'I had an absolute ball and loved being involved' - retiring from Wexford after 14 senior seasons

The longest-serving member of the Wexford squad retired recently. Éanna Martin reflects on his county career.

Eanna Martin celebrates after the 2019 Leinster hurling final.
Eanna Martin celebrates after the 2019 Leinster hurling final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE END OF the line was reached in anti-climactic fashion.

14 seasons as a Wexford senior hurler and the last day out for Éanna Martin was spent watching the TV footage on a mid-November Saturday afternoon as Tony Kelly unleashed his magic for Clare.

It had been a strange stop-start season. Injury struck last winter, a pandemic called a halt to games as a spring return beckoned and by the time of the winter resumption in the winter, he had just been nudged to number three in the Wexford goalkeeper pecking order.

“The disappointing thing was I watched the Galway game on the couch at home and the same for the Portlaoise one. Didn’t make the 26 and couldn’t travel to the grounds with the way things were. So not the way you would want it to end.

“We came back from our holiday to New York and Orlando last year, went training and I’d a wicked pain in my leg, couldn’t straighten my left leg. Had to go to Santry to get scans, turned out I’d tendonitis in my left hamstring. Was told I’d to get a couple of injections and it’d take about four months to get it right.

“I did an awful lot of training on my own during lockdown, treadmill in the house, bike work, running drills out in the back garden. Lot of strength and conditioning stuff with the aim to come back in best as shape as I could. I really went at it. I just didn’t get back in to the squad then.”

He had always figured this would be his last go as a Wexford player. The temptation was there at the close of 2019 to pull the plug. But a season of Leinster glory and narrowly missing out on a spot in an All-Ireland final, fuelled the drive to push on for another year.

wexford-celebrate-after-the-game Wexford players celebrate after being Kilkenny in 2019. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

During lockdown he toyed with the idea of dropping out quietly but instead is glad that he redoubled his efforts to get his leg right and return to the inter-county training ground.

“I’m 35 next year, I don’t know could I have put in another year like I did this year in terms of the manic training that I did myself to get back. One of the reasons I was able to do that psychologically was that I said in my head this was the last chance, so give it everything.

“It’s rare lads leave on a high and then other people don’t even get the opportunity to retire, they’re told they’re retiring.

“I’m glad I got to make the decision and Davy was very good that way. I rang him nearly a month ago at this stage. I was talking to him one of the Saturdays, there was still hurling matches on TV. I told him and he said, ‘There’s no hassle and it’s great that it’s your choice.’

“That’s good and I really enjoyed working under him. It feels right, it’s time. I had a ball.”

eanna-martin Eanna Martin in actino in the Walsh Cup for Wexford against Kilkenny. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

And so the longest-serving member of the Wexford squad moves on. Maybe the departure is not accompanied by national fanfare but it’s the conclusion of a remarkable  career in its’ own way.

How many other modern inter-county players retire with the record of having played senior championship in goal, in defence and in attack?

If 2020 is the official end point, the date of 30 July 2019 felt like a worthy culmination as well.

A Leinster hurling title secured in Wexford colours at last. The understudy to Mark Fanning, Martin did not see gametime in Croke Park for that landmark win over Kilkenny but no Wexford person cherished the success more and no player had put in as much toil to secure the medal.

Not just senior service since the outset of 2007, it was the run of underage outings before that with a few U21 championships, a couple of minor campaigns and stretching all the way back to his debut for the U14 side in 1999.

“It was an unbelievable day personally and as a team and as a county after years of work. Coming home on the train, going into Connolly Station the place was packed with Wexford fans. Then we got off the train in Arklow, got the bus down then, in through Gorey, the bus took an hour to get up the street with the crowds.

“That’s a thing you’ll never forget seeing, what it meant for the people of Wexford. The wait of 15 years added to it. It was just amazing.”

Amidst the pure joy of the post-match celebrations, there was a standout moment when he met his family, spotting them in the stand. His wife Jackie. His father Terry.

His brother Traolach with his wife Jennifer and their daughters Honor and Laoise.

Image from iOS (2) Source: Eanna Martin

“It was hugely emotional when I saw Dad and everyone. You wouldn’t have the photo planned. We did a lap of honour. All the Kilkenny crowd were gone at that stage, just Wexford people left and I was able to see them. Great to get that opportunity.”

The emotion was increased by thoughts of a guiding presence who was not there, his mother Honor who passed away in 2013.

“The Leinster final was an unbelievably great day but sad as well at the same time. Would have started Tony Forristal when I was 13 and it was Mam who brought me to trials and to training. Like all mothers do, they’d sit and wait in the car, read a book, until you’re finished, bring you home and bring you down the next day.

“You wouldn’t be there only for what your parents do for you and every player is the same. That’s the great thing about the GAA, the family side of it.

“A huge shock, it was just hard to take when she passed away. I remember going through the 2013 season, we were playing Clare in Thurles. I didn’t travel on the bus with the lads because we were down in hospital with Mam. I just text Liam Dunne that I was going to drive up myself and he was super.

“One of the first things we did after Mam passed away, the three of us – me, Traolach and Dad – was go to the All-Ireland final replay in ’13, Clare and Cork. That was really emotional, we would have always went to All-Irelands every year the four of us. Up to the Kilmacud Sevens the night before, stayed up.

“You were surrounded by Clare people who were very emotional because Clare were after winning and they’re crying. I was nearly the same for a different reason. You’d be thinking back to all that.”

Home was in New Ross, where his father grew up. His mother hailed from the Rower, just over the border in south Kilkenny. Her brother Pat Kavanagh, part of the crew watching on for last year’s Leinster final, was a Kilkenny All-Ireland senior winner in 1969 who later ended up through his work as a vet living in Tipperary and winning county senior medals with Borris-Ileigh.

“Huge hurling family and we love it. I remember when we were younger we went to Walsh Park for the Waterford finals and semi-finals, you saw Mount Sion and Ballygunner, up in Nowlan Park seeing the Kilkenny finals, went to Thurles for the Tipp final. I was at the Cork county final when Na Piarsaigh won, the one Setanta came back for. Just constantly going to matches.

“We were very lucky and grateful to everyone in Geraldine O’Hanrahans club. I started out there as a kid and played right up until end of 2010. It’s a club with a great history, you’d have had Tom Neville, Ned Colfer and Jimmy O’Brien from there on the Wexford team that won the All-Ireland in ’68. My grandad won 4 senior counties, Dad won an intermediate county and Mam was secretary in her time.

“I loved playing for them and was very proud to be the first person from the club to play senior championship for Wexford in over twenty years. In 2016 when I moved to Dublin, I went back playing with them and was delighted I did.

“Dad and Mam were huge hurling fans, they instilled that in us. You can see my brother Traolach, he’s obsessed with it. He’s involved everywhere he goes, when he was in Dublin teaching he was with the Dublin underage squads. He’s down in Cork now, involved with the Cork ’20s and Christians Harty. Just a super hurling person himself.”

tipperarys-ronan-maher-and-wexfords-eanna-martin Martin in action against Tipperary's Ronan Maher in the league in 2018. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The hurling path was mapped out then, county recognition the clear target to aspire to. Senior recruitment came in November 2006 from John Meyler.

“Getting called in back then was unreal. There was still lads from ’96. Damien Fitzhenry was in goal, absolute hero of mine, my idol growing up. Rory McCarthy was there, Declan Ruth, Mitch Jordan, they were still part of it.

“I know a lot of people go on about ’96 but I was ten, the ideal age to be caught up in it. It drove on from there. So that was great to share a dressing room with them and get to know them. There was a lot of other lads on the panel as well that you would have looked up to from the 2004 Leinster final.

“John was great, I actually used to travel up and down with him to training from Cork as I was in college there. Looking back now, I probably didn’t understand the significance that you’re driving up and down with the senior manager twice a week. He saw something in me to put me outfield.”

john-meyler-with-goalkeeper-damien-fitzhenry Former Wexford manager John Meyler with goalkeeper Damien Fitzhenry. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After playing in goal for Wexford underage teams, his senior league debut came outfield against Antrim in 2008 in Belfast. The late Paul O’Connor, a great coach of UCC hurling teams, had a major impact in encouraging Martin that he had the potential to flourish in different positions.

So began a nomadic inter-county hurling existence. Consider his championship appearances. Full-forward against Limerick in 2009 under Colm Bonnar. Persuaded to return to goal in 2012 by Liam Dunne, starting that summer against Offaly, Carlow and Cork. Then for Dunne’s last year at the helm he was wing-back in 2016 for a rousing win in the rain in Thurles as Wexford ended a 60-year barren championship streak against Cork.

patrick-horgan-tackles-eanna-martin Action from the Cork-Wexford game of 2016. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Looking back on it now, maybe I should have stayed in goal for ’13 or a bit longer. Probably put a lot of pressure on myself in terms of thinking I’m in goal for Wexford now, I should be as good as Damien Fitzhenry. Just was training mad, doing extra bits and probably doing too much. Subsconsciously putting so much into the game, put a lot of pressure on myself on match days then that everything should be perfect.”

There were defensive appearances initially under Davy Fitzgerald before he returned as a goalkeeper contender from the start of 2019. The stock answer amongst GAA players is they’re happy to play wherever the manager tells them. During his time with Wexford, Martin lived up to that as he got handed most types of starting jerseys in a dressing-room.

“It’s not something I was planning on doing. I was just wanting to hurl for Wexford. If a manager asked me to do something that he thought would improve the Wexford setup, I’d do it. I would have trusted the manager and said, ‘No problem at all.’

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“It was probably to the detriment at some point in that you were all over the place. But I enjoyed it and if it improved the team at all I was open to it.

“You want to play the whole time. The day you’re not picked you’d be disappointed. I was in and out a bit but just have to put the head down and drive on. The collective is the big thing.”

eanna-martin Full-forward action against Limerick in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

That admirable attitude of persisting during some lean years for the county was more commendable given where life was taking him. After college he stayed working in Cork until 2014, then spent a couple of years in Dublin before a move to Kilkenny where he now lives.

Pharmaceutical company Phoenix Labs were his employers in a variety of roles before he became Wexford GAA’s commercial manager in March 2018.

“In 2008 I got a car and was driving myself from Cork. (Eoin) Quigley moved down around 2010 and spent a good few years going up and down training with him. Great friend of mine and we would have got very close, a huge help to me in terms of everything with hurling and work.

“We’d take it every second night with the driving. We’d leave early enough, around three o’clock. You’d be up for six. Always tried to get up an hour before training because you’d have been in the car for so long. Then we’d be back down around one in the morning.

“Looking back on it, it was madness but great to be able to do it. At the time you never questioned it, you just did it. Lucky enough to have great employers because you need that. My boss there Larry McGowan was a super help, a great hurling man in Ratoath in Meath.”

The notion of the inter-county player leading an unappealing life of painstaking commitment with little reward is not one he agrees with.

“There’s lot of people say it’s a big sacrifice you’re making, I don’t think it is. It’s a choice, it’s either for you or it’s not. The way we looked at it, is we wanted to play for Wexford. It’s your family members make the sacrifice, your loved ones, you miss out on events. It’s a great opportunity to be able to do it, a privilege.”

The support close to home was crucial though during it all.

“Jackie would have first of all liked to see me doing what I like doing and enjoy, same as anyone really. Having the understanding of the GAA structure and calendar is the big thing. Like our holidays every year were in November and December. We got married in December because that’s when you can enjoy it.

“There is a lot of understanding there but Jackie comes from a big hurling family. Her father Pat was secretary for Carrickshock for years, her sister Mairead played for Kilkenny camogie and an All-Star. Richie and John Power are her first cousins. They all just get it and it’s great to have that support.”

Being on the move provided different hurling opportunties. Living and working in Cork, he made the switch in 2010 to the Sarsfields club, friends with a bunch of their players from college. Between then and 2015 he packed in a couple of county senior medals, other final appearances and formed strong bonds.

dean-brosnan-and-eanna-martin Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I’d huge friendships in Sars, still do. There’s just a connection there, super lads. Would be onto them the whole time. Had a ball down there and they were very welcoming to me and the family.”

Living in Hugginstown now, he has thrown in his playing lot of late with local side Carrickshock. Himself and Jackie are expecting their first child in February, 2021 will be a new chapter.

After over two decades turning out for various Wexford teams, he’s content with his lot.

“It was super, made friends for life. Got some very nice comments last week, phone calls and texts from lads in other counties, lads in Cork, a few Kilkenny players, Limerick, Tipp. Also a couple of messages like parents you’d meet them and their kids after matches. Things like that hit you a little bit.

“I had an absolute ball and loved being involved.”

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