Wexfordgaa.ie’s Joe Carroll caught up with Senior Hurling Manager Liam Dunne as he fine tuned the team for the visit of Dublin to Wexford next Saturday night. It’s a busy time for the Oulart man who has just started a new job with St John of God Care Services.
Wexford’s most recent meeting with our championship adversaries, Dublin was one to forget, ending in a 13 points drubbing for the Wexfordmen. Liam Dunne ever looking to take the positives, even from such a comprehensive defeat, believes that the game taught them more than any win could have, but he did concede that on the day they looked like a group who’d never played together before. He ruefully admitted, “yes it looked that way to lads on the pitch, to us on the line and supporters in the stand.” Dunne fully understood supporter’s frustration with the seeming lack of a coordinated plan but believes his team responded 7 days later when they travelled to Limerick and won a hard fought draw.
Since the end of the league, Wexford have been working hard on and off the pitch, looking to improve at every session, always conscious of the size of the gap to be bridged if they are to compete with Dublin on the 8th of June.
This is Dunne’s second year as Wexford Senior Hurling manager and it’s obvious that he has travelled a journey, learning, adapting, making significant and incremental changes. Dunne, one of the finest hurlers of his generation, or any generation for that matter, came to the job after a spell over the Wexford minor hurlers and as manager of his home club, Oulart-the-Ballagh. He came with a reputation for discipline and straight talking, and when he took over in January 2012, the Wexford Senior hurlers were possibly at a historic low ebb. The season of 2011 had ended in a deflating 1-22 to 2-13 defeat to Limerick in the All Ireland Qualifiers and the resignation of team manager, Colm Bonnar. Wexford hurling was again in a spin and when a committee under Liam Griffin was formed to find Bonnar’s replacement many hoped Dunne would get the job.
In late 2011, Liam was appointed as manager and took over the role following Oulart’s exit from the Leinster Club Hurling Championship to Coolderry; but it was a testing time personally. “The day after getting the Wexford job I got a call from my boss asking me to meet with him in Thurles [Dunne worked as a Rep for construction products group Cemex] and 30 days later I was unemployed” -another casualty of the implosion of the Irish construction sector.
Unemployment is something you can feel does not sit well with Dunne, working since he was 15 when he apprenticed as a joiner in Blackwater with Andy Roche, Dunne is a man who likes to be active.
“I worked for a year with Wexford County Board but Croke Park intervened and ended this, so in January I signed on.” His disappointment at this is clear but yet he’s quick to avoid wallowing in self pity saying, “look its one of those things, I’m just one of many in the situation.”
Like many, Dunne shared the soul crushing experience of most job seekers in recession era Ireland, applying and interviewing for jobs. Interestingly he believes that many employers see his role with Wexford, not a positive but as a negative, expressing concerns about the drain on his time it would be.
The reality however is that, while the Wexford role requires time, Dunne has not fallen into the trap of believing he must do it all himself, and has surrounded himself with a brilliant support team including his selectors Murty Dempsey and Tomás Codd, administration and liaison Dermot Howlin, and his brother Séan Dunne, kitman and goalkeeping coach, who he says is “probably the hardest working member of the team.” In addition he has also called on the services of a number of specialists including Gerry Fitzpatrick former Head Coach with the Irish Basketball Team, Enda McNulty, All Ireland winner with Armagh, Paudie Butler former National Director of Hurling with the GAA. With this support in place Dunne says the Wexford job would have no impact on his ‘day job’.
Not wanting to stand still, and unsurprising for a man who you can sense is always seeking to improve himself and those he works with, he recently ‘returned to school’ completing a Diploma in Team Management through the Ulster Council, travelling up and down to Armagh.
Things are on the up; Dunne has just started a new career, having been appointed as Regional Fundraiser for St John of God’s Care Services, a charity which provides 24 hour critical care and respite care to children with severe disabilities and to their families, see www.sjog.ie.
You can tell Dunne is excited by the challenge and really believes in the cause and the importance of the work they are doing in their 23 nationwide centres. Victims of savage cuts in state funding, the St John of God Care Service desperately needs people to support their work and Dunne will be travelling the length and breadth of Wexford and surrounding counties, knocking on doors seeking this support. He said “The response I’ve been getting so far has been great, people are so generous, I’m asking people to make an ongoing contribution of just a few Euros per week, which will give a level of financial stability to our centres and the vital services they provide.” Dunne sees this not just a job but as him giving something back too, saying “we take things for granted, I know when I broke my leg how even doing something simple like taking a bath was difficult and this gives you an insight into disability and the support required.”
So with a new job and less than one week to go until the visit of Dublin to Wexford Park for a season defining clash, how’s he feeling? “Great, excited, we all want to get going now, the preparations are almost done and it will be up to the lads to perform between the white lines, we know the task ahead of us and I just hope we can give a good account of ourselves. We need to test ourselves, people said this was an awful draw, I don’t think so though. I think it’s a great draw, Dublin at home, 7pm on a Saturday night in Wexford Park, live on TV, and if we do get past Dublin the winner will face Kilkenny in Nowlan Park two weeks later, this is what we want, this is what I want.”
There it is, his ambition laid bare. You can tell Dunne wants Wexford back competing with the Dublins, the Tipperarys, the Cork’s and Kilkennys of the hurling world. “Look we can’t even get challenge games from some of the top tier teams, they don’t want to play us, they don’t think it’s worth their while” then with a glint in his eyes he says “I hope to be able to repay, in the best possible way, the favour in near future.”
How have preparations been going? “The commitment I’ve been getting had been unbelievable, the lads are on different programmes and you can see the improvement, our fitness levels are getting to where we need to be, we were off the pace even last year, the lads body fat levels are now those of serious elite athletes. When you’ve lads like Eoin Moore, Ciarán Kenny, Paul Morris, real leaders, it’s just great. But it’s all about the 8th of June now.” The level required is high and Dunne says not everyone will make it and he will make the tough calls required. When asked about the nature of his ‘Open Panel’ he says that he “will bring in anyone who shows potential in club games, we’ll bring them in and give them an opportunity.” When asked how club players can possibly catch up with players who have been on programmes for months Dunne admits it’s not easy but “in 1996 Martin Storey, Paul Finn and myself were 3 months behind the rest of the panel in terms of gym work as Oulart were still in the club championship, it was not easy but you put in the work.”
Turning to the clubs, “I want to see them all lifting the level in Wexford, Oulart won’t be there forever, but they won’t be going away anytime soon either, other clubs must be sick of them but they have to rise to their level to beat them and if they do Wexford hurling will improve as whole….that’s why I’m leaving the door to the panel open and why I’ve encouraged the squad to play with their clubs throughout the year. Look we’ll have the 3rd round of the club hurling championship the week after we play Dublin and I’m delighted, it’s the way it should be.”
Reflecting on Wexford GAA as whole he believes it’s an improving situation and he enthuses about a recent visit to a training session of the Minor Hurlers (his son is on the panel). “They are doing great stuff and I see real potential already in a number of them, I think we’re starting to see a pipeline of player emerging with the skills and attitude required. I’m looking to put in place a pathway for them to transition into the senior set up.” Dunne is particularly complimentary about minor hurling manager Willie Cleary, seeing him a future senior hurling boss, the building blocks for future success are there.
There are of course challenges, the general economic situation, and lack of employment opportunities for players, and then Wexford GAA’s own financial woes have impacted too. The team’s budget has been cut which makes thing difficult. He again speaks glowingly about the role played by Donal Howlin, who liaises with the county board and the players, keeping the machine moving; but you sense though that its part of the job that causes Dunne a degree of angst and if there were any benefactors out there, he and the management team would be keen to hear from them.
“Look” he says, “everyone including the County Chairman (Diarmuid Deveraux) is doing their best but we need everyone to be pulling in the one direction, teams, management, volunteers and full time staff and this is not always happening. I have to say though that the Supporters Club in Wexford under Arthur Quinn and the lads in the Dublin Branch of the club, Justin Prendergast, Dave Bernie have been great and really stepped up, their help has been critical.”
But for now this is all noise and the focus is on the Dublin game, on the 8th of June, in Wexford Park, at 7pm. Dunne’s hoping for a big crowd and that his team can get a win, he knows the size of challenge and that recent history is against them. However he pinpoints turning points in his own career, remembering the litany of near misses, the heartbreaks with Oulart and Wexford and how one win changed everything, turning nearly to success, bringing county titles, Leinster medal and All Ireland honours.
Could next Saturday be one of those turning points, all Wexford supporters certainly hope so….
Loch Garman abú.