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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019
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'They'll be sitting just behind me in the dugout. I wouldn't want to enjoy these experiences without them'

Tom Elmes and his Wexford Youths side are defending the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. But it’s about much more than that.

Tom Elmes with his kids, Maisie and Alfie, at the launch of the FAI Cup finals on Wednesday.
Tom Elmes with his kids, Maisie and Alfie, at the launch of the FAI Cup finals on Wednesday.
Image: Tom Elmes/Twitter.

AS WEXFORD YOUTHS manager Tom Elmes walks into the room at the FAI Cup finals media day, it’s not he who attracts the most attention. It’s his two sidekicks. 

A lovely moment amid the hustle and bustle of interviews, photography and other run of-the-mill procedures and protocols at the Aviva Stadium ahead of the big day on Sunday, the two little ones by his side are soon in the thick of it all, watching on proudly as their Dad fulfills his media duties. 

11-year-old Alfie and nine-year-old Maisie seem to be the best of pals, running about the Lansdowne Road turf and chatting with the Wexford Youths players in attendance, as Elmes takes great pride himself in introducing them to all present. 

They were mascots as Wexford lifted the trophy and sealed the treble at the venue last year, the Birmingham native explains, and while he was conscious that someone else got a turn this year, they now need flag bearers.

So, Alfie and Maisie will duly oblige once again.

“They love it,” a beaming Elmes tells The42. “I wouldn’t want to enjoy these experiences without them here.

I think it’s really good that when they get a little bit older, they can look back and go, ‘Jesus, remember that time when we did this and that.’ 

“They’ll be coming to the hotel with us on Saturday, they’ll stay over. The girls love them and they love being involved. They’ll be sitting just behind me in the dugout, it’s these things I love sharing with them. I think it’s important. 

“They’ll have their Wexford Youths jerseys on at the weekend, hopefully!”

wexford-youths-line-up-before-the-game Alfie and Maisie as mascots last year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Elmes can’t but hide his excitement as he speaks. Although Wexford aren’t coming into the biggest day of the Irish women’s football calendar on the same high as they were last year, it’s still an occasion that can’t be bet. 

12 months ago, the all-conquering Youths beat Peamount United 1-0 at the Aviva to seal the domestic league, cup and shield treble. This time around, the momentum is with Peas however, after they were crowned league champions last Saturday night.

“It probably hasn’t been the best year for us so we’re a little bit more hungry and have a little bit more bite in us now,” Elmes admits.

“We can’t wait to be here again. Even coming in today just gets that excitement going again. The last couple of weeks have been really good, training has been excellent. I couldn’t have asked for any more from the girls, their commitment has been fantastic.

Cup finals are great to come and play in. Last year was my first experience, the players have more experience than that. Even as a coach, coming through the tunnel and onto the pitch, it’s unbelievable. It’s a fantastic experience.

“But it’s important to get past that quite quickly and get the players focused on the game, not thinking too much about the venue and the spectacle and things like that.”

The Slaneysiders are no strangers to the big day, that’s for sure. Sunday’s showdown comes as their fourth cup final in five years — they won in 2015 and 2018 but were thumped 5-0 by Shelbourne in 2016.

All else is forgotten now, however. 

Including this season’s league campaign, one which will be considered a disappointment by most after the 2017 and 2018 champions finished 15 points adrift of Peamount in third place.

“Look, it was a tough year,” Elmes says, trying to focus on the positives. “But I think learning early on that we weren’t going to compete for the league — which we would have liked to have done — meant maybe we got to keep things a little more fresh in the team.

There’s that little bit more bite in the players now, they’re hungry for a bit of silverware.

He’s well aware the Dubliners are coming in with the momentum, but Wexford hold the trophy after nailing their one perfect chance at the Aviva last November. And won’t give it up without a fight.

“Our squad is completely different this time around,” he notes, though. “There’s players that we didn’t have last year, some have left and gone to other clubs and countries. We’re coming in with a completely different team.

tom Elmes took over as Wexford Youths manager at the start of last year.

“It probably took us that little bit longer to bed new players in. The league doesn’t forgive you for dropping a couple of points here and there. Unfortunately we were probably on the wrong end of a couple of results against Peamount and Shels, a goal between us.

I think we probably performed a little bit better this year than we did last, but we would have always got that win then. As a group now, we felt we’ve really come together.

“I think we’ve actually got a stronger team and I think we’re going to create a hell of a lot more chances than we did last year. When you’ve got players like Rianna [Jarrett], Kylie [Murphy], Lauren Kelly on your team, you’ve always got a chance of putting a few away.”

34-year-old Elmes moved to Ireland from Birmingham 13 years ago. He most definitely hasn’t lost his accent, but at this stage, he has Wexford running through his veins.

He scored the winning goal in the club’s first-ever League of Ireland game in 2007, and went on to rattle the net time and time again before hanging up his boots at the end of the 2013 season.

Elme’s transition to management has been a seamless one since taking the Wexford reins ahead of the 2018 campaign, while he’s currently enjoying his second year at the helm.

A few years back, he did some analysis work for coaches at the club but last season was his first in the hot-seat. Interestingly, he just went in on a trial period to get their pre-season up and running after Laura Heffernan’s departure, but he’s been there ever since.

“Look, I had a good career with Wexford myself,” he smiles. “I really enjoyed it.

“I was working with the FAI then, I had gone through my education in Belfast and in Carlow, and I was just getting to the point where I needed to make the decision whether I wanted to pursue this, get in early and learn.

You’re forever learning. Over the last two years, I’ve learned so much. I made that decision that I wanted to get into the coaching that little bit earlier and look, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

“I couldn’t say I’ve worked with a better group of players. Their hunger and their desire in training is absolutely fantastic.

“I’m working in IT Carlow on a player development course with a few of my players so I’d be exposed to them in different environments. They’re something else. As soon as they asked me to get involved, it was a great opportunity that couldn’t be passed.”

wex Elmes, his side, Maisie and Alfie celebrating their 2018 National League Development Shield win. Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

He adds: “It’s a long season, there’s tough times but for me, I couldn’t ask to work with a better group. We’ve gone through a tough year this year but you don’t have years like we had last year — where everything goes right for you — without taking a few tough years as well.

“At the same time, we’ve brought in a lot of new, good players. Our main focus is this weekend and getting the result we want, but I’m really excited for next year and where we can go, even strengthen the fantastic group we have.”

Going in, Elmes admits he didn’t know what to expect, but he quickly became accustomed to the new way of life and differences in the women’s game.

Having limited time with players in the dressing room was one shock to the system at the start, but his entrusted captain Kylie Murphy makes sure that all goes smoothly now. 

The main difference, however, has been just how close the set-up is. 

I think in the women’s game and probably women’s sport in general, the bond and the knit between players is incredibly solid,” he explains. “For me, that was something unbelievable.

“Once they know they can trust you and see that you’re trusting them, once they accept you in, there’s no better place you can be. The amount of respect I have from them… you always feel that they have your back and that’s important in my role because it doesn’t always go right, you don’t always make the right decision. It’s easy for people to look to the coach and the manager when performances don’t go well.

“But look, the players are fantastic. They know that we’re as one. Everything we do, we do together. For me, the biggest surprise and the most exciting thing about it was how close that bond is.”

There’s no shortage of praise lavished on his side.

“Wexford’s a little bit different,” he grins. “There’s a family environment down there, some of the players who came in this year have been blown away by how close everyone is.

“There’s that team ethic, that attitude, it’s really good and something I’ve enjoyed. It’s a little bit how I’d like to work anyway so it suited us. We’re all a really hard working group.

“Players have come in and some have left very early on, if you don’t fit the mould, you’re not going to survive down there. Players come in and they’re a little bit taken away by how hard they work and the level of expectation.

You don’t have the success that this team has had over the last number of years… there’s no one in the male or female game, I don’t think even Dundalk have had the amount of success that Wexford Youths have had.

“You don’t get that unless you’re doing something right at the core of it. I think that’s the secret: at the core there’s that family environment, that hard work and character that separates them for the rest. I hope that’s what we see on Sunday. We really need to.”

It definitely would be the positive end to the season Wexford want, and need. 

james-ocallaghan-and-tom-elmes With Peamount manager James O'Callaghan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Winning titles and success is hugely important, of course, but for someone like Tom Elmes, it’s about much more than that.

That’s evident as Alfie and Maisie stand by his side and straight after our interview, the conversation switches to Halloween and trick-or-treating. No matter how Sunday goes, the English-born Wexford Youths manager is happy with the life he’s built on these shores.

“Look, I’m Wexford through and through,” he agrees. “I’ve seen them down there in the good times, the bad times. I’m sure the club as a whole can bounce back.

Now, with the growth and the big push behind women’s sport with the 20×20 campaign, I think Wexford can really be a leader in terms of pushing women’s sport.

“If you look at the facilities and the structures we have down in Ferrycarrig, it’s fantastic. We’ve even moved our training venue out to Carlow so we’re able to bring in players from a bigger radius. Within an hour, you can cover a lot more areas.

“Coming down to Wexford two nights a week and at the weekend isn’t always as attractive. We don’t have that pool of players with us so we’ve had to expand a little bit.

“The club is forever growing, and it’s great to see a club where you can argue that women are what’s really important down there. They’re really pushing things and leading the way.”

Leading the way, indeed. And they’ll hope to do that once again on Sunday afternoon.

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Emma Duffy

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