(From our All-Ireland Finals Annual)
Paul O’Reilly meets Adrian Fenlon, Wexford’s midfield general during their march to the All-Ireland Hurling Championships title of 1996
In 1981, in Enniscorthy Co. Wexford, after following his big brother Pat across the road to Bellefield GAA grounds, an eight-year-old Adrian Fenlon was met by ‘Choppers’ Cullen, the man who first put a hurl in earnest in the youngster’s hand. While Adrian’s father Tommy, a former cricket player in Enniscorthy Showgrounds, had often brought the family on day trips to Croke Park, up to then there wasn’t a strong tradition of hurling in the Fenlon clan.
Quickly developing a grá for the sport, Adrian practised daily, “baitin’” the sliothar either in the field, at school or against Mrs Whelan’s front wall, situated beside Bellefield and opposite the Fenlon household. Back then it was commonplace to see children on roads playing hurling, football, curbs, rounders and it was around this time that Adrian was credited in jest by a local reporter with “baitin’ a crack down the middle of his mother’s eight-foot wall”.
Adrian’s skill developed into his teens under the guidance of men like Brother O’Connell, a Tipperary man passionate about hurling, then teaching in Enniscorthy CBS; Pat Taylor, a Waterford man who first told the eager hurler that he had “too wild of a swing” and that “he needed to control it a little bit more”; and when playing under-14s for the Rapparees, Adrian’s coach was the iconic Paul Lynch, All-Ireland winner and star of the ’68 Wexford team.
Still a teenager, Adrian made his debut for the Rapps senior hurlers against Rathnure, marking Austin Codd. Adrian recalls that he “done okay” and that the “bigger lads” looked after him. The Rapps developed into a strong battling team, with Adrian eventually competing in four senior county finals, but on each occasion they fell just short at the final hurdle.
In 1992, fellow Enniscorthy man Christy Kehoe gave a nineteen-year-old Adrian his first run-out in the county colours, against Clare in an Oireachtas game in Cusack Park. Later credited by Liam Griffin as the man who had built the platform for the ‘96 success, Christy played Adrian at wing-forward from where he scored four points. Due to studies Adrian missed the ’93 League final saga against Cork, but returned for the heartbreaking Leinster final draw and subsequent replay-defeat to Kilkenny a few months later.
Though Griffin came in as manager in 1995 with new ideas and plans, it proved a difficult year, the lowest ebb a defeat to Meath in the League on Adrian’s doorstep, Bellefield.
However, despite this, there were critical factors throughout ’95 that instilled in the team an attitude that success was possible given the right preparations and frame of mind.
Clare’s All-Ireland win had given the Wexford team a belief that “a county steeped in hurling but not winning much” could fight through the pack. “We would’ve felt that pound for pound we were as good as Clare,” he says, “so if they can do it why can’t we?”
A lot of iron was pumped over the winter, plyometric workouts were introduced, nutrition was managed, a psychologist – Niamh Fitzpatrick – was brought in and as Griffin stamped his own meticulous mark, the mood was good coming into the ’96 championship.
While a Leinster quarter-final win over Kilkenny seemed to surprise the media, it came as no surprise to the underdogs. “We were in tip-top shape coming into the championship,” recalls Adrian, “and while there was that psychological thing there, that many Wexford teams just fell short in the last few minutes, we felt confident we could beat Kilkenny.”
Victory over Dublin in the semi-final set up a final “with the thorn in Wexford’s side”, Offaly, then a team of household names like Johnny Pilkington, the Dooleys and Brian Whelahan. A tit-for-tat game up to the final quarter, the floodgates then just opened as Wexford tagged on score after score. Adrian fondly remembers the final whistle, when club-mates Skinner Walsh and Michael Foley almost choked him with excitement on the pitch.
For the All-Ireland semi-final, Wexford knew that if they could “just contain and grind-out Galway” they would win, and that’s how it panned out as Galway missed some crucial scores to the roars of the Wexford supporters on Hill 16.
And so, as a result of the foundations laid by Christy Kehoe, the “hard training” and “methodical and systemic” detail to which Griffin and his team had analysed and coached, to a point where keywords were drilled into the team, Wexford had reached their first All-Ireland final since 1977.
As ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ topped the charts, as the ‘Purple and Gold’ was waltzed to from ballroom to kitchen, as crocks of cars were painted in county colours, the team, taking counsel from true friends like those who’d stood by them after the Meath defeat a year earlier, were still “grounded enough not to get too carried away”.
“Psychologically we felt we were stronger going into that particular game,” Adrian says, recalling that Griffin had predicted Limerick would break from the parade before reaching Hill 16. Griffin also spoke about the importance of body language and Adrian remembers Limerick looking very “jittery” for the meeting of the President. Whereas minutes before, in an effort to relax his own team, Griffin had asked Larry O’Gorman to crack a couple of jokes before running onto the Croke Park sod.
“The first thing I remember about the match is that Seán O’Neill went to give Georgie a hunch just before the throw-in, but he chose the wrong time because he mis-hit his hunch, fell on the ground, and when Pat Horan threw in the ball myself and Georgie just flaked into it. And I think Seán came out the worst.”
A physical game, Wexford players were so well conditioned that when hit, they just bounced back up and when Larry Murphy scored a great opening point, it was the perfect tonic for nerves. Even when Eamonn Scallan was sent off, the meticulous preparation again kicked into play, as Wexford quickly regrouped and executed a ready-made plan.
One man down, Adrian recalls the second half as “a long, long half, as we were really just hanging on for dear life.
“Limerick had a supreme advantage, we had to become defensive, but that said, had Joe Quaid not pulled off some miraculous saves that day Gary Laffan could easily have been man of the match.”
The whistle gone, within seconds exhausted players were almost suffocated by an ecstatic crowd. Still on the field, Adrian handed his hurl to friend Micheál Doyle of Oylegate, but he kept his jersey and his mother guards his medal.
Alongside O’Gorman, Dunne, McCarthy, Storey, Murphy and Dempsey, Adrian earned his only All-Star that year and is extremely proud of the honour.
As for regrets, “Besides the four county final losses, the biggest is that we didn’t go on and do back-to-back titles in ’97. I feel we were probably caught off-guard that day (against Tipperary) and perhaps, in hindsight, hadn’t prepared as well as we should.
“And had we won that day there would’ve been a great atmosphere for the final.”
Of that there is little doubt. It would’ve been a final everyone would’ve wanted to see. Clare and Wexford, the champions of ’95 and ’96 after years of waiting in the wings, flaking it out to be crowned champions once again.