At the start of each championship the sports department in RTÉ creates a Google Drive as a central reservoir for all their match footage, designed for sharing with every intercounty team. The Wexford-Westmeath game appears in full on the link, but with just one-camera coverage and no commentary. Pared back and raw.
In the last 10 minutes, as the Wexford goal was caught in a rip tide, all you can hear are urgent, plaintive shouts from Wexford supporters standing near the camera position on the roadside terrace.
“Come on Wexford. Come on lads. Come on Wexford. Come on.”
Wexford were still five points clear with about five minutes to go when Tom Dempsey started to see the crash in slow motion. In the live commentary on South East Radio he turned to Liam Spratt and said, “I wish this was over”. In the time that remained the dregs of Wexford’s 17-point lead spilt from the glass.
“Things were grand,” he said later. “We were walking along the beach. Next thing we were up to our necks in quicksand.”
Nearly every match is seen through the eyes of the winners first, but in this case the comeback and the collapse were given equal billing; twin sensations. The consensus was that Westmeath couldn’t have done this without Wexford’s compliance, no matter how unfair or unkind that sounds. Even in hurling’s era of berserk scoring, a 17-point deficit should be irretrievable.
Westmeath had lost their three previous championship matches by an average of 22 points; at half-time in Wexford Park they trailed by 16.
“You were thinking, ‘if they keep this up Wexford are going to win by 40 points,’” says Liam Griffin.
But in Wexford’s other games there had been no suggestion of ruthlessness. The opposite was true; they had been chronically indecisive. Against Dublin in Croke Park they created 51 scoring chances, 20 more than Dublin, a staggering disparity in a match between peers; and still they lost. Against Antrim they led by nine points at half-time and were hanging on at the end.
“Martin Storey was sitting in front of me,” says Liam Dunne. “I just happened to say, ‘I can’t believe what Wexford are doing here?’ And Martin said, ‘What’s wrong with you? We’re nine points up.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, against Antrim, in Wexford Park, and we’re playing with a sweeper. Why don’t we go for the jugular?’
“Antrim got it back to four points and they missed an open goal. If Antrim had got the goal I reckon we could have been beaten. We’ve played a sweeper system for seven years now. I just don’t think it has done us any favours.”
Against Westmeath, the goals came: four in all, two of them so late that the air-raid sirens had been blaring for at least six or seven minutes. When something happens in a flash, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is out of the blue; of the 12 teams in Division One of this year’s league, only Laois and Westmeath had inferior defensive records, and neither of those teams won a match.
Since the 2019 All-Ireland semi-final, Wexford have played 16 championship matches and won just six of them: one of those was a spectacular triumph against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park last summer; the other wins have come against Laois – three times – Kerry and Antrim.
For the last three years Wexford have been losing altitude. Why? Partly because the team has aged with its core players. Wexford won three Leinster U-21 finals between 2013 and 2015, and reached two All-Ireland finals in that time. Seven of the starting 15 against Westmeath played on those teams.
Before that wave of talent came along, Matthew O’Hanlon, Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Liam Óg McGovern were already established on the senior team. For the last decade they have been the heart of this group, all warriors. But for how much longer can the weight of this team rest on their shoulders?
Over the years Wexford’s dependence on Lee Chin has grown in direct proportion to their needs too. They don’t have another player with his presence and power and productivity. On big days, they counted on it. This season, though, he has been injured most of the time and never entirely fit.
Damien Reck, the only Wexford defender to get an All Star nomination last year, has missed this season through injury and his loss is enormous; Paudie Foley, who was Wexford’s second best defender last year, has gone travelling. They don’t have like-for-like replacements. But none of that can explain surrendering a 17-point lead. That was a collective breakdown.
Fourteen years ago, Wexford fell into a relegation final again Antrim but the game was never played. A query about the relegation process landed at the door of the Disputes Resolution Authority [DRA] and they found a procedural flaw in the original motion to Congress.
Around that time, though, Wexford were in a rut. During the week an old newspaper interview from March 2011 was brought to Dunne’s attention; in the course of the piece his expressed his fear about Wexford falling into the second tier. Later that year he took the Wexford job when nobody else would touch it and he put them on a firm footing again.
A dozen years later, though, here they are: staring relegation in the face, the ground shifting violently under their feet.