Fire finally back in Yellowbellies
League promotion will lift Wexford, just not past Galway
FEW teams can claim to be as happy with their spring lot as Wexford's hurlers. Less, though, are as unfancied to win their championship openers. It matters not.
Promotion from Division 2 following a miserable two-year stretch orbiting the hurling wastelands qualifies 2010 a success already, and, though they may be rank outsiders to even trouble Galway in Nowlan Park tomorrow (7.0), the green shoots of spring have elevated optimism in the Model county.
"I am of the opinion that getting into Division 1 was the most vital thing for Wexford to achieve this year. It was their single most important goal," says Liam Griffin, the last man to steer Wexford to an All-Ireland hurling title during that magical summer and autumn of 1996.
"The problem is that Wexford are definitely building a team. If I was manager, I would be using this year's championship as a building block for next year's league. That doesn't mean I wouldn't want to beat Galway. It's just the process of being back in Division 1 starts here. A lot of teams build for the championship through the league. Wexford should be building for the league through the championship."
It's true that no matter what fate befalls Wexford tomorrow or their subsequent qualifier campaign, the off-season -- however long -- will be filled with thoughts of the top flight.
Colm Bonnar can plan accordingly. Soldiers like Diarmuid Lyng, Keith Rossiter, Eoin Quigley and the two Jacobs, Rory and Michael, will foresee a spring stuffed with fixtures against hurling's movers and shakers.
And public interest -- which dipped below depressing levels this year -- will regenerate when the likes of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary come calling.
Yet there is something about Wexford hurling which means that memories of '96 are but a decent win away.
The statistic that Galway have never beaten Wexford in championship hurling (they have clashed on five occasions) -- should be irrelevant but, in these times of Model County hurling recession, it qualifies as a little nugget of hope.
"Kilkenny is a happy hunting ground for Wexford," points out John Conron, the last man to manager the county to a Leinster title, in 2004. "We've played very well there any time that we've played there.
"Galway have a bad record coming against Wexford teams. I know we haven't played them very often, but we would be going in positive to the game."
While promotion could yet be the foundations for a Wexford comeback, the rebuilding work is epic. According to eye-witness account, less than 100 people bothered to watch them destroy Kildare in this year's Division 2 campaign.
And, according to manager Colm Bonnar, the disinterest has even spread to the playing fraternity. Several of the more promising youngsters in the county spurned invitations from Bonnar to join the senior panel earlier this year, so underwhelmed were they at the prospect of second-tier hurling.
"It's very difficult to motivate yourself when you think you should be in a particular division and you're not," says Conron. "But crowds don't worry players normally at all. What worries players is their own performance. Most times, I think if you talk to any player, they don't give a shite if there's no one at the match or if there's a full house. The big thing is what is inside in the minds.
"When I was over the team, I asked a lot of lads who wouldn't come on the panel as well. And we were in two All-Ireland semi-finals and still there were lads who wouldn't go. I think that's just par for the county," he adds.
Griffin, meanwhile, is quick to downplay the significance of Galway's inception to the Leinster championship. It may inhibit the chasing pack from getting even to a provincial final, but for too long the Leinster championship has been a foregone conclusion before a ball was pucked and Griffin hopes a rising tide will lift all boats.
"It just puts it up to those counties to step up to the plate," he argues. "What's the point in making it less competitive? Why not just move Galway back to Connacht and bring Kilkenny with them and we will just call the Leinster championship the 'Meaningless Bob O'Keeffe Cup'.
"It's about putting yourself up against the best. I am totally in favour of Galway going into Leinster. If it does one thing, I hope it forces people in Wexford to keep getting their act together. If that forces people in Wexford to look in the mirror and look at what they're doing, I welcome that with open arms.
"I don't want to see Wexford withering on the vine because of lack of imagination or carelessness towards the game of hurling," he adds.
On the more specific issue of Wexford's chances tomorrow night in Nowlan Park, both Conron and Griffin are optimistic if necessarily realistic.
"In a two-horse race they always have a chance," says Griffin. "Wexford are missing a few players and they're carrying a few. Really, Wexford would need a full deck to beat Galway. We don't have a full deck, neither do we have the experience. I would be looking for Wexford to do well. That would be a victory in itself this year. Our future is being built. It's just not there at the minute." Conron agrees.
"My worry is the size of the team," he notes. "They have a lot of smaller guys. It seems to be that the good hurlers making the cut in other counties are big, tall fellas, whereas in Wexford they wouldn't have that size.
"But it's all about what you do on the day and how players respond to the day," Conron adds. "If they want it bad enough, they will put their necks on the line."