Wexford's return to something approaching glory days is both glorious and unsettling
What’s rare is wonderful and Wexford’s 2014 renaissance is causing sleepless nights, for good and bad reasons, for JOE’s Wexford man Sean Nolan.
August 31, 2008. August 5, 2007. August 8, 2004. Those are the dates of Wexford’s last three All-Ireland semi-finals. The fact that we have managed three, across both codes, a feat achieved only by Cork and Dublin in the same period, suggests that as a Model fan I should be both used to success and comfortable with it.
Neither is true.
It is now six years since the last of those games, a bruising six-point loss to Tyrone as they went on to win their third Sam Maguire in five years. The other two, both in hurling, were anomalies of sorts. Wexford caught a disorganised Tipp in a 2007 quarter-final while the 2004 appearance came about after that infamous win snatched from jaws of defeat against Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster semi-final and the resultant Leinster title against Offaly. The combined margin of defeat in both those semi-finals was 28 points.
In short, aside from our fantastically consistent camogie team, supporting a Wexford team into August has been a rare, and ultimately fruitless, endeavour in recent memory.
That’s why this summer has been both a joyous, and slightly troubling one, for a Wexford GAA fan. Take last Saturday. A quick scan of all the papers saw everyone tip Wexford for success. It is not something we are comfortable with (in that we are not alone, of course) but it was also something felt in my heart and those of fellow Wexfordians. We genuinely believed we would beat Waterford. It wasn’t arrogance, it wasn’t cockiness, it was that we had seen our team do great things, heroic things, against Clare and we really believed in them. We’re not used to that either.
The last time we had that belief, you see, was probably in 1996. Now, before things get out of hand, we are not comparing this team to the last side to win Liam in purple and gold. That would be very premature, but there is a trust in this team now that simply wasn’t there for a very long time and regardless of the outcome against Limerick at the weekend, it will remain.
At last, after years of little more than hope, dreams and the odd solid 35 minutes of action, there is a group of players, a management structure and a fine crop of emerging talent at underage levels to allow the love of the team to bloom.
That has been reflected in the numbers going to games and the demand for tickets for the weekend. True, some is bandwagon jumping, as happens in every county, but the tide has been out for a long time in Wexford hurling, so everyone has grabbed a board to surf the wave now that it is on the way in. Where’s the harm in that?
Will Wexford win the All-Ireland? It is unlikely, highly unlikely in fact and they are deserved underdogs against Limerick. But it doesn’t matter. A win, and another All-Ireland semi-final would be fantastic, and guarantee a huge crowd at HQ against either Kilkenny or Cork, though an important victory has already been achieved.
Wexford never fell out of love with our hurlers – how could you – but seeing the likes of Conor McDonald, not even two years of age when Martin Storey went into the Hogan that September day in 1996, play with such panache and flair is why you stick with a team through the darker days and why you spend many hours pondering just how you might celebrate another trip up the steps by a Wexford man.
Days like that are rarer than Kilkenny fans in Oulart for Wexford’s men’s teams and even when a dawn seemed to breaking, we often get hit with an unexpected eclipse. Like last year, when many of this senior team won a first Leinster Under-21 title in over a decade, our optimism was pricked by a gutting All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Antrim.
We’ve learned the hard way not to get our hopes up, but it is belief, tied with an uneasy sense of being carried along on a wave, that is prevalent now, not hope.
I can’t help but keep looking for ways it will go wrong though, and these are also keeping me awake in these balmy nights. The wide count we have must be in triple figures already for the season. The team have played a lot of games in quick succession. Will the youngsters get stage fright if they get to a really big game again, like last year’s under-21 semi? Limerick really owe us one (see 1996). Kilkenny are still lurking (see every year I have been alive).
And yes, one or all of these could, and probably will, end our summer. But unlike those other forays into late summer in recent times, there is a strong sense we’re no longer gate crashers to the party. Instead we look to be holding a few return tickets, and one day we will cash them in at the biggest party of all.
Until then, it is back to the sleepless nights of joy and despair.