County Wexford's fields of dreams
the crests of all 49 GAA clubs in County Wexford adorn the wall at the entrance of the new Halo Tiles Wexford GAA Centre of Excellence outside Ferns, and Wexford County Board hope the four pitches outside will start producing players from these clubs who can climb the ranks at national level over the coming years.
Up until 2013 the large 24 acre site, upon which the centre's immaculately maintained four pitches now sit, was a wild, overgrown expanse with some potatoes growing in it. It had been owned by the late Tom and Paddy Dunbar, two bachelor farmers who lived in an old farmhouse at the current entrance to the centre, which now lies dilapidated.
Located just off the main N11 road, today the pitches are neatly sectioned off. There are floodlights towering on either side of the pitches and cameras are used to monitor players during training.
Located on an elevated site, the four pitches looked resplendent on Tuesday of last week in the summer sun, ahead of a senior footballers training session.
The previous week they hosted the hugely successful All Ireland U14 Feile Peil Festival, which saw 8,000 people converge on the centre. 540 teams competed in games across the region, with most games taking place in County Wexford. Although the GAA complex has not been officially opened yet, the fields have been tested and have proven a more than adequate substitute for the previous training venue options around the county.
Wexford County Chairman Diarmuid Devereux said hurlers and footballers no longer have to train at Wexford Park and in Enniscorthy. 'The pitch in Enniscorthy was absolutely flogged to death. No-one knew from one end of the week to the next where they would be training. Now four teams can train here at the same time on any particular night.'
The facility is for U13s and older and Mr Devereux said schools competitions can be played on site, but the county development team will only take players aged 13 and older.
'My view is that children aged under 13 should be playing for the love and for the fun of it. They say we are not ruthless enough. To me it's very young to make a child feel like a winner or a loser. I'd like to see that kicked down the road to 16 or 17.'
He thanked O'Connor Bros for building the premises, Halo Tiles and all the Wexford businesses who supported the centre.
Looking out at the new pitches, Mr Devereux said the county board paid 'an absolute fortune' for the site in 2010, some of which was later sold.
He said the Wexford GAA Centre of Excellence is on budget and at most any over-run would amount to 1 per cent.
'When I came in as chairman this was just a big field with spuds in it. We set up a small committee which included Derek Kent, Ger Carthy, Bobby Goff and Anthony Neville. When we were building Wexford Park the Neville family got very involved. It was unbelievable how much time they gave to the centre of excellence also. The GAA family in Wexford owe all these people a lot of gratitude.'
Project Managers, Michael Mahon & Co, Wexford and John Quigley came up with a plan for the centre in 2012 and work began in early 2014.
Mr Devereux said: 'This is a centre of excellence so everything here from the pitches, to the food, the medical staff and the shower facilities have to be excellent to be at a level which allows players to develop to a state of excellence.'
In February 2013 Wexford GAA County Board secured access to internal GAA infrastructural grants which, when combined with other non borrowed funding, enabled construction works on the Wexford GAA Centre of Excellence to proceed with immediate effect.
The centre and playing surfaces cost just over €1.6m to build. The works were completed earlier this year, having provided over 50 construction related jobs on site.
The centre of excellence features four full size training pitches which include full lighting systems to best international standards and cameras for training purposes, making the pitches among the most technically advanced in the region.
The centre's two storey complex has four large changing rooms, along with meeting and referee rooms on the ground floor. €500,000 is required to develop the upstairs gymnasium, dining area, presentation room, physiotherapy room and meeting rooms. There are plans to develop further pitches on site. The presentation room features analysis technology enabling players to assess their training within moments of completing it.
'They can analyse their strengths and weaknesses after every session,' Mr Devereux said.
The inspiration for the centre came following a meeting Mr Devereux had with former Leinster Rugby CEO Mike Dawson.
'To me Leinster are the most efficiently run and well managed sporting organisation I have come in contact with. We learnt a lot from our meeting with Mike Dawson and his team. They are so well organised on a tight budget. If we can get our whole elite player ethos along that line of thinking, we'll do well.'
He said the fact that County Wexford is a dual sport county means it has to develop a differrent training system to single sport GAA counties like Kilkenny.
'Over the last four years we've invested a lot of money in technology and software. That, in itself, will not bring success. It works in tandem with coaching.'
Mr Devereux said he is hopeful that this money will be secured through sports grants over the coming months and that work will start on the upstairs section this Autumn.
Work will begin on the new entrance road in 2016, as it cannot commence until the main road is downgraded and works on the Enniscorthy bypass begin.
Mr Devereux said the reaction among players to the centre has been very positive.
He said with Good Counsel College churning out All Ireland winning players and the success of St Peter's College teams, along with the new combined Wexford college's teams' prospects, the future looks bright for GAA sport in the county.
'The success at the Good Counsel at the moment is unique in modern times, like what we had with St Peter's College in the 1960s. The county is going nowhere if we don't have a strong second level college system with players training from October until into the new year.'
Mr Devereux believes that success is not too far away, while acknowledging that 2015 has been a very disappointing year, particularly for the hurlers who crashed out of the championship to Cork earlier this month.
He said: 'Everyone is down and gutted. We would hope the hurlers can break into the top six teams in the country within the next five years and that the footballers can be a top 12 team. I think the comments in the media after the Cork match were very honest. There's no point getting angry with the media. These people are entitled to their comments. Last year we made a lot of progress and this year we have gone backwards. We're going to sit down in the cold light of day and do a detailed review of this year about the senior hurlers and the senior footballers. We will come back to the board with what we think is a solution. 2015 was very disappointing as we failed to make any progress in the National Hurling League and in the Championship League. We have the best supporters in Ireland. On the football side we had a very disappointing league campign but with the defeat of Down, on the championshiop side we did well.'
A thorough analysis of the hurler's season is under way.
'We'll be looking at what made us progress in 2014 and what we did differently in 2015 that put all that into reverse. The review has started and over the coming weeks we will find the answers that we need and when we have those answers we will decide on the next course of action to take.' The centre of excellence will attract tens of thousands of hurling fans into the county in June 2017 for the U14 All Ireland Hurling Festival.