Wexford braced for arrival of Dublin juggernaut

Shane Roche’s young side are looking forward to the ultimate footballing challenge

Wexford manager Shane Roche celebrates with Seán Nolan after the victory over Wicklow in Aughrim. It was the county’s first championship win in seven years. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

Wexford manager Shane Roche celebrates with Seán Nolan after the victory over Wicklow in Aughrim. It was the county’s first championship win in seven years. Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

 

What would you do if you were Shane Roche? Consider the predicament for the Wexford man.

You are a young manager with an eager young team fresh from a significant victory; a first championship win in seven long years. The sight of Wexford men literally jumping with joy added a much needed splash of spontaneity in what was a prosaic and predictable championship football weekend. Wexford were back at training on Tuesday night.

“And we had a lot of sore bodies,” Roche says. “Just a light session and a talk about the weekend.”

The weekend. Already, the Dublin juggernaut was beginning to form in their minds. This sky-blue entity, this football machine that has smashed everything – in pieces big and small – in the years when Wexford were just trying to win a game of summer football. Sunday’s Leinster quarter-final marks the starkest battle of opposites.

On Wednesday morning, the Wexford chairman phoned Roche with the good news that the crowd capacity had been increased. Ideally, the place would be packed but 500 can make a noise.

There’s a temptation to bring out the best tea-set because a visit by Dublin can feel like a visit of royalty. When Roche was asked about facing the All-Ireland champions in the heady minutes after the Wicklow win, he mentioned showing them respect.

“Someone sent me a message about it afterwards wondering why I said about showing Dublin the utmost respect. Maybe it wasn’t the cleverest way of phrasing it.

“What I meant by was we will approach the game like any other game and set up the team the best way possible. We know how we want to go about things. We will probably get more learning from Sunday than six months of training. A lot of our work has to be on ourselves: can we transition harder? Keep the ball more? How were we on breaking ball? We have to give respect to ourselves. And implement our game plan. That is what my hope is for the weekend.”

This has been a fast learning curve for Roche. He returned to the Wexford dressing room as a selector for Paul Galvin and ascended to the manager’s role when the Kerry man had to step down because of work and location changes.

The bare results of Wexford’s brief league – two defeats to Waterford and Carlow followed by a Fourth Division plate win over Sligo – disguise a small, significant shift they engineered over that time.

Grew stronger

“After the Waterford game a number of guys were in tears given the work we had done and training we put in. To lose by a point after the goals we conceded was very tough. We had four challenge games planned before the league but for various restrictions and injuries within other counties they were all called off.

“So against Waterford we made key mistakes that if they happened in a challenge game we would have had time to rectify. In hindsight losing to Waterford in the manner we did with certain aspects of our defensive set-up was a catalyst for the year.”

Shane Roche: “The players know what is expected and nobody is thinking we are just going to run around with these guys for 70 minutes. We want to test ourselves and to do ourselves massive justice on the work we have done.” Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
Shane Roche: “The players know what is expected and nobody is thinking we are just going to run around with these guys for 70 minutes. We want to test ourselves and to do ourselves massive justice on the work we have done.” Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho

Against Sligo, they hit 2-15 and conceded no goal. Against Wicklow, they grew stronger at the closing stages of a fiercely contested game. The progress was clear. Roche works in sport and in education and he’s interested in the transformation of elite GAA teams in recent years. Dublin are the exemplars. But a quick scan of last weekend’s results illustrates an alarming gap between the top tier teams and the others. He is under no illusions about where Wexford rank but is clear about how teams can respond to strength and conditioning pre-requisites of the best team.

“That’s a question I was only thinking about this morning,” he says.

“We would have tested the guys on December 5th. The improvements to a man they have made since then are, I feel, up there with any team in the country. The key for the lesser counties is: when the year finishes, what plan is in place to make sure you return for pre-season in better condition? We will set targets for a given date next year. And that is the condition the player returns in. For years, off-season was exactly that.

“But from being in DCU and experiencing Sigerson football you do see elite players from Dublin or the northern counties had no off season. It was just a time to improve on weaknesses. Young guys coming through embrace this: they embrace targets and the S and C world. Players like Liam Coleman, who has made an astronomical transformation from when he came into the squad in 2019. But it is about embracing that hard work and the gym hours.”

A decade ago, Roche was wing-forward on the Wexford team which lost the Leinster final to Dublin in a cagey match which hinged on an unfortunate own goal. It was arguably a sliding doors moment.

For instance, Monaghan won a provincial title against expectation in 2013 and have been a perpetual presence since. Wexford’s fortunes faded dramatically since their close call. The 2011 vintage was a particularly strong team but revitalizing those performances is something he has spoken about with his squad.

Massive influence

“We are the standard bearers for football in the county. I started teaching in St Peter’s College that year. The likes of Barry O’Connor and Rory O’Connor and Conor Firman and Ronan Devereux were in first year. Barry was at every football game because there were big days in Croke Park. And you could hear kids saying I want to play football for Wexford.

“The hurlers are the team that kids look up to right now. Kids will be drawn to the sport that is more successful. And in Wexford now thanks to the savage work of the hurlers, it is no surprise that the dual players are opting out of football to concentrate on hurling. And you can’t blame them for that. Everyone wants to have those big days.

“And yeah, I do think if we had won that Leinster final we would have drawn in that group coming behind. But not getting that provincial title, it probably swung back around to the hurling being more attractive. What we do now will have a massive influence on the group coming next.”

Whatever the result might be out of our control but our attitude is within our control

There are two ways for Wexford to approach Sunday. They can dread it or embrace it. In theory, the benefit of playing against players with multiple All-Irelands is obvious. In practice, it can leave a dressing room in despair.

But in a way, the pressure is off in that the result is already preordained as far as the world is concerned. Roche is not about to make any wild predictions but is clear-eyed about what the home team can gain from this experience.

“The general feeling is that nobody expects anything; go out and give it a go. That doesn’t sit well with me either because we are trying to build an elite environment. The players know what is expected and nobody is thinking we are just going to run around with these guys for 70 minutes. We want to test ourselves and do ourselves massive justice on the work we have done.

“Can we track these guys? Can we defend one-on-one? Can we do various things on kick-outs? It is an opportunity to test ourselves but not having an attitude of acceptance is important for us. Whatever the result might be out of our control but our attitude is within our control.”

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