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Leader of the Pack: Wexford’s Matthew O’Hanlon

“The more messages that started to come in congratulating us on our season. That makes a difference because it makes you feel proud”

There’s nothing certain on a sporting journey. You don’t know whether you’ll lift that cup, win that ball, break that tackle, or even make it out in one piece. For Matt O’Hanlon and 11 other Wexford players, there was one day when their journey ceased to be metaphorical and was instead one propelled by petrol and good intentions.

Davy Fitzgerald had just finished his second season in charge of the side and, truth be told, they had limped out of the All-Ireland series with a limp quarter-final display against Clare down in Cork. It left a county that would choose to be dancing at a crossroads instead standing at one, and pondering their next move. The panel were clear that they wanted their manager to stay on for 2019, so 12 of them made the 228-kilometre trek via bus to Sixmilebridge, while others reached out in different ways. “It was the end of the season and we were unsure if Davy was going to stay or go,” explains O’Hanlon. “The players wanted to be proactive to show him how we felt, and we got together and decided the best way was to do the journey that he had been doing over to us for two years.

“It was four or five weeks after the Clare game, we went down on a Saturday, and it was just a symbol of our gratitude and respect for him, to show him what it meant to us, and that we wanted him back. It gave us even more of an appreciation of the journey he had been making to us, and we hoped it would go some way to making his decision.

“He’s the sort of man who has a lot going on in the business world and has plenty of offers, so we just wanted to be on the front foot and have no regrets.

“He didn’t expect it,” says O’Hanlon of Fitzgerald’s reaction. “It meant a lot to him to have the players behind him, but he didn’t commit right away, but I would say it was probably key. It was the following week that he decided to stay on. Who knows if we would have won Leinster if we didn’t make that journey.”

The story of Wexford is one of pilgrimages. In 1996, as they travelled up for the Leinster final with Offaly, then manager Liam Griffin asked his players to step out of the bus and walk over the county lines into Wicklow— extolling the virtues of who they are and where they’re from. The title came home with them, and soon the All-Ireland too.

Liam Dunne was one of the Model County leaders from that era, and O’Hanlon praises the work the former did during his five years as manager up until Fitzgerald took over the job for 2017. “Football had been on a high in the county and the best dual players had been playing that code,” O’Hanlon recalls.

“During Liam’s five years, he got us to compete again and we were capable of pulling off some great one-off wins, but we just didn’t ever find that consistency. He raised the standards and brought through an awful lot of the players that are there now.

“Davy brought in that new level of professionalism, that level of detail and preparation — he’s so passionate about his players and the way he gives it his all, it makes you want to do the same. Belief is intrinsic in everything he does and it has a knock-on effect, and lads have gone on to a new level. That was backed up with results, even if this season didn’t end how we wanted it.”

And yet, for those outside the group, Wexford achieved more than had been expected. O’Hanlon and Co had been pushing the stone uphill for so many seasons, and yet there always seemed to be too much work to do for success to follow. Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin had all won Leinster more recently, while Tipp, Limerick, Clare and Cork always seemed more obvious All-Ireland contenders. The nearly men of Wexford, and yet they were not even so near.

O’Hanlon could have played football if he had chosen to do so, having been reared on both codes with St James’. “I loved all sports growing up, and my father was a GAA fanatic and was always there on the sideline, or coaching me. The love of playing started with the club but then I went to school in Good Counsel and it was a higher standard, and you kick on. You’re there with lads from Kilkenny and Carlow, and from there it was onto Wexford underage and the minor teams. It took on a life of its own.

“My grandfather on my father’s side was Mick O’Hanlon, he played on the team that won All-Irelands in the 1950s (1955 and 1956), that team with the Rackards.

“My interests off the field are quite varied,” he adds. “I like to travel, and every year I try to get somewhere new. Last year it was Central America, the year before it was South Africa and Singapore, and it was South America the year before that again.

“I play golf, go to festivals, go to gigs, meet up with mates and go to the beach. I’m one of these people who likes to be out and about, I’m not passive.”

That quality, of course, feeds into a player continuing to drive towards success. After making his senior championship debut in 2011, there were still no sign of silverware coming right up until 2017. In the Leinster final against Galway, O’Hanlon was sent out to man-mark the roving Joe Canning — not only did the defender keep the Portumna man scoreless from play, but he fired over two points himself. The day ended up with the Bob O’Keeffe Cup being garlanded in maroon ribbons, but it was another step along the voyage.

Fast-forward to 2019, and once more this group were embarking from home, plotting a route to Dublin and this time against the oldest of enemies: Kilkenny. A Leinster title on the line, a chance to end 15 years of waiting.

“We got the train up from Wexford, stopping at Enniscorthy and then Gorey. We got out to stretch our legs, and bring the caterers on to feed us. We went to a school then near Croke Park and did our preparation, had a meeting, re-focused, and did a bit of pre-warmup after the travelling.

“The time you spend together travelling is enjoyable — that’s where the craic happens and the bonds grow. You have lads playing cards, doing quizzes, singing — you know, just passing time and making memories.”

How nervy were the players?

“I don’t think they were. There were definitely fewer nerves than in 2017 — we were focused and our approach was very much about removing the occasion and not thinking about it being on at Croke Park. That took the hype out of it for us and it paid dividends in the end (by winning 1-23 to 0-23).

“That day will live long in the memory,” O’Hanlon says with a smile. “We had no idea what to expect on the trip back. We got the train to Arklow and then got a bus, and there were bales set fire along the sides of the road, cars abandoned, and people cheering. There must have been ten or fifteen thousand people in Gorey spanning generations — people climbing lampposts and standing on bins. It was phenomenal, and it took us an hour to get through it. It makes a special impact on you.”

After two to three days celebrating, the panel re-grouped and decided they had to do everything in their power to be ready for the semi-final against Tipperary. Distractions had to be blocked out, and they decided they couldn’t say yes to every invite to camps and schools they were given after lifting the cup.

The game started well as Wexford raced into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead, though O’Hanlon seemed to suffer a nasty knee injury in the first half — although he tested it out and was able to play on. When Tipp had John McGrath sent off early in the second period, and Wexford went into a five-point lead thanks chiefly to a Lee Chin goal, it seemed as though the Models would return to an All-Ireland final after a 23-year wait.

It wasn’t to be as the courageous blue and gold brigade found a way to win the most dramatic of games by two points. The final collective journey home from the capital in 2019 would end with the feeling of what might have been for Wexford.

“We were extremely disappointed,” says the St James’ man. “Just to lose it by two, and I’ve watched it back since and you’d be so disappointed. The red card should have allowed us more space but it ended up having the opposite effect because we pushed up on Paudie Maher (Tipp’s spare man) and that meant the room was in their forward line.

“We were out on our feet in the last ten or fifteen minutes — it was energy-sapping out there. Hindsight is 20-20, but we should have worked the ball shorter. Still, you have to give massive credit to Tipp who used the ball very well, and some of their scores were exceptional. It was a huge opportunity to get to an All-Ireland final, but overall you’d be happy because we did win a first Leinster title in 15 years.

“We did a lot of soul-searching on the way home, discussing where it went wrong. But the closer we got to home, the more messages that started to come in congratulating us on our season. That makes a difference because it makes you feel proud. At least we have a cup and a medal to show for it — and we had a memorable night that Sunday sharing memories, even the disappointment we had.

“Still, we didn’t come this far to only come this year.”

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