Teatime on an April Sunday and Wexford supporters are dawdling on the pitch in Nowlan Park drinking in the sort of day they wouldn't usually dare hope for. A man in a jersey from a few versions ago is earnestly explaining to (presumably) his wife that this is no time to be getting carried away. Thankfully, the lady has more sense and tells him to cop himself on. If not now, when?
All across the field, it’s as though bathtub plugs have been pulled here and there, sucking kids towards Lee Chin and Conor McDonald and Matthew O’Hanlon. It will be a good three-quarters of an hour before Chin makes it to the dressing-room, the matinee idol of Wolfe Tone Villas gathering the huddled masses to him like he knows every one of them. A couple of old-timers smile and head for the exit, idly wondering if the ice-cream van that was outside beforehand is still open for business.
Was there anyone outside Kilkenny on Sunday who heard the Wexford result and wasn’t a little bit delighted for them? It is an indisputable fact of GAA life that nobody has much of a bone to pick with Wexford. Maybe it’s a summer holiday thing, or maybe it’s the fact that they speak with the least threatening accent in the English language. One way or another, it’s hard not to feel that much is right with the world when there’s a bit of Wexford happiness in the mix.
Counties have characteristics. The planed uniformity of the modern world can’t keep who you are hidden forever – or not enough of you at any rate. When Conor McDonald was joking in the tunnel afterwards that you only have to give Wexford fans a sniff of success and they go wild with it, he wasn’t the first or the last to crack that sort of gag. Every middling county gets goggle-eyed at an upset win but only in Wexford do they get a name for it.
Show the spark
And what harm? Isn't it better for players to know that they will get back from their public multiples of what they put in? That they only have to show the spark of one stone flinting off another to feel the bellows of their people's raw enthusiasm underneath them? You can tell that Davy Fitz copped this early on in his time in the southeast by the way he cannily refers to the crowd getting them over the line in the crucial matches against Galway and Limerick.
A few times during Liam Dunne’s reign, you came away from Wexford matches wondering why they couldn’t get out of their own way a little more. Dunne rolled the rock up the hill for Wexford inside the line and outside it for most of his adult life. He gave it everything, sometimes to his own personal and professional cost. If Wexford keep improving under Davy, there’s no question that at least some of the foundation work has Dunne’s imprint on it.
But even though they had some stand-out results under Dunne, there was always a very real sense of struggle about them. They’d beat a Clare or a Cork and you’d be willing them to get carried away with themselves and they just wouldn’t. Dunne always faces the world like he’s overheard it say something agin him and maybe that was what held sway. And maybe that was the only way it could work.
He told a story one time about taking Wexford over in November and putting his panel through fitness tests. The results were apparently so bad that he held them back from the players until they were out of the championship the following July. By then, their average body fat percentage was 11.5 per cent – down from 22.8 per cent in November.
Living in that sort of universe, with that amount of light years to cover to reach the galaxy inhabited by Kilkenny and Tipp and all the rest, maybe it’s understandable that they had to fight and claw for every inch. But something about it didn’t feel very Wexford.
Sunday did. Davy Fitz is as amenable to a siege mentality as the next man – never more so than when the next man is Brian Cody. The pair of them had just one jousting match early on in the piece and left it at that. But you can see he relishes taking slices off Kilkenny, even if he knows there will be retribution.
“I think we were both up for it. I don’t think I’m as bad as he is! You could see we were both up for it. The respect I’d have for the man is incredible. You’d be giving out about him at times because he’s ruthless and he’s a winner but he’s the best manager I’ve ever come across and nobody will ever take that from him.
“To still see his competitive drive and edge. I know that today will hurt him a small bit but he’ll go back and if he meets us again I know what’s coming. But you know what, that’s what I love. I want that challenge.”
That’s the stuff. You hear a Wexford manager positively gushing at the prospect of taking on Kilkenny in the championship and suddenly the summer feels like it’s anyone’s.
Ice-cream man! Your best 99, please.