Mighty men of Wexford
Wexford 5-8 Tipperary 3-12
'Twixt Croghan-Kinshela and Hook Head, 'twixt Carnsore and Mount Leinster, there is as good a mass of men as ever sustained a State, and as stout a mass as ever tramped through a stubborn battle.'
Thomas Davis penned these lines in praise of the mighty men of Wexford more than one hundred and fifty years ago, and no one since has dared deny the wisdom of the patriot's words.
A reminder of their truth was brought home forcibly to the hurling world on the first Sunday of September, 1968, when a dashing young Slaneyside combination confounded the critics and won the All-Ireland Senior title for the first time since 1960 by defeating Tipperary by 5-8 to 3-12.
It was the manner in which victory was achieved that caused this to be the greatest of all Wexford's great victories.
Trailing by no less than ten points after 26 minutes, the storming Slaneysiders, playing like men possessed, were on level terms 14 minutes before the finish and, with two minutes remaining to play, had a fantastic lead of 5-8 to 1-12.
Following a first-half of utter frustration in which the Tipperary veterans played havoc with the Wexford back division and the Munster defenders completely controlled the other end of the pitch, gloomy prospects confronted the Leinster challengers as they trooped to the dressing-rooms trailing by eight points (1-11 to 1-3).
The majority expected a better showing in the second moiety, but only a very few foretold or even guessed at the complete reversal of first-half form that was to come.
Such hurling splendour, such courage, dedication and endurance seldom before was exhibited in an All-Ireland hurling final.
From the opening minute of the second period, it was plainly evident that Wexford were prepared to give their last shred of energy in their bid to snatch the honours.
To many it appeared a hopeless task, but each pulsating minute brought new hope, and scintillating scores caused consternation in the ranks of the rivals.
There were shades of that hurling epic of 1956 when another mighty Wexford team gave a superb Tipperary side an interval lead of 15 points and a severe beating before the final whistle.
But it has been argued many time since that the victors on that occasion were aided by a near gale-force wind, and it had also been hinted time and again that an eclipse of that kind could not occur in an All-Ireland.
There was no wind worth talking about in that All-Ireland final clash, and the feat of changing a deficit of ten points into a lead of eight in the space of 18 minutes will go down in the record books as the greatest hurling achievement of all time.
There is another, and much more important, factor, and that is the tremendous good this classic exhibition did for the game. The image of our national game at the time was in need of a shot in the arm and Wexford provided it.
The refusal to accept defeat, the willingness at all times to give supporters value for money, allied to skill and superb sportsmanship, stamped this Wexford team as one of the all-time greats.
One must be excused for again quoting from Thomas Davis' 'Memories of Wexford': 'Great hearts, how faithful ye were! How ye bristled up when the foe came on, how you set your teeth to die as his shells and round-shot fell steadily; and with how firm a cheer ye dashed at him, if he gave you any chance at all of a grapple!'
How like the fighting men of '98 were these great hurling warriors on that famous Sunday afternoon? The potential they displayed in the age-limit ranks and the touches of genius which we had received glimpses of earlier in the year, at New Ross, Wembley and Coventry, were served to supporters in rich and generous helpings so that many were left almost helpless with seething excitement long before the final whistle.
If Tipperary burst back on the scene late in the game with a kicked goal by Seán McLoughlin and a 'Babs' Keating free, they were scores entirely against the run of play and there was always confidence that Wexford would emerge.
In fact, it was a game that Wexford should have won in very comfortable fashion. Twice they had the ball in the Tipperary net (Tony Doran and Christy Jacob), but to the consternation of followers both goals were disallowed and a free to Wexford awarded.
Paul Lynch hit a point from one of those frees, while his second - a shot for goal - was saved and cleared.
A lesser side than this Wexford one would have been demoralised by such cruel ill-luck. But no!
They stormed their opponents' citadel continuously in the second-half, going from strength to strength. The speed we knew they possessed left the opposition flat-footed and tore great gaps in their defence.
The fact that Tipperary managed to score only one point between the 28th and 58th minutes of the game is positive proof of the dominance of the Wexford men and particularly that of the defence, after a change of ends.
The tame opening gave no clues to the second-half fireworks.
As the teams lined out, Jack Berry immediately went to full-forward and Seamus Whelan to the left corner. Dan Quigley set Wexford attacking and Paul Lynch pointed from midfield.
But subsequently the Wexford backs were under severe pressure and Tipperary's half-backs and midfielders were in no small way contributing to that situation.
Tipperary swept into a 0-7 to 0-3 lead. At this stage Michael Roche at centre-back was practically unbeatable, but Dan Quigley rivalled him in greatness.
Tipperary's attacking policy was based on 'Mackey' McKenna leaving his full-forward berth and taking Eddie Kelly outfield, and Seán McLoughlin remaining on the fringe of the square.
The danger to the Wexford defence was quickly shown, when McKenna placed McLoughlin for a point, and then the same player put the finishing touches to a line ball by Donie Nealon for the first goal of the game, and Tipperary led by 1-10 to 0-3.
There followed a series of terrible misses from the Wexford forward line, but a Jack Berry goal just on the break reduced the deficit to 1-11 to 1-3 at the interval.
Manager Padge Kehoe made the changes at half-time. The flame-haired John Quigley appeared for the injured 'Shanks' Whelan, and Jack Berry switched to the left corner with Tony Doran at full. Paul Lynch was the new centre-forward, with Christy Jacob on his left, and Jimmy O'Brien on his right. In fact, Jacob was the only forward to hold his original position.
Keeper Pat Nolan was quickly called into action with a diving save from Liam Devaney. Willie Murphy cleared upfield and Jack Berry sent over a lovely point, the start of the recovery.
Paul Lynch and Phil Wilson stormed into the game. Lynch with his deft overhead flicks was denying a previously dominant Michael Roche possession, while Wilson was winning the ball all over the pitch and driving his side on.
Vinnie Staples cleared his lines and excellent work by Phil Wilson saw him send in a high centre. Tony Doran carried three defenders as he bounded for goal and his great stroke found the left-hand corner of the net.
Now only four points (1-11 to 2-4) separated the sides. Wilson and Dave Bernie were roaring in midfield, but it was end-to-end, with Pat Nolan once again saving excellently, leaving Tom Neville to clear his lines.
Tony Doran was fouled in possession and the teams were level when Paul Lynch blazed the resulting free to the roof of the Tipperary net (3-6 to 1-12) with 14 minutes remaining.
A roar that shook the foundations of the Hogan Stand greeted Lynch's effort. Tipperary were reeling under the fury of the Wexford onslaught.
They had no answer to the high, lobbing shots being rained on their goal by Phil Wilson, Dave Bernie, Willie Murphy, Vinnie Staples, Dan Quigley and company.
Within seconds of Lynch's goal, John O'Donoghue made two tremendous saves, one from John Quigley and then a Jack Berry handpass.
Eight minutes before the finish, Phil Wilson placed Paul Lynch and the latter's neat double found Tony Doran. Doran's quick turn baffled John Costigan and he beat the advancing John Donoghue with a handpass. A goal in front and how the followers loved it.
Jimmy O'Brien sent over a glorious point to make it a four-point lead. At the opposite end Pat Nolan saved from Donie Nealon, and Dan Quigley had cleared a 'Babs' Keating '21.
John Quigley and Paul Lynch combined to set up an opportunity for Jack Berry, and his left-handed strike beat O'Donoghue in the Tipp goal, while a Tony Doran point left Wexford leading by 5-8 to 1-12 three minutes from the end. Then came what proved two consolation Tipp. goals.
Wexford: Pat Nolan (Oylegate-Glenbrien); Tom Neville (Geraldine O'Hanrahans), Eddie Kelly (Enniscorthy St. Aidan's), Ned Colfer (Geraldine O'Hanrahans); Vinnie Staples (St. Martin's), Dan Quigley (Rathnure, capt.), Willie Murphy (Faythe Harriers); Phil Wilson (Ballyhogue-Davidstown), Dave Bernie (Ferns St. Aidan's); Christy Jacob (Oulart-The Ballagh), Tony Doran (Buffers Alley, 2-1), Paul Lynch (Shamrocks, 1-3, 1-2 frees); Jimmy O'Brien (Geraldine O'Hanrahans, 0-2), Seamus Whelan (St. Martin's), Jack Berry (Kilmore-Rathangan, 2-2). Subs. - John Quigley (Rathnure) for Whelan, Teddy O'Connor (Rathnure) for Staples, also Pat Nolan (Geraldine O'Hanrahans), Michael Kinsella (Buffers Alley), Michael Jacob (Oulart-The Ballagh), Seamus Barron (Rathnure), Ned Buggy (Faythe Harriers), Mick Browne (Faythe Harriers), Jimmy Furlong (Adamstown).
Padge's inspiring words
The best stroke of the 1968 All-Ireland Senior hurling final was executed not on the field of play but in the Wexford dressing-room, a room in which disillusionment, disappointment and pessimism were the pervading emotions at half-time.
The huge Wexford section in the attendance watched in silent apprehension as a despondent team walked to the dressing-room at the interval, their steps dragging with the weight of the eight points deficit on the scoreboard.
Watching from a position in front of the players' tunnel was Padge Kehoe, the Wexford team manager and former winner of the Sports Star of the Past Award, anxiously watching the players' reaction to their plight and holding a secretive conversation with former All-Ireland colleague of the mid-fifties, Nickey Rackard.
Shortly after the last players, Ned Colfer and Pat Nolan, had disappered into the tunnel, the brains behind the campaign that led Wexford to their 14th All-Ireland final turned and, with a purposeful step, strode with ominous intent towards the dressing-room, his eyes sparkling with the glint of battle.
Inside the dressing-room, in crypt-like silence, the team was gathered while soup and refreshments were arrayed on a table.
Through the door the team manager stormed, typically carrying a hurley. The ebullient Padge then began a tirade that had an inspiring effect on the team.
The hurley swept down again and again as the manager emphasised his words. The table shook with the force of his blows and from it crashed a collection of crockery.
Padge had a few straight words to put to the team. He told them to get their priorities right.
He stressed their responsibilities and obligations to their county and their thousands of supporters and sent them out to win.
They walked back out, underdogs and badly in arrears, and they did just that.
All-Ireland Final snippets
The Wexford Senior selectors of 1968 were: Tom Donohoe (Buffers Alley), Mick O'Hanlon (Horeswood), Nick Cardiff (St. Martin's), Syl Barron (Rathnure), Nickey Rackard (Rathnure). Team manager: Padge Kehoe (Enniscorthy St. Aidan's). Team trainer: Ned Power (St. Peter's College).
Wexford's achievement in bringing off the double was all the more notable as it was the first time the county was represented in both finals on the same day, and the first time that the double was achieved since Tipperary's victories in 1949.
It was also the first Wexford side to win an All-Ireland on which all the members of the Senior team were Wexford born.