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'There's a buzz back and there's kids wanting to go to watch Wexford hurling again'

Wexford take on Kilkenny in the Leinster SHC semi-final this evening.

WEXFORD HURLING LEGEND Martin Storey has a pragmatic way of looking at things.

Martin Storey Source: INPHO

His county take on Kilkenny in the Leinster SHC semi-final this evening, and over recent months, a burgeoning sense of optimism has been simmering among the Slaneysiders.

Their encouraging league form, coupled with Kilkenny’s apparently wounded state, have inspired those hopeful thoughts.

They also have the 2013 All-Ireland winning manager as the head of their operations, so their high-spirits are arguably well founded.

But Storey — the man who last captained Wexford to All-Ireland glory in 1996 —  isn’t quite indulging in the romantic fanfare.

He has experienced atmospheres like this in the past and he knows what Kilkenny are capable of.

The one thing in Wexford is that every year you have this hope that something will be different,” he tells The42.

That’s not to suggest that he feels disillusioned about Wexford’s chances, or that he foresees his county falling victim to a wipeout this evening at Innovate Wexford Park [Throw-in, 7pm].

But he would like to see the hype dialed down a bit.

In fact, Storey’s summary of tonight’s match-up reverberates with something Davy Fitzgerald said earlier this year, when the Wexford manager asked for the beans to be chilled.

“It’s a big game for Wexford because Kilkenny have probably been written off a bit and everybody knows when Kilkenny are written off and are wounded, they absolutely come back with fire in their belly.

“And unfortunately it’s Wexford they’re playing so, it’s a big test.”

“They’re provincial champions, they’ve won All-Irelands over the last 15 years you may say and beaten last year.

One bad display and all of a sudden, we have written them off but I think it’s just wishful thinking on people’s behalf. They want someone else’s name on the cup, so after Tipperary winning it last year, they want somebody else on it this year.

Fitzgerald will not be patrolling the sidelines this evening, as he continues to serve an eight-week ban which, incidentally, comes to an end within hours of tonight’s fixture.

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) handed down the suspension for his well-documented conduct during Wexford’s league semi-final defeat to Tipperary, and the punishment has limited his influence on the team.

Davy Fitzgerald and Aidan Nolan clash with Jason Forde Davy Fitzgerald during his clash with Tipperary's Jason Forde. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He was forced to watch on from the stands, as Wexford easily dispatched Laois in the previous round of the Leinster championship, and there’s reports of a box being erected in the press area this evening, to give Fitzgerald a clear view of proceedings.

His transgression aside, Storey believes that the Clare man has brought a renewed energy to the county.

“Davy brings huge attention and that’s a good thing. The players have to stand up and match what Davy is bringing.

“He’s bringing attention, he’s bringing passion, he’s bringing the will to win, he’s bringing hunger.

“You get it if you put it in, so Davy’s bringing in all that. And he’s bringing good media attention.

“But that brings a responsibility to the player, that “I have to step up and do my job as well.” I think that’s a good thing and people might look at it differently but I think that once you’re under more scrutiny and under the eye of the camera, you have to play better.

“That’s a good thing.”

Tonight’s game is billed as a sell-out event, and several fans were forced to queue up for tickets, such was the demand.

Storey took his place in the line and a picture of the sight went into circulation on social media.

Much was made of the image given his status in the county, with many assuming that his All-Ireland achievements would guarantee him a lifetime supply of tickets to Wexford matches.

But the Oulart-The-Ballagh man dismisses the notion that those credentials entitle him to any kind of preferential treatment for tickets over other Wexford fans.

“Well that’s just people assuming. That doesn’t happen in reality. I’ve always gone into Wexford Park to get tickets for any matches we were going to if they weren’t available.

“The demand was just so big and the tickets that went online were snapped up very quickly. It was just either fortunate or unfortunate but there was 500 or 600 other people queuing along with me. I have no bother queueing.”

“People are putting it (the picture) as a bad thing, I think it’s a good thing that Wexford people are looking for tickets again.

There’s a buzz back and there’s kids wanting to go to watch Wexford hurling again.

“If you go back 10 years ago, when we were up in Croke Park for semi-finals, finals and Leinsters, we were getting badly beaten and we didn’t have great support. So, I think it’s great.”

It’s almost 21 years since Martin Storey climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to collect the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

But the summer of 1996 is not something that he revisits too often.

He watched their All-Ireland victory over Limerick once out of curiosity, and his main observation of their performance was that their wides tally was unacceptable.

“We missed some scores that we wouldn’t normally miss,” he recalls.

Martin Storey All Ireland Final 1996 Wexford v Limerick Martin Storey following Wexford's All-Ireland victory in 1996. Source: © Tom Honan/INPHO

But winning the All-Ireland isn’t even the crowning achievement for him. It’s a title he values highly of course, but it was merely gravy on his dinner.

Beating Offaly in the Leinster final is the milestone moment that illuminates his memory of that season.

That was the day that manager Liam Griffin ordered for the team bus to pull over at the county border.

And after leading the players over to a nearby ditch, he delivered an impassioned speech before instructing them all to walk across the border with full conviction that they would be coming back over it as champions.

Wexford hurling great Liam Dunne previously revealed that Griffin’s words ‘still send shivers down my spine.’

In his autobiogrphy, ‘I Crossed The Line,’ he writes:

“He brought us back down the centuries to Vinegar Hill. The passionate way he spoke about Wexford brought tears to our eyes.

“It got worse when he spoke about our families and neighbours and ancestors and all the battles they’d had to fight over the years.

Source: HurlingGoals/YouTube

“And the fact they had risen, almost alone, in 1798 to give their blood in the cause of freedom.”

As Storey remembers it, the players had no indication of what Griffin was planning to do that day. There were even suspicions that the bus was broken down when they initially pulled in.

As the players returned to the bus filled with emotion, the captain felt the significance of Griffin’s message sinking in.

“When we were getting back in on the bus, you realised that this was a big thing. It’s not going back up again and coming back again.

It’s going up and making a promise to each other when we got back on the bus that when we come across again the next time, we will be Leinster champions.

“We were making a pact with each other that we were either gonna die or come back as Leinster champions.”

He added:

“That made you start thinking about the match about four hours earlier than you’d normally start thinking about it and the importance of your part in it.”

Winning the All-Ireland was the bouns and the icing on the cake. It was the ultimate but if you got to the All-Ireland final and you got beaten, you got there but you had once gone up the steps to get something.

Griffin employed a number of strategies that year that were somewhat advanced for that age of hurling.

He revolutionised the players’ attitude to nutrition, he drafted in the services of a sports psychologist to help with their mental preparation, and he also arranged for the players to watch Braveheart on the team bus while travelling to games.

It was a novel approach, but Storey embraced it from the outset.

It was my 10th year with Wexford and I had won nothing, so if Liam Griffin asked me to walk backwards up Vinegar Hill or Mount Leinster, I would have done it if I thought it would help me win a Leinster medal.

“It was probably a bit different, but it did make the difference.”

Griffin’s sense of innovation delivered a glorious summer for the people of Wexford, but two decades have past without any such repeat of that feat.

Storey would love to see Wexford scaling those heights again, but as he looks to Wexford’s crunch tie against Kilkenny this evening, he has a pragmatic way of assessing their chances.

Lee Chin Wexford's Lee Chin in action against Kilkenny in the 2017 National League. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“If we can stick with Kilkenny into the second half, we will be there or there abouts.

“I have no fear but Kilkenny are going to have to come out at the start of the match and they’ll stick the knife in early and I’m hoping that we will be able to deal with that for the first 20 minutes.

“For me, that’s the vital part of the game. To deal with the Kilkenny onslaught for the first 20 minutes and if we can do that, we’ll be there or there abouts.”

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