This purple and gold corner of the country was alive with hurling fever 50 years ago as Wexford bathed in the tremendous afterglow of the county senior hurlers’ epic 5-8 to 3-12 fightback to All-Ireland glory over Tipperary.
The exploits of the hurlers have given birth to countless tales down through the years, even during the barren streak of wall-to-wall heartache which were bookended by the exhilarating McCarthy Cup conquests of 1968 and 1996.
But it is the sheer remarkable nature of the feat in ’68 – overcoming a 10 point deficit after 25 minutes – which ensures that it generates special emotions in Loch Garman hearts and minds, and today, on Pettitt’s county senior hurling championship final Sunday, everybody associated with Wexford GAA enjoys the absolute privilege of celebrating our brilliant All-Ireland heroes of five decades ago.
Wexford overcame sizeable odds on that Sunday 1st September at Croke Park, and not merely in the context of having to face down that daunting 10 point deficit against a razor-sharp Tipp.
But even before throw-in, the Premier County were the hottest of hot favourites to atone for their shock defeat to Kilkenny in the previous year’s decider.
Tipperary were at the height of their powers having been outright champions in 1961, ’62, ’64 and ’65 – nailing Wexford on the latter occasion (2-16 to 0-10). They retained the eminent talents of Mick Roche, Len Gaynor, Donie Nealon and PJ Ryan along with Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, Jimmy Doyle and Liam Devaney, to name but a handful of this star-studded line-out.
However, despite the general consensus of a sure-fire Tipp success, there was plenty to recommend about a Wexford team that was overseen by manager Padge Kehoe (St. Aidan’s) and selectors Nicky Rackard (Rathnure), Mick O’Hanlon (Horeswood), Syl Barron (Rathnure), Nick Cardiff (St. Martin’s) and Tom Donohoe (Buffers Alley).
Indeed, from Wexford’s 1960 All-Ireland title glory over Tipperary (2-15 to 0-11), goalie Pat Nolan, defender Tom Neville and attacker Jimmy O’Brien remained vibrant forces; from the 1962 senior All-Ireland final loss, that trio were joined by Ned Colfer, Phil Wilson and Paul Lynch; in 1963, Vinny Staples and Tony Doran helped bring home the county’s first-ever minor hurling All-Ireland; in 1965, the seniors were again runners-up in the All-Ireland when Nolan, Neville, Colfer, Staples, Wilson and O’Brien were joined by Dan Quigley and Willie Murphy; but 1965 saw Staples, Quigley, Murphy, Doran, Christy Jacob and Jack Berry deliver All-Ireland under-21 honours; in 1966, Wexford contested the under-21 final when Staples and Doran remained and John Quigley emerged, with Quigley having helped Wexford to All-Ireland minor hurling silverware that summer against Cork, before he and Wexford finished as runners-up a year later.
So there is clear evidence that the Wexford squad in 1968 was ripe with considerable top-level experience.
And yet few cared to look beyond Tipperary as likely champions.
Expectations amongst the Wexford fraternity in the 63,485-strong attendance were heightened after rejoicing in the minors’ 2-18 to 3-7 win over Cork in the curtain-raiser, when aided by goals from star centre-back Larry Byrne (free) and Mick Butler, with Martin Quigley – younger brother of seniors Dan and John – also prominent.
Dave Bernie confirmed during Wexford County Council’s recent Civic Reception for the 1968 senior champions that the minors’ feat lifted the senior dressing-room.
Unfortunately, although the seniors drew first-blood against Tipp – a point from one of the game’s leading marksmen, Paul Lynch – doom and gloom quickly set in for Wexford as the strangely listless Slaneysiders were fairly and squarely beaten throughout the first-half. Indeed, despite two more Paul Lynch points (frees), Wexford’s plight looked increasingly difficult when 1-10 to 0-3 down after 25 minutes.
And the situation would have been even worse but for the sheer custodial excellence of goalie Pat Nolan, whose cool brilliance defied ‘Babs’ Keating, Jimmy Doyle, Liam Devaney and Seán McLoughlin from inflicting further damage during that time.
Regardless, despite Jack Berry pulling back a 26th-minute goal, few dared to predict a Wexford victory on the basis of their lack of cohesion during that first-half as they broke 1-11 to 1-3 in arrears at half-time.
But history now shows how the Wexford management had set the wheels in motion for the team’s subsequent remarkable change in fortunes with a number of astute switches late in the first-half, as centre-forward Tony Doran and full-forward Jack Berry swapped berths, while young John Quigley was summoned from the ‘bench to replace the injured Seamus ‘Shanks’ Whelan at right corner-forward, from where John injected new fire and determination into the attack.
Enormously significant to the transformation too was a famous half-time verbal tirade accompanied by bashing of hurley on table by Wexford boss Padge Kehoe, with cups and saucers reduced to debris as the manger dispensed his utter displeasure with Wexford’s abject first-half effort as he implored them to restore honour in the second-half. So raucous was Padge’s call-to-arms that a rather alarmed Croke Park official was caused to peek inside the door to satisfy himself that all was okay!
The manager’s actions certainly elicited the desired response as the Wexford display now bore no resemblance to what had been offered during the first-half. Now they were hitting the ball crisply, both in the air and on the ground, and moved with an assurance that was in marked contrast to their earlier endeavours.
Phil Wilson, a great stylist of the game, now ruled the roost at midfield, and with the aid of the sparkling Dave Bernie, they turned the tide Wexford’s way in this sector of the field.
The half-backs, with Dan Quigley flanked by Vinnie Staples and Willie Murphy, formed a stonewall as they backed up the midfielders’ work to help Wexford launch a series of spirited raids which aided the fast, quick-striking attack to over-run the Tipperary lines and warm the hearts of followers with sparkling goals and points.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 28th-minute of the second-half that Tipperary scored again – a Liam Devaney point – and, as The Echo report of the time put it succinctly: “This is an eloquent tribute to the work of a tough, spirited defence.”
Wexford tore into the second-half. Jack Berry pointed. Christy Jacob had a goal ruled out. Tony Doran netted on 36 minutes with the score that was the signal for his side’s recovery. Wexford crammed on the pressure. Jack Berry cut the gap to three points. Liam Devaney pointed in response. Jimmy O’Brien points for Wexford. A crescendo of cheers greeted Paul Lynch’s equalising goal from a free (3-6 to 1-12) before Jack Berry was splendidly denied by Tipp goalie John O’Donoghue. The Wexford scores flowed, including Jack Berry’s clinching goal – his second personal major. Tony Doran’s point on 57 minutes meant Wexford had transformed themselves from trailing by 10 points after 25 minutes to now leading by 8!
The sense of ecstasy amongst Wexford connections simply knew no bounds.
Tipperary did test Wexford nerves when producing a strong late rally which generated goals from Seán McLoughlin and ‘Babs’ Keating
But Wexford wouldn’t be denied, and on the final-whistle the heroes surrendered themselves to their thousands of frantic supporters on a truly historic afternoon for the Model County at GAA HQ – as not alone did both the seniors and minors not only contest All-Ireland finals on the same bill for the very first-time, but they also emerged triumphant.
The neatly crafted words of the match-correspondent in The Echo days later aptly surmises what that wise management and their sensational players achieved in overturning such massive odds:
“A memorable achievement by as stout-hearted a team as has ever donned the Wexford jersey – a team fit to take its place with the great champion sides of the past”.
And its to those men, and, indeed, the relatives of deceased members of that special bunch, that Wexford supporters of every hue take tremendous pleasure in remembering with favour in this the 50th anniversary year of that great achievement.
Wexford – Pat Nolan (Oylegate-Glenbrien); Tom Neville (Geraldine O’Hanrahans), Eddie Kelly (Shamrocks), Ned Colfer (Geraldine O’Hanrahans); Vinnie Staples (St. Martin’s), Dan Quigley (Rathnure, capt.), Willie Murphy (Faythe Harriers); Phil Wilson (Ballyhogue), Dave Bernie (Ferns St. Aidan’s); Paul Lynch (Shamrocks, 1-3, 1-2 frees), Tony Doran (Buffers Alley, 2-1), Christy Jacob (Oulart-The Ballagh); Jimmy O’Brien (Geraldine O’Hanrahans, 0-2), Jack Berry (St. Anne’s, 2-2), Seamus Whelan (St. Martin’s).
Subs: John Quigley (Rathnure) for Seamus Whelan; Teddy O’Connor (Rathnure) for Vinnie Staples; also, Mick Jacob (Oulart-The Ballagh), Mick Kinsella (Buffers Alley), Pat Nolan (Geraldine O’Hanrahans), Ned Buggy (Faythe Harriers), Seamus Barron (Rathnure), Mick Browne (Faythe Harriers), Jimmy Furlong (Adamstown).
Tipperary – John O’Donoghue; John Costigan, Noel O’Gorman, John Gleeson; Mick Burns (0-1 ’65), Mick Roche (capt.), Len Gaynor; Donie Nealon, PJ Ryan; Michael Keating (1-3), Jimmy Ryan, Jimmy Doyle (1-5, 0-4 frees); Liam Devaney (0-2), John McKenna, Seán McLoughlin (1-1).
Sub: Frank Loughnane for Jimmy Doyle.
Referee – John Dowling (Offaly).