Spirit within camp augurs well for a strong final effort
The Wexford dream lives on. They have rolled into their second consecutive Bord Gáis Energy All-Ireland Under-21 hurling final. Limerick will provide the opposition at Semple Stadium, Thurles, and already expectations are growing.
After weeks of club activity the players returned to continue their preparations with a meeting of the squad on Monday night, while the real work resumed at the Ferns Centre of Excellence on Tuesday.
It was a momentous evening in so many ways. This is the first Model county side to prepare for an All-Ireland final in what is one of the leading Centre of Excellences in the country. Another landmark occasion saw the floodlights switched on for the very first time. Musco completed their final connections on the installation, with the system then connected to the generator.
Having been present for such a marvellous occasion and having finished some interviews, the switching on of the lights for the training session again showed what a marvellous facility this is going to be for the various inter-county teams, as the floodlighting is of the highest quality, ideal for hurling let alone football.
I am glad to say that the spirit in the Wexford camp is immense. On arrival for training, which commenced at 7 p.m. on the button, it was down to business under manager J.J. Doyle and his backroom team of Tommy Roche, Larry Murphy, Kevin Kennedy and Neil O'Loughlin.
It quickly became clear that the players are committed to being ready for what will be another huge final challenge. All the preliminary work was undertaken, then down to 15-a-side hurling, where the clashes were physical, hard and competitive.
Also of equal importance, the quality of the hurling was immense among the players, those certain of inclusion along with the many more fighting for places in the match day squad and determined to lay down their own individual markers, in an effort to impress the watching management team.
As I have always said, we were very lucky in Wexford to have been at the top level of hurling for so long, given our lack of titles at under-age level. But the valley period eventually caught up with us. As a county we began to struggle at Senior level as the supply line was not alone slow but practically dried up.
Luckily over recent years the county has once again become competitive, and now we have three back-to-back provincial Under-21 titles to take into Saturday evening's showdown.
When I think about this final my memory goes back to 1965 and our solitary All-Ireland success in this grade. In the inaugural year of Under-21 back in 1964, my own club - Kilmore-Rathangan - achieved the double at county level.
Wexford contested the final for the first three years, losing to a Babs Keating-inspired Tipperary in 1964 by 8-9 to 3-1. Undaunted by this setback, Wexford qualified for the final in 1965 where once again they came up against the Premier county.
Captained by Kilmore's Willie O'Neill, this time it was the turn of Wexford to come up trumps on a final scoreline of 3-7 to 1-4, with the defensive set-up inspired by O'Neill, Dan Quigley, Michael Kinsella, Willie Murphy, Aidan Somers and Vinnie Staples this time curtailing the threat of Keating.
The winning Wexford team on that famous day back in 1965 in Nowlan Park was: Michael Jacob; Willie O'Neill (capt.), Dan Quigley, Aidan Somers; Vinnie Staples, Michael Kinsella, Willie Murphy; Eugene Ryan, Joe Doran; Con Dowdall, Pat Quigley, Seamus Barron; Tony Maher, Tony Doran, Jack Berry.
Crucially though, All-Ireland success has eluded the Model county since that famous occasion despite having contested numerous finals in the intervening years. Few would have anticipated that it would be a full 50 barren years. I suppose there was a real meltdown period but one factor to emerge is that it's equally as difficult to win an All-Ireland title at this level as Senior, given the quality and standard of hurling each year.
There was so much evident during Tuesday's training session to suggest a huge performance to come from Wexford. Doyle encouraged his players to express themselves and hurl to their ability, which was then reflected in a hugely competitive 15-a-side game.
Here's to Saturday night and a great one for the Model county. Let's support the young players in our thousands and maintain that long-held tradition of being the best supporters in the land.