FIFTEEN years have passed since Wexford and Offaly played out a pulsating Leinster senior final at the height of hurling’s golden era.
Seven years have elapsed since the same counties last squared off in another Croke Park provincial final.
This Sunday, in the pristine but far less populous surrounds of O’Connor Park, Wexford and Offaly will slug it out with something less cherished than the Bob O’Keeffe Cup – but arguably almost as precious – up for grabs.
“This is like a championship match,” suggests Liam Griffin. “I think the form of either team is irrelevant.”
Just as well, the cynics might add, because neither county has any form worth talking about. Both counties currently lie rooted to the Division One floor of the Allianz League.
Neither has a point to its name – or a points difference worth boasting about. Almost certainly, Sunday’s relegation four-pointer will decide who stays up.
Offaly still have to host Waterford and visit Kilkenny; Wexford face Cork at home and Tipperary away. Suffice to say, you wouldn’t bet on either county gaining points beyond this weekend.
Wexford launched their current campaign with an inglorious 21-point capitulation in Galway, but subsequent margins of defeat at least indicate an improving form graph.
Offaly, their shallow squad beset by longterm injuries, have actually regressed since an opening-day five-point loss on Leeside. “Since then our performances have been poor,” concedes Pat Fleury, the last Offaly manager to lead his county to an All-Ireland final 11 years ago.
Griffin, of course, was the last Wexford boss to conquer Everest, back in 1996. Now his county are stuck at base-camp, and he blames a combination of factors.
Wexford may be authors of their own downfall, he suggests, but the current league system (with promotion and relegation confined to one team between the top divisions) is crying out for review.
“Whatever team goes down seems to come back up again. So it's a yo-yo kind of a thing,” Griffin surmises.
“I do think that Wexford and Offaly have become marginal counties in Leinster, never mind in Ireland, and it's not good for either party that they go back down ... to be truthful, both are just hanging on now.
“It's also not helping Carlow (citing a mid-ranking Division Two example) because they have no chance either to come up.
“So, that league system needs to be definitely relooked at.”
Griffin is unsure about the ideal solution, albeit he reckons a two-up, two-down system would be an improvement.
Harking back to 1996, he recalls how both Wexford and Limerick gained promotion from Division Two en route to contesting the All-Ireland final. This simply couldn’t happen today.
CASE TO ANSWER
However, the well-known Wexford hotelier makes it clear that his own county board and those entrusted with overseeing Wexford hurling have a “case to answer” too.
They may have done everything with the best of intentions, but the “reality” is that Wexford are no longer competing at the top level.
“Why is that? Have Wexford people suddenly changed their diet or something, that they're not able to compete any more? Or is there something wrong with the way they play our games?” he rhetorically asks.
“That's why there's a deterioration,” he immediately answers, “and it must be something similar in Offaly.
“This situation has been talked about for years … and there's no real addressing of the issue.” Likewise, Fleury doesn’t sound overly confident about the short-term future, including Offaly’s Leinster SHC opener at Parnell Park on May 29.
Based on their recent league encounter, Dublin seemed to be “streets ahead” in fitness, scoring power, everything. The man who skippered Offaly to All-Ireland glory in 1985 spied cause for cautious optimism in the opening period of their last outing against Tipperary.
Yet the subsequent fadeout prompted familiar refrains about Offaly’s seemingly perennial affliction – second-half-itis.
“We've gone through the best part of 10 years now when we haven't had any real success, apart from coming out of Division Two the other year. And I suppose confidence suffers as a result,” the TG4 analyst reflects.
“I think that's when this lack of confidence manifests itself really - halfway through the second half when it gets dead serious and there's a quarter-of-an-hour's hurling left.”
As for Sunday, Fleury sees it as “very much 50-50” while Griffin is equally undecided. But, the latter concludes, “it’s not good news for whoever goes down”.