Liam Griffin hopeful Wexford are getting closer to the heady heights of 1996
Former Model County manager believes cynical fouling needs to be cracked down on
Liam Griffin is hoisted aloft after Wexford won the All-Ireland in 1996. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Liam Griffin is in characteristically good form. He’s had a knee replacement operation and that is settling nicely.
“It’s like Ned Wheeler said to me when he got his hip done. He said it’s that good that although there’s nothing wrong with the other one, he’d get it done anyway!”
His Laochra Gael programme is the last one in the current series and he is aware of the timing for Wexford hurling: 26 years since the glorious summer of 1996 when the future was one of endless possibility - just two years shorter than the gap that team closed all the way back to 1968, which seemed like an eternity.
Did he think that it would be this long again?
“No, not in my wildest dreams did I think that. For me, I thought that after ‘96 we would kick on. Maybe it wasn’t realistic when you look back on it because we had some of the really good players who were already in their early 30s.
“So, we probably didn’t dwell on that an awful lot, or enough really, but it is disappointing. A son of mine, Rory, he actually wrote a study on Wexford hurling, and earlier this year he sent me it, ‘it won’t be long now till 28 years,’ - that’s all he put on it.”
He believes that prospects are better for Wexford now than in 1996 because the county is better geared towards player development. New county chair Micheál Martin has done a lot of work at Croke Park level to untangle the knots at underage levels nationally.
“So hopefully we are going to get up there. Hurling needs Wexford and I really believe that. And we need Offaly. We need everybody but hurling certainly needs Wexford.”
Is it possible that someone could emulate Griffin’s achievement by bringing a team from effectively nowhere to winning an All-Ireland?
“Unlikely I would say,” he replies. “We worked a lot on sports science. We went through the whole year without having a pulled muscle. We worked very carefully on what we tried to do because we were not Brian Cody and Kilkenny, we did not have the riches they have.
“We put in a good system. Everyone was fit and we did a whole list of things to see if we could bridge the gap. We wrote down things that we could do. Why couldn’t we be the fittest team in Ireland? Why couldn’t we be the best hookers and blockers in Ireland? Why couldn’t we do all the heavy lifting and workman-like team? Why couldn’t we be the most disciplined team in Ireland?
“We put a lot of effort into getting that right and we brought in a sports psychologist as well because I was trying to do that and obviously I am not a professional. We tried to give ourselves every chance but if you did that today you would be matched by other people who are doing exactly the same.”
The game has also changed, he says, “. . . possession has become paramount. A lot of the hurling is very good, I’m not saying it’s not - I wouldn’t have minded playing in this era myself - but the cynical fouling is an issue.
“It is not good enough because in 2019 the All-Ireland was 26 matches and the teams that won the most, fouled the most and that is just an underlying symptom of cynical fouling.
“The scrums, the rucks, ground hurling going out of the game - it’s evolved. Some of it is very good and some of it is not so good as a spectacle but overall the players are good, the skills are good. The absence of goals is an issue and takes a bit of excitement out of the game.
“Some of the shooting is spectacularly good, but having an extra man means a lot of loose play as well. You have loose men popping up in places, as happened in the All-Ireland final last year.”
He has plenty to say on other topical issues. An early backer of the Club Players’ Association, he is content that their work as a lobby group ‘to fix the fixtures’ is now done - with a little help from the pandemic.
“We were completely volunteers. We weren’t looking for anything except to get the fixtures fixed. That was it. But for Covid it wouldn’t have happened in my opinion. We would have written to every county board at one stage, every single county board to say this is what we’re trying to do. We never got a single reply. Not one. That was disappointing.
“There’s no triumphalism from anyone on our side. That’s it and we walked away when we said we would - when the fixtures were fixed.”
A successful hotelier and businessman, he is adamant that the GAA need to deploy their huge asset base to raise funds by borrowing.
“What I don’t want to see is that we’re trying very hard in Wexford to keep a very good structure at underage and letting coaches go when you could borrow money and do some sort of a deal on it. I think that would be to undermine the game when it’s already being undermined. You don’t do a double undermining - that’s not a great management policy!”
*Liam Griffin will feature in the sixth and final episode of the latest Laochra Gael series, on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30 pm.