Working the miracle: 25 years on from Wexford’s monumental All-Ireland win

 George O’Connor is carried from the pitch after Wexford’s All-Ireland win over Limerick at Croke Park in 1996. Photograph: Frank Miller

Liam Griffin never wanted the Wexford job. He was keen on the role of minor manager and declared his interest but, having been unsuccessful in his bid, he carried on with life without much of a fuss. No hard feelings.

A short time later, and with a dearth of interest in the then vacant senior role, Griffin got a call from the committee tasked with finding a new manager. He initially said no but the committee were persistent and asked for permission to talk in person. He invited them into his home, even if his mind wasn’t for changing. He had no intention of taking the job. It was simply a matter of showing courtesy to fellow GAA people.

“I never applied for it and I was never going to apply for it,” remembers the former Wexford manager.

“I said to them, ‘You want me to do it, but why don’t you goddamn do it? Give me the minor job and you take the senior job. See if I can get a few hurlers for the future.’”

The battle of wits continued for a period until both sides realised they were getting nowhere. The search for a Wexford manager would continue and the committee got up and headed for the door. But just as they made their exit, John Quigley, one of the committee members, threw a comment over his shoulder, casting a final line in the hope of hooking their man.

“We may get an outsider,” he told Griffin.

That was all that was needed to drastically alter the path of Wexford hurling. Griffin was caught. The rest is history.

“Red rag to a bull and they knew that, I suppose. And I was true to my word and stood up to the plate. I didn’t want an outsider to go in because in my own subconscious I must’ve felt what outsider was going to have the feel for this job.

“I’ve nothing against Davy [Fitzgerald] and I wish him all the best. This was at the time when I was asked.

“In hindsight, ours was a deeper problem than just hurling. We needed to get over a lot of stuff and I’m not so sure an outsider would’ve felt that.”

Nobody knew it at the time, perhaps not even the new manager, but Wexford hurling was about to head out on a journey that would bring them from the midst of mediocrity to the promised land and through no shortage of setbacks over the course of two seasons.

If the Rosslare man was going to take on the role though, he was going to do it his way, with the people he wanted around him, personalities he could see were immersed in the game throughout various levels. Rory Kinsella and Séamus Barron came aboard as selectors while Seán Collier was appointed as the team’s trainer and John O’Leary as their statistician. Later on in the county’s journey, Niamh Fitzpatrick came into the picture as a sports psychologist in what is now regarded as an exceptionally shrewd move by Griffin at a time when sports psychology would’ve been considered by many as no more than snake oil.

It was a risky move, some players felt, wary of the image it would portray. But nobody outside of the panel would know of Fitzpatrick’s existence. By the time Martin Storey lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in September 1996, the public were still in the dark. In his victory speech, she was referred to as the team’s “special friend”. Before Fitzpatrick ever came into the fold though, Griffin had to shovel his way through a mountain of dashed dreams, underachievement and scepticism, borne out of years starved of glory days

The first season was a write-off. Griffin was insulted on the sideline. Fellow Wexford people spat at him. The players were viewed as an embarrassment to the jersey. Criticism was ubiquitous – on the street, in the pub, in the paper, in the stands.

“He held up, at one stage, two letters from the same guy, ironically 12 months apart,” recalls Larry Murphy. “One of them said: ‘Liam Griffin, you’re a disgrace. You’ve brought Wexford to a new low yadda yadda yadda.’ 12 months later, it was: ‘Liam Griffin, you’re the messiah of Wexford hurling.’

Wexford manager Liam Griffin celebrates the victory over Limerick in the 1996 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Wexford manager Liam Griffin celebrates the victory over Limerick in the 1996 All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“So it’s a fine line between a kick in the arse and a pat on the back. I thought Liam inspired us to be better than what we were and that’s what we needed at the time. He brought a very ordinary team to Mount Everest. He dragged them the whole way up on his back because he had the vision to do it.”

But the criticism festered throughout the 1995 season, coming to the boil at the onset of the Liam Dunne affair, the controversy which saw the Wexford captain lining out for his club the week before the county lost to Offaly in the Leinster championship, leaving the manager with no option but to strip him of captaincy. As a result, Griffin ended the season with his job in the balance. By the end of September, as Clare were still celebrating their All-Ireland success, everything had changed on Slaneyside. Griffin had ridden out the turbulence.

The epiphany may have occurred at different junctures for different players, but they were all under the spell within those early pre-season training sessions in September 1995. For Murphy, the switch flicked for him as he stood in the dressingroom of Wexford Park with his manager.

“He brought me into a dressingroom and said, ‘If you do what I tell you, I’ll turn you into an All Star.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you: don’t question it, just do it.’

“I think that was a hugely brave statement to make. You can’t control that.”

And true to his word, Griffin had helped Murphy claim an All Star by the end of the following season.

Meanwhile, the real foundations for success were being laid in a small gym in Wexford Town, a clammy box jammed with perspiring bodies who were beginning to realise that something new was brewing within the group.

“It wouldn’t have been a great gym now for Covid restrictions,” jokes Damien Fitzhenry.

“Guys were nearly on top of one another. You’d be doing your weights and the next minute there’d be a lad down in front of you doing press-ups.”

“It was a gym that you would imagine in downtown Chicago or the Bronx,” says Griffin.

“Loud music. Steam-filled room. Sweat everywhere. Honest to God, I think it would be condemned by the health authorities. The atmosphere in that place was magic. Magic!

“You could sense that we were going to do something. We were going to achieve a lot more than we would have previously achieved. But we didn’t know how far it was going to go.”

The side were ready for road by the time the league came around, having slogged through the autumn and winter, the gym bringing increased levels of stamina with the work in Wexford Park adding another layer of steel.

They felt ready for whatever was coming. Little did they know, however, that Griffin would be among those throwing challenges their way.

The 1996 league campaign would become his own personal laboratory where he would experiment with the players, honing neglected skills ahead of the merciless tempo of the championship. Ger Cushe was taken out of full back and placed at centre-half back. Liam Dunne spent some time further back the field at corner back. And perhaps in the most surprising move of all, Fitzhenry was taken out of goal and deployed at wing back.

Larry Murphy celebrates Wexford’s All-Ireland win in 1996. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Larry Murphy celebrates Wexford’s All-Ireland win in 1996. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

“That was Liam,” Fitzhenry says. “He’ll tell you that he was trying to speed Ger Cushe up, trying to put the shackles on Liam Dunne in at corner back so when he got out he would be more expressive and would hurl the way he could hurl at centre back.

“And the method behind his madness with me, I believe, was to speed up my reactions to get me faster. It probably worked out well for him.

“The boys asked me if I was interested in playing out the field and at that stage I said, ‘Look, I’ll try hurl wherever you want me to hurl.’ That’s the way I was. There was no such thing as saying, ‘Sure if it doesn’t work out I’ll just go back in goal.’

“What’s for you won’t go by you and if it had happened that year that I lost my place, so be it.

“I got a roasting from Joe Rabbitte in the league semi-final and that finished my tenure out the field.”

It was all part of a greater plan that Griffin only revealed to the wider squad when he believed the time was right.

“He was always going back in goal for the championship,” insists Griffin. “We knew all the matrices we needed to hit and if we hit those matrices we had a great chance.”

And so they made it through the league, with more questions than answers for those looking in, but they knew that they were in a more positive place than they had been a year earlier. Everyone had bought into Griffin’s unorthodox methods, Fitzpatrick had now introduced the players to a whole new area of preparation and performance and the players were feeling physically ready for the sides that had historically made them feel like cannon fodder in the past.

First up was Kilkenny, a side Wexford hadn’t beaten since 1988. A Billy Byrne goal ensured they survived, albeit with scope for improvement.

They breezed past Dublin before setting up a Leinster final encounter with Offaly, a side they hadn’t beaten since 1979, and, for all intents and purposes, this had the look of their All-Ireland final. Wexford won and the county erupted.

No period in the history of the game has produced as many yarns to have gone down in folklore as the ’90s. And arguably no side has created as many generation-defining moments as the Wexford side that season. There’s the well-documented story of Griffin removing his players from the bus en route to the Leinster final to walk across the county border outside Scarnagh. A few days later, he gathered the players in the middle of Wexford Park and asked the team how many All-Ireland semi-finals they were guaranteed to contest. Then, summoning the spirit of Tony D’Amato, he asked the players if they were satisfied with just a Leinster title.

Before the All-Ireland final against Limerick, he brought the panel to a local beach where he set them up in military tents to undergo one last mental and physical examination together and the emotional setting for Seanie Flood’s famous speech, just before the side left the hotel for Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday, after Flood had succumbed to injury and missed out on playing in the biggest game of his career.

So plentiful are those moments that have claimed an almost mystical status that many other moments have been almost forgotten, remembered occasionally by those centrally involved that season.

“Before every match when we were going up to Dublin we’d watch a video of Braveheart and we’d just fast forward to the battle scene,” says Murphy.

“There was one of the matches, I can’t remember which one it was, when we were in the new dressingroom under the Cusack Stand and I looked around; every player was down on one knee with their hurl like a sword. And Liam was praying over us like a preacher.

Liam Griffin pictured in 2019 at a Club Players’ Association press conference. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Liam Griffin pictured in 2019 at a Club Players’ Association press conference. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“It was like we were going to war. I thought, ‘Wow, this is Braveheart. This is awesome.’ I never thought we’d lose. We were walking on air.”

“I would say 99 per cent of [those moments] would be meticulously planned,” says Fitzhenry. “The odd one may be off the cuff but he had everything down, every I dotted and T crossed’. It was amazing.

“It took all of them for us to get over the line. He needed to get them all in – all in the one year.”

But for all motivational speeches and meticulously planned interventions, the dressingroom on the day of the All-Ireland final was a calm place. This had become the Wexford way. They had already processed all the words they needed. They had eaten from Griffin’s hand. All that was left was the matter of hurling.

“I know we didn’t start well but if we had been pent up and had nervousness in us, jumping around and all that, we’d probably have been further behind,” says Fitzhenry. “We didn’t use that much energy in the first few minutes. And it was after that when it settled down a bit.”

“Everyone had their own place to sit in the dressingroom. Everyone had their own routine.”

There was little need for antics when everything had gone according to plan, bar the inclusion of 37-year-old George O’Connor in the starting XV ahead of the injured Flood. O’Connor had been a substitute all year and knew the curtain was coming down on his own career, but as Flood came to terms with his own situation, O’Connor was always going to be the man to step in.

Griffin says: “I talked to George beforehand and said: ‘George, on Sunday after the All-Ireland final, let this be your last game of hurling. You’ve nothing to prove. You put your flag on top of the mountain and you walk off. You could go out in a club match and undermine what you’ve done.’”

“He was a tough, hardy boy and he pulled fairly hard. He wasn’t dirty but, by Christ, if you were near him you’d still get a slap off a hurl. His hands are in bits. He’d never put a hurl up to save his hands. He took some hammerings for that on his hands. His fingers are twisted and there’s knots all over the place.”

The defining image from that year’s final was one of O’Connor at the final whistle, sunk to his knees with his hands clasped in prayer, came to terms with the overwhelming emotions that must come with the territory of winning the game’s greatest prize in your very last game.

Later that night though, Murphy can remember gazing across a room at the post-match banquet to where O’Connor was sitting, alone with his thoughts, a cigarette in one hand and half a pint of Guinness in the other, oblivious to the room and world around him.

“He was sitting back with his feet up on the table and he was looking up into the ceiling,” Murphy says. “I said to myself, I wonder what the man is thinking. It was surreal.”

Still, the journey had yet to reach its conclusion. The next morning, as the players prepared to head back down the road to a world of chaos in the southeast, Griffin summoned one final meeting, gathering all the players into a room at their hotel. With the scale of their achievement finally beginning to land, Griffin’s words served as an anchor ahead of the madness that awaited them over the following weeks.

They weren’t aware of it at the time but it would also be the last time all members of the squad were present in the same room. The squad continues to meet up from time to time, but they have never managed to do so with everybody present.

That Monday morning meeting was the final chapter in one the sport’s greatest fantasies.

Murphy says: “He got a priest to pray over us and then he said, ‘Let this thing be the best thing that ever happened yet. This will change your life.’”

“It was along the lines of, ‘People are going to be looking at you now. I need you to be on your best behaviour. No messing. No carry-on,’” adds Fitzhenry.

“And I think after that, that was it.”