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Looking Back on Buffers Alley 1988-1989

Possibly the emptiest feeling I have ever experienced in relation to hurling was the aftermath of the All Ireland Club final in 1986. I was 21 years old but as I walked out of Croke Park my mind was riddled with the realisation that opportunities in this competition are scarce and we had just squandered a golden opportunity to realise any club’s greatest ambition. The game itself had passed me by and I along with a number of players (there were some exceptions such as a man of the match performance from Barry Murphy) felt that we hadn’t done ourselves justice against a Williams backed Kilruane McDonagh’s from Tipperary. I was looking for consolation from somewhere and as I drove down the N11, not for the first time my father (who was a selector on the day) put a little perspective on the day’s events. 

Although hugely disappointed, he felt that when the Buffers Alley age profile moved on a little that we could become even stronger and win this title in two or three years. His rationale was that we would still have the older backbone (Fr. Casey and Co), the Johnny and Seamus O’Leary fronted middle tier and the huge talent that was emerging from under age success (Eamonn Sinnott, Colin Whelan, Paddy Donohoe, Fintan O’Leary etc.) would have matured giving the team an even better balance. Prophetic words indeed on the last day that he would ever act as an Alley selector.
The next couple of years were dominated by our old friends from the Blackstairs who themselves were desperately unlucky not to reach the “Holy Grail” and as Buffers Alley took the field for their first round 1988 Championship tie versus Cloughbawn not even the most optimistic Alley man would have predicted what lay in store over the next two years. We were particularly fortunate to have a superb backroom team but in truth the success was inspired by a collective club effort and I hope I am excused as I could fill the article with names of great people who contributed to the most memorable Alley era. Our three selectors consisted of men whose contribution both on and off the field bears no equal. When our history is written John Doyle will be remembered as the man who planted all the seeds and made sure they kept growing, and has there ever been a man with Buffers Alley more in his heart than Jack Hall. From the time I was knee high to a grasshopper Pierie Butler to me was a hurling legend and always the voice of reason and in Fr. Jim as trainer, his success was testament to his ability.
Club hurling in Wexford was in a healthy state during this period and this is emphasised by the path taken over the two years. Our Club All Ireland run was relatively straightforward despite a few hairy moments against a Dooley inspired Clareen and the Fennelly backed Shamrocks but it was on the local scene that things could most likely have come to an abrupt end. I think we can put our hands up and admit that Cloughbawn should have won the ‘88 semi-final and if fate had been kinder to the Clonroche men, I certainly would not be writing this article now. We won the replay after a last minute Mick Butler point (who else) to secure a second bite of the cherry. The decider against old rivals Rathnure (whom we had never beaten in a final) was as great an escape as ever witnessed. Thirteen points to four down at the interval, I have never been in a quieter Alley dressing room and being honest if Fr. Jim hadn’t demanded we get up and shake ourselves, there wasn’t a huge stomach for battle in the second half. What happened next has gone down in history and inspired by Paul Gahan’s marvellous striking and Paddy Donohue’s brilliant goal, we scraped the draw and secured the Bob Bowe on one of the wettest days in County Final history, one week later.

1989 was no less complicated and only St. Martin’s will know how they left the result behind in a blustery Wexford Park on semi- final day. We faced our greatest rivals Oulart- the Ballagh in the final in Wexford Park as All Ireland Champions with a feeling that a defeat here would all but wipe out all the good work of the previous year. I don’t need to tell anybody about the rivalry that exists and this was apparent by the huge crowds that attended (official attendance 12,000 for replay). Few from either parish will forget the events that unfolded with the teams failing to be separated (in more ways than one!) at the end of sixty minutes. The second game also ended in a draw and it took an extra- time Pat Leacy goal to see off a wonderfully spirited black and red challenge. Pat due to injury and Seamus Kenny due to work commitments, were two wonderful clubmen who weren’t involved on Patrick’s day but came back to play important roles in our drive for the ‘89 county title.

The road to Croker started in the autumn of 1988 with a less than comfortable victory over Carlow town, and this game was notable in that it would signal the last appearance of the legendary Colm Doran in a green and gold jersey. It was heart breaking that Colm had to miss the rest of the season due to a chronic injury as no man had done more to ensure the success that followed. The Offaly champions followed in the semi and driven on by splendid performances from Seán Whelan and Matty Foley around the middle, we came through. Seán Whelan was the best mid-fielder in the county for a decade and I was always amused by his demand before every game to pick up the marquee player of the opposition midfield. The one thing about this Alley team is that nobody hid (or was allowed to hide).

The final was a Mick Butler, Tony Doran, Eamonn Sinnott show with the big man executing a typical fetch and bury first half goal to put a serious nail in the Ballyhale coffin. Nicky English recently told me that his greatest memory comes from the excitement generated in Leinster Finals (his father brought him every year) when the ball was struck in the direction of the Buffers Alley man. We cruised through the semi and the excitement around the little parish in the final build up was something I will never forget. We were an incredibly focused and fit group at this stage (although the wire to wire runs in Blackwater are not something I have fond memories of) and the defeat of three years earlier had galvanised the feeling that we were not going to squander this second opportunity. Another motivating factor was the uncertainty as to whether it would be Paul Gahan’s last game due to work commitments abroad. It was a fortunate day for the Club when Paul confirmed he could stay.

The early stages of the final for me are remembered for the incredible display of goalkeeping from Henry Butler who really kept us in the game when most in danger. Seamus O’Leary and big Paddy settled us with their majors and when our captain fantastic Pat Kenny stood up in the Hogan he accepted the Cup for all the people that had contributed over the years to making Buffers Alley what they are. I don’t think I have ever served with such an inspirational leader as Pat and whoever coined the phrase “I won’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself “must have had this great man in mind. It is such a personal victory when a small parish reaches the pinnacle and as I looked around the dressing room at the late John O’Brien and Mick Gahan plastering players back together I don’t think I have ever had a feeling like it. One of the major contributory factors to our win over the year was our strength in depth and the roles played by the entire panel when called on during the year. Fintan O’Leary, Ben Martin, Matt Furlong, John Gahan, John Donohoe, Ger Sweeney, Har Lee, Marney Burke and Michael Murphy were all hugely talented players who made serious impacts not just on that two year period but before, and for a long time afterwards.

The celebrations that followed were remarkable with people from all parts of Wexford thrilled to see a Wexford captain on the Hogan (Paddy Kehoe of Glynn and Seamus Murphy of Rathnure amongst the first in to congratulate), and continued for weeks. We enjoyed our after match meal in the Grand Hotel Wicklow and were afforded a Civic Reception in Gorey on the evening after. For weeks after Tom Lawless, Hammels, Boggans and The Hydro became a second home to us all as the feel good factor threatened never to go away. It was a truly wonderful time to be an Alley man.

As I look back a quarter of a century later there is a great pride at our achievements but in honesty a huge sadness also. A sadness inspired by the memory of the great club people with whom we laughed and celebrated but are no longer with us. To these people who helped build a great club, in such a selfless way, I say thanks on behalf of everyone. You may be gone but you will never be forgotten. “Up the Alley”

(Tom Dempsey)

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