

“You could see that last night with the hurlers,” said Roche proudly afterwards “That is who we are. And I suppose for the last number of years in Wexford we’ve gone away from that. We spoke an awful lot in January and February about our identity, who we want to be.

“We’re Wexford men. We fight, we die, we give it absolutely everything. So that’s first and foremost, and then on top of that you build your style of play, your gameplan. But you are not going to be able to compete with these guys if it’s just football only. You have to bring a bit of steel.”

Roche’s team got a standing ovation at the first-half water break, meeting it 0-3 to 0-2 ahead

Davy Fitz’s charge brought plenty of it on Saturday night. Their problem was they ran out of road in the end. They needed to end Kilkenny in normal time but their bucket hit the bottom of the well the longer extra-time went on. Fitzgerald was in chirpy form afterwards, gutted to have lost but beguiled, despite his protestations, to have been involved in a classic.

“I absolutely adore it. Absolutely, absolutely want to be in the thick of that. I don’t fear Kilkenny, never have, never will. I absolutely love playing against them because you’re going to get 110 per cent. I love coming up against that other man (Brian Cody). That’s what I’m about. It makes me better.

“People say to me that Brian Cody’s time with Kilkenny is up and that they need fresh blood in and x, w and z. That’s the biggest load of rubbish that I ever heard in my life. I have to say, if Kilkenny people are thinking that they need to have another look at themselves.

“What he’s done is incredible and he’s building another team again and he’s going again. He has fire and steel and determination – listen, the other teams will be delighted if Brian Cody goes. You can’t beat knowledge and experience. I probably have enough done for him now! But I love playing against him and I want to go to war against him again.”

If this is the year that it ends with Fitzgerald and Wexford – and he got a teensy bit cranky with me afterwards for bringing up such a prospect – the very least anyone can say is that the nature of Wexford-Kilkenny has completely changed under him.

In the five championship meetings between the counties before he arrived, Wexford lost by 24, 11, 19, 10 and 15 points. In the five matches during his reign, Wexford have won two, drawn one, lost one by a point and lost on Saturday night after extra-time.

“It’s been a special thing being a part of it. That Wexford v Kilkenny thing is very, very special. It’s something I will never forget in my life. Munster hurling is unreal but being part of this, I’ve seen it from both sides and that out there today was incredible. The battle we’ve had – we had one in Wexford Park a couple of years ago, a draw. We came out of the Leinster final on the right side by a goal. It’s been nip and tuck with us for a few years and I think over the last five years there’s been very little between us.

“I think it’s awesome for hurling. There was a period there when Kilkenny were winning a lot and Wexford weren’t at the table – they’re at the table, so they are. I think everybody respects that.”

Respects it and enjoys it. Wexford with their tails up in either makes any GAA summer that bit more fun. In Wexford Park, the stand rocked at times even though officially there were only 500 in the ground. Roche’s team got a standing ovation at the first-half water break, meeting it 0-3 to 0-2 ahead. They came up short in the end, obviously. But nowhere near as short as we all presumed they would.

Wexford lost both games over the weekend but if you’re a GAA person in the south east today, you’ll know in your bones you gained plenty. The journey is worth something, always.

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