WHEN it comes to big games for Wexford hurling, Larry Murphy is an expert.
As one of the heroes of the 1996 All-Ireland triumph, he was a key member of the last Model County team who had the privilege of savouring the view from the top.
As well as an All-Star, he collected three Leinster medals during a storied playing career that took in fine Championship victories over Brian Cody’s Kilkenny and Cyril Farrell’s Galway.
Nevertheless, according to Murphy, his county has never had a more important game than tomorrow’s at Chadwicks Wexford Park.
Four years after Wexford conquered their province at Kilkenny’s expense, the Yellowbellies will find themselves fighting to retain their place among the game’s elite.
He told SunSport: “I honestly cannot believe that this is the situation we’re faced with. I have a lump in my stomach thinking about the consequences.
“The world won’t stop turning on Sunday evening if the worst comes to pass. We’ll just have to accept our fate and make sure that every effort is made to bounce back.
“And the important thing to remember is that getting out of this is still in our own hands.
“Kilkenny definitely won’t be doing us any favours anyway.
“But nobody in the county ever envisioned that we’d be in a scenario like this. At the same time, we can’t say that the warning signs haven’t been there.”
Winning a Leinster title was the goal that Darragh Egan set for his players ahead of his second year as Wexford manager.
However, a woeful season is on the brink of culminating in relegation to the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Last year, Egan’s side defied the form book by responding to a setback against Westmeath with a win over Kilkenny.
They must now attempt to repeat the trick in order to prevent Carlow or Offaly from seizing their seat at the top table. A Cats win coupled with an Antrim victory over Westmeath at TEG Cusack Park will condemn Wexford to second-tier hurling.
Murphy said: “I feel for the players. But they have to take an awful lot of responsibility themselves. There’s no point in shirking it and pointing fingers.
“They need to be looking in the mirror and searching deep within themselves to find what it takes to make sure they come up with the performance of a lifetime.
“I heard somebody saying that this is as big a match as the 1996 All-Ireland final.
“For me, it’s the biggest match in Wexford GAA history.
“Not being in the Liam MacCarthy Cup next year is something I can’t even contemplate.
“And the fear would be if you went down, you wouldn’t necessarily bounce straight back up automatically. People might think that certain counties have a God-given right to stay in the Liam MacCarthy. Nobody has that right and this is proof of that.”
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
If things had gone to plan for Wexford last weekend, progressing to the All-Ireland series instead of avoiding relegation would be the incentive in tomorrow’s game.
With just over half an hour played against Westmeath, the 2019 Leinster champions were sitting pretty with a 2-14 to 0-3 lead — so, how did a facile win turn into the defeat that has forced such a perilous predicament?
Reflecting on the two-point loss to a Lake County outfit who also held Wexford to a draw in Mullingar last year, Murphy said: “It was the most surreal experience. The game was just so lop-sided in the first half in Wexford’s favour.
“They couldn’t have looked more comfortable and Westmeath seemed a bit bewildered.
“With the way the body language of the Westmeath players was at half-time, you couldn’t have foreseen the kind of performance they came out with in the second half.
“I think Wexford were certainly complacent. They looked like they felt that the job was done.
“I’m not privy to what happened in the dressing room at half-time or what the mindset was, but I’m sure some of the lads probably already had one eye on the Kilkenny match.
“Players stopped showing for the ball, stopped making runs and certainly stopped working.
“Confidence must have been at rock bottom because it looked like there was only going to be one winner. It was frightening to see how it unravelled.”
The agony of relegation came to Murphy’s door in 2017 when his club Cloughbawn — who he helped to win a Wexford SHC title in 1993 — were condemned to the drop.
He said: “We were playing senior hurling in Wexford for 43 years before we ended up going down to intermediate. It was like there was a death within the parish.
“This game on Sunday is a relegation play-off — for Wexford anyway — and I think it’s more important than any final you could end up in.”
According to Murphy, a thorough review of the current state of play must take place in Wexford — irrespective of tomorrow’s outcome.
The 1996 All-Star forward insisted: “We probably all need to ask ourselves what our contribution to Wexford GAA is going to be from here.
“I don’t buy this idea that this whole situation is a kick in the a** for Wexford. We shouldn’t need a kick in the a** or a wake-up call to get things right.
“The county board chairman has been appealing for calm and support, because there has been plenty of anger and frustration locally. There’s a lot of fear as well.
“It’s a very scary time for everyone involved in hurling in the county. It’s going to be an unbelievably nervy 70 minutes. There will be tears one way or another — but hopefully they’re tears of joy.”