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Day even the greatest of cynics started to believe in fairytales

Wexford v Offaly 1996 Leinster SHC final July 14, Croke Park Wexford 2-23, Offaly 2-15

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AWAY: Wexford’s Garry Laffan shows Offaly’s Kevin Kinahan a clean pair of heels during the 1996 Leinster SHC final. Pic: Sportsfile.

AWAY: Wexford’s Garry Laffan shows Offaly’s Kevin Kinahan a clean pair of heels during the 1996 Leinster SHC final. Pic: Sportsfile.

AWAY: Wexford’s Garry Laffan shows Offaly’s Kevin Kinahan a clean pair of heels during the 1996 Leinster SHC final. Pic: Sportsfile.

It is telling what can travel through your head when ­something you never thought would happen is actually ­happening.

To understand the emotion, you have to understand the suffering.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Wexford, those giants of the 1950s were still dropped into every second conversation had with those that came before us.

It was normal when you consider New Wheeler used to deliver the oil to the front door at home and greet my mother with, "Yes, mam. No, mam. Thank you very much, mam". A gentleman. Ever and always.

Heck, the highlight of those hot summers of the 1970s and 1980s was the annual barn dance at Billy Rackard's place near Kilrane, overlooking the beach where you spent the evening getting up to mischief and staring at his beautiful daughters.

The Rackards, Tim Flood, Wheeler, Ned O'Donnell and the rest were held up, not for how they ruled the game, but how they changed it by playing the ball in the air; wrists, knuckles and fingers risked just to grab one from the sky.

Inspirational

Their legend grew enough in folklore to become a weight, not quite enough to hinder 1960 when Padge Kehoe and Ollie 'Hopper' McGrath's goals were the difference in Wexford's first championship victory over Tipperary.

Or even in 1968 when a glut of goals, two each from the red-haired marauder Tony Doran and Jack Berry, my father's cousin, shocked the Premier men again, the year before my birth.

By the time I was handed a hurl at Kilmore, a football club by nature, at the turn of the '80s, those fine memories had been eclipsed by the back-to-back champions of 1955 and 1956.

The easy way out was to contrast the icons to those of 1976 and 1977, twice ruptured by Cork in All-Ireland finals, and it made us miss them all the more.

As the 1980s chugged along, the sight of Kilkenny and Offaly in the Leinster senior final became a recurring, living nightmare, Wexford going all the way from 1977 to 1996 without winning a provincial final.

Wide-eyed boy

In those 19 years, they played in eight finals, losing them all, four to Kilkenny, four to Offaly, all the while growing from a wide-eyed boy into a mind-closed cynical adult.

The thing is the Purple and Gold had slipped so far down the list of 'likelys' that losing to Offaly in the Leinster finals of 1981 and 1984 became a psychological anchor always there to pull you under.

The latter wasn't made any easier when returning to boarding school at Cistercian College, in Roscrea, to yelps from the local crew, led by 'Caveman' Kennedy and John Hackett.

Even as Liam Griffin gathered gold from the dust of previous years, leaning on the aura of George O'Connor and leadership of Liam Dunne and Martin Storey, it simply had to be seen to be believed.

Like many years before, I went along to the 1996 Leinster Senior final with my good friend Tony Pettit, always one to see a reason 'why' rather than slump back into ready-made excuses for 'why not'.

The fact Wexford had elbowed aside Kilkenny in the quarter-final and Dublin in the semi-final only served to heighten my guard for when it all went wrong as we stood shoulder-to-shoulder on The Hill.

Then, Billy Dooley glanced a high ball to the net and Joe Dooley whipped over a point from the sideline early on as Offaly established a four-point advantage.

When Damien Fitzhenry scurried upfield to bury a penalty and Storey rifled a point off his left to square it in the 21st minute, I wasn't going to be duped. Not again. No way.

I didn't believe it when Wexford went in a point up at the break.

I didn't believe it when three Larry Murphy points had them five up in the third quarter or when Tom Dempsey scrambled a goal to have them five up again in the 54th minute.

Hunted

What do you know, Offaly took that blow and hunted a goal by Michael Duignan right under our noses at The Hill end to revive all those memories that made us feel like losers.

And then it happened. Dempsey, Storey, Dempsey again, Storey again, Storey yet again and Dempsey, yet again, provided points with such rapid regularity that even a blind man could see.

The final whistle was the signal for the crowd to flood out onto the pitch we never played on. They rushed like pilgrims to an apparition.

Tony and I walked. The believer and his convert.

We've been asking our writers to detail the one match or sporting occasion that stands out in their memories from all the rest and why it still means so much to them