The Big Interview - Liam Griffin: Part 2
It is 20 years now since Wexford won the 1996 All-Ireland title, but the colour and drama of that achievement still plays vividly in the mind’s eye.
Just like Clare had the year before, Wexford burst from nowhere to claim hurling’s biggest prize. And just like Clare had an inspirational leader in Ger Loughane, Wexford had their own in the dynamic Liam Griffin.
The Rosslare man has always been an interesting and inspirational character and did not disappoint when he sat down this week for an in-depth interview with GAA.ie’s John Harrington (@jharrington79).
In Part Two of his three-part interview he talks about…
• Why he nearly stepped down as Wexford manager at the start of 1996.
• How a new approach to physical training and the embracing of sports psychology transformed the Wexford team.
• Why the 1996 All-Ireland win restored the dignity of Wexford people.
Part One of Liam Griffin’s interview can be read here.
John Harrington: I understand you considered walking away from the Wexford manager's job when your wife Mary was diagnosed with MS just before Christmas, 1995.
Liam Griffin: She was diagnosed on Christmas Eve of '95. Now I'm in a dilemma. We were flying, things were going great, training was going really, really well. I felt there was a great vibe and we were all great friends together. There was no more rancour, no undermining. The Oulart lads were onside, there was no question that they weren't.
What happened then was that I went home one day and Mary had a problem with her leg. She said, “I don't know what's wrong with my leg, it won't work properly, there's something wrong with it.” I put my hand on it and it was stone cold and her other leg was warm. I said, “Jesus, this is not normal, what the hell is this?” We saw a doctor and she had various tests and on Christmas Eve, 1995, she got the diagnosis that she had MS.
The doctor had to tell me because he's obliged to whether he'd like to or not. I'd have preferred not to know until the New Year and have our Christmas. I didn't tell anyone else in the family until well after Christmas. The kids were young, Rory was just eight. By then Mary had been put on steroids which got her over the problem temporarily. I didn't tell her until early in the New Year. I didn't tell anybody in the team, I told nobody outside, we didn't want to be telling anybody.
When I told Mary she was obviously deeply upset. So I said to her, “Listen, we need to get a few things straightened out. That's me finished with Wexford, I'm going to resign this week.” She told me not to do it, because it would be all over the papers and she'd be all over the papers. I said, “I’ll just say I was resigning for personal reasons,” but Mary said I couldn't do that to the players because they'd put in so much effort. I said, “Mary, for Christ's sake, you've got MS, how am I going to go out at night-time and start training hurling teams and you at home with MS?” But she said she was okay and was able to get by.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I said, “We'll make a deal. The minute we're beaten in the Championship, that's me finished with Wexford. I'm finished. I can't go back again.” So she said, “Okay, if that's what you want to do.” It was what I wanted to do, because it was the right thing to do because family comes first. To Mary's eternal credit, though she'd scoff at you for saying this, that sharpened the axe in my head that I needed to give the Wexford job ever last ounce I had in 1996 together with the two lads. I never told Rory (Kinsella) or Seamus (Barron), because it wouldn't be fair to be telling anybody. And I didn't want the players ever to know. So we redoubled our efforts to do everything right and do the very best we could.
It was a bit of a heartbreak raising the Cup because it's the greatest moment and I was thrilled skinny when we won the All-Ireland, but, you know, obviously I was so thrilled for the players. To this day, and God may strike me dead, I am more thrilled for the players than I was for myself. Because I felt that some of these lads had been ridiculed by a lot of people in hurling in Wexford. They had ridiculed them to hell, because they hadn't beaten Cork in the '91 League Final after two replays and we had lost a Leinster final after a replay in '93 as well. But it wasn't for a lack of effort. The perception of some was that these seniors were a bunch of losers.
So I was so thrilled for them that they had arrived at this spot. And I was particularly pleased for Billy Byrne and George O'Connor. Because Billy had been dropped from the panel in 1993. He was blamed generally by everybody for their failure to win that year, but we brought him back onto the panel. And he was our key man for the Championship and for the following year as well.
When the All-Ireland was over I decided not to say anything to the players for another month or so until everything had all died down and they've got their due rewards and their glory and everything else. I didn't want it to be about me or Mary at that stage. But then I had to say it because it would have been wrong for me to carry it forward for too long. So after I while I called them all together and said, "Look it lads, this is it. It's over and I can't go on because this is what has happened." To their eternal credit they were all great, they completely understood and were on my side, to be fair. There was never any, "Ah Jaysus, you're letting us down." There was nothing like that, they weren't that kind of guys, they were good guys. We were a very close knit group at this stage because we had come on one hell of a journey.
JH: You said that if the team could find 20 per cent extra they could win an All-Ireland title. How did you get that 20 per cent extra? It looked like ye started taking a more calculated approach and that the team's hurling became less frantic than it would have been previously.
LG: We had a good game-plan before game-plans were being talked about much. We never played six forwards in the Championship. We played a five forward line and had zonal positions. We identified zones of the field to be more freed up and it gave us a chance to use our individual skills. We identified the individual talents in each individual player and we tried to match them to the game-plan that we were running. We wanted to accommodate the skill levels of the fellas that we had.
Looking back on my time when I was playing for Clare, I would have been told to stand in corner-forward and not to come out from there. I was doing really well for Waterford in the Championship one day, I was going to town, I should have had around 1-6 in the first 15 or 20 minutes, I had 1-2 got. I was moving everywhere until someone came into me and said, 'you f**king stay in there and don't be coming out here running around the place. Waterford moved Sonny Walsh back from centre-back to mark me at corner-back and he was some tough hardly fella, a great hurler. I was on a high and knew if I had been left alone and given a bit of freedom I could have kept scoring, but I wasn't.
From that experience of being caught in the corner with the likes of Pa Dillon and Jim Treacy as a youngster, you learned there was a better way. But even before then I had been trained in De La Salle by Brother Eugene who always played to your abilities. We beat Chríost Rí in Dungarvan in a Munster Final and I'm playing right half-forward. The wind is blowing a gale across the field and he called me out. He said, "Griff, we're moving you to the far wing to give you room. We'll try to get the ball to you there, stay out wide, do not come into the bunch, and take them on at that side and go with the ball." I scored 1-4 that day. We won the Munster Championship against Chríost Rí against all the odds. But Eugene made me play because he played to my strengths. And his final words to you were always, "And you can do it!"
I learned so many lessons from him. And if you're not the sum of the parts you've learned, then you're nothing. I had learned from him the importance of matching fellas' roles to their ability and not to be asking fellas to do things they are not capable of. Asking a fella who's a wing-forward to catch a high-ball over a good wing-back, if he can't do it then it's a no brainer not to expect him to. It's just not doable so what's the point in giving him that ball? You're just making the game a nightmare for him. He's losing ball after ball and it's your fault because you put him there.
I loved the thinking side of the game and I used to think the game inside out all my life anyway. Like, if you want to win an U-12 Championship and you don't keep placing your team right, then you won't win it. You've got mixed resources in a small club. You won't have 15 good hurlers. But you'll have a couple of great hurlers, a couple of really good hurlers, a couple of average hurlers. But an average hurler in an average spot can do a great job for you. If you bring the methodology of the kid’s game into the adult's game then you're onto something. They're all children, really, with respect. So how could you match their ability to their role and get them to enjoy their game and get the best from themselves?
We used the '96 League as a way of preparing things for the Championship. Damien Fitzhenry played in the half-back line rather than in goal, because we wanted him to take on more than just a pure goalkeeper's role come the Championship. We wanted him thinking as a back, because shot-stopping was only part of his job. We also had Ger Cushe at centre-back because we needed to speed him up and get him going backwards a bit more to have him sharper at full-back for the Championship.
When we got back on the team bus after being beaten by 10 points by Galway in the League semi-final I said to Rory Kinsella that if we met them again in an All-Ireland semi-final I could guarantee we'd beat them. I gave him my solemn oath we would beat them because we knew how to now. We'd have a differently positioned team for the Championship, and those changes would strengthen us enormously, which they did.
JH: You had a tough draw for the Leinster Championship, Kilkenny in the quarter-final.
LG: I relished the draw. We got Kilkenny in the first round, Dublin in the second-round, and Offaly in the Leinster Final. And I said if we can beat all those teams, all the way through to Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final and all the way through to an All-Ireland Final to whoever comes out of Munster, then what a way to win an All-Ireland. It's the only way to win an All-Ireland, lads! We wanted all hard matches, bring it on!
JH: When did the players start to really believe they could win an All-Ireland title?
LG: I believed that when I was a player I wasn't mentally strong enough. On my day, I could do anything, but I could also crack. Brother Eugene in De La Salle had me as a leader even though I didn't even know it. He would always say, "Griff, you can do this. We need you to do it." I felt this great belief in me and that transferred into my own mind and I felt, "Yeah, I can do that, actually." I never felt under pressure from Eugene, I always felt really good. He made me feel really good about me. I was never going to let him down for lack of trying anyway, I was going to go through walls for him, and I did.
Because he had given me that belief as a person, I felt that this team were lacking that sort of belief because of what they hadn't done in the past. When you started analysing it and asking yourself where the problem was here, then you come up with lack of belief as being a big problem. These fellas couldn't have high belief, and you're not going to restore it by me just saying it. You've got to work on how you can restore it.
I got in touch with a good friend of mine Bill Bowen, who's in the University of Rochester, and I got in touch with my brother Pat as well who was a coach in England. I rang Pat and told him I wanted him to get me the training plan of the Great Britain hockey team because they had won an Olympics and as a stick game I thought a lot of what they did could be transferable. There was no point in us copying the best hurling team in Ireland, we had to copy the best team in the world in any sport so we could raise our own bar to the greatest height possible. He got me great material on that Great Britain hockey team. Their training plans, their physical fitness, their strength and conditioning, all sorts of things which weren't known in the GAA nearly to the same extent that they are now.
Then we brought in Sean Collier. A young man, the same age as the players and younger than some of them, who was from my parish but who was a great athlete and a great fella. He did kick-boxing and all sorts. A specimen of physical fitness. I knew he would be an example of a trainer. He wouldn't just be calling it out, he'd be an example. He'd be able to show fellas. He'd strip the shirt off and you'd say, "My God, look at this guy." He developed the strength and conditioning side, and it was a different type of strength and conditioning, I'm not even going to tell you the name of it, to be honest with you.
It was for explosive power in the centre of the muscle, not at both ends of it. Weight lifting gives you power at both ends of the muscle, but it doesn't give you the power in the centre of it. It wasn't about looking good like this (Griffin flexes his arms like a body-builder), it was having explosive power for an explosive game. I learned that from the information we got from hockey. it's an explosive sport, so you've got to be able to do things quick and snappy. Whereas if you do non-stop weights, you're not developing for a speed-related sport. I'm not an expert, but that's what I learned from all the research I did. So we did a different form of weight training, and I don't know if it's being practiced to this day.
So we tried to get all the systems right. But at the same time we're trying to build a team and get the best positions for everyone. So it's a coming together of all of that to get everyone to come together before the Championship of the following year. I've forgotten now what you asked me!
JH: That explains the body, but how did you get their heads right?
LG: Oh yeah. This fella from Bill Bowen from Enniscorthy who was in the University of Rochester. His father had been Nicky Rackard's Doctor. He's a great friend of mine. Bill lives in Canada and is there for years. He's one of the leading dental researchers in the World. I told him I needed help and he's mad into sport anyway. The NFL, Ice Hockey, all sorts. I told him I wanted help on the mental side of sport and needed a steer from him. I didn't want cliches. I didn't want to be just trotting out some Vince Lombardi quotes. Now, Lombardi had some great comments, but how do we hang some meat on those comments? How do you put the comment into some kind of perspective. “Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.” What does that mean? Okay, it's a good comment, but how to you build a player up to it?
Bill did some research in the Univeristy of Rochester and the best coaching association in the World at that time was the Coaching Association of Canada. They had produced papers on all subjects of sport and you could buy each paper for a dollar. I said I needed the stuff on the mental side of things. My brother Pat had also introduced me to a fella called Tudor Bompa who wrote a book called 'The Theory and Methodology of Training'. I read that book from cover to cover, inside out. It's a highly technical book on training, but I wanted to have some basic knowledge that I could transfer to Sean Collier, and say, "Sean, have a read of that chapter and see what you think of that." In particular, that book taught me a lot about periodisation of training.
I also got stuff from that had been produced in Russia, before drugs became such a big part of their sport. They had produced a lot of stuff on the mental side of things, especially visualisation, methodology, and all that sort of mental training. Visualisation can be a hugely powerful part of any sportsperson's training. The javelin thrower Steve Backley won a silver medal at the Olympics even though he couldn't train because he had tendonitis. So he trained by visualisation. He lay on bed and practiced throwing the javelin in his mind. And he went out and won a silver medal in the javelin despite not throwing the thing until he got to the Games.
The mental side is very important because in the GAA there's a certain amount of, "Ah for f**ks sake, what are you talking about? Go out be f**ked and hurl!" I remember going into dressing-rooms and fellas would be saying, "For f**ks sake go out there and f**king let fly lads, that's all you need to do." I remember even as an 18-year-old thinking, "You're a f**king dinosaur".
One of the most important things you have to do as a coach is to get your player to live in the moment. I'm not being boastful, but I invented the catch-phrase, “Next ball”. Because how do you live in the moment? You only live in the moment if you understand exactly what you're doing.
It's very hard to get into the moment so we said if you go out and get a ball and stick it in the back of the net you do not start thinking, "Jaysus Christ, that's brilliant, I'm playing great, I won't be taken off today." If you do and you get another goal chance soon after you'll make a mess of it because you'll still be thinking of the last goal and how your mother, the father, the selectors and the whole place will be delighted with you. You've got to leave it behind you, the same as if you drove it wide. It's the next ball, the next ball, the next ball.
If you break it down, do you know how many balls you'll play in the hour? Probably ten. The most ball you'll play in an hour is probably ten, and you think you're killed! Some fellas play four balls for the hour. And there are fellas in there corner-back who won't hit one ball and the papers will be full of how good they were because their man got no score.
So we introduced the 'next ball' mantra, but how do you get fellas to buy into that? They started buying into it because we had stats going non-stop and we were able to show them the stats. We had broken down exactly what constitutes a game of hurling and wrote it on a board. My point was, where does skill come in? I think it's ninth on this list here lads. I don't see it at the top. If we can't be the most skilful, then why can't we be the best hookers in Ireland? The best blockers in Ireland? Is there anything to stop us being that? Can we be the fittest team in Ireland? Can we be the fittest team in Ireland? Of course we can!
Then there was discipline. I loved discipline, and the reason I loved discipline was because I gave up sport so early to go to Switzerland. I arrived in England having worked in Switzerland. And when I arrived in England a publication called 'The Game' was after coming out. It profiled every single major athlete in every sport in the world at that time in alphabetical order. I used to read that avidly all the time. Muhammad Ali and everyone else was in it and it was a great book to read if you were interested in sport. You learned about all of the great sportspeople of the world and what they had done.
Apart from that, you learned there were lots of things they were doing that we could do better. It led me to be interested in other things, the eastern sports. I have Shaolin monks here in Monart for three months every year. If you walk up to a man in the Martial Arts and the first thing you do is bow to him and he bows to you. You can go within an inch of killing him, not the Conor McGregor thing of tearing his head off, digging the guts up and throwing them on the floor. You can go within an inch of killing that man, you don't do it, and then you bow again, you show respect, and you walk out. In the GAA, we need to kill the man if we want to win. But could we adopt the same systems that were adopted by the people of the East? Be man enough to stand up, take what's coming, and not getting involved in fights and arguments? What could we do if we could be disciplined? Because for me discipline was everything. We needed to cut out fouling. We couldn't afford to foul because we weren't good enough to beat most top-five teams in the country if we fouled them. We simply did not have enough ability to get over that level.
Some teams can give away ten frees, only score six themselves and win matches. We weren't that good, and once we accepted it and were humble about it then we knew discipline had to be a vital part of our game. So if the men of the East can do this and show respect, then why couldn't we introduce it to our own game and be disciplined in everything we do? Disciplined in our lives, disciplined in our sport. But disciplined on the field more than anything and lads staying focused.
So we wanted to be more disciplined and be the best at hooking and blocking, and we were able to measure that because we did the stats on it after every match. And if you were a forward and a tackle you did not make resulted in a score for the opposition, then we would minus you for that score, and not the corner-back who was caught out. It started with you, so you take the responsibility. Martin Storey of course would go mad when I'd give him a minus and he Sportstar of the week because he didn't tackle and it led to other scores. That was something we really built up.
JH: You also hired a sports psychologist, which wouldn't have been the norm back then in the GAA.
LG: I did the sports psychology myself with them at the start because I got the papers and documents and printed off some of the stuff and gave it to them. Now, they weren't interested in some of the printed documents at the start. But, in the end, there were fellas avidly reading them but they weren't admitting to it. Because the macho thing was still there. Of course they were reading it now because they were starting to win and doing anything that was part of the winning system was now acceptable.
I had read stuff so was now giving them genuinely good stuff, but I said to them before the Leinster Championship, "Right, I have done all of this with you up until now, but I want to ask you a question. What do you think about us bringing in an actual sports psychologist? What do you think about that? Because I'm not academically qualified here."
I interviewed three different people for that job, and had interviewed them in advance of speaking to the players anyway, to see what they were like. I talked to Rory and Seamus and they had misgivings that this would get out all over the place. So, I said, "Lads, what do we have to lose?" So we called the panel of players down to the meeting in Ferrycarrig, and someone said, "F**k sake, if we get in that they'll be saying 'Wexford hire headshrinker to win matches'. Jaysus, I don't know about that, that will be all over the papers."
I said, "Who's going to put it over the papers? This is a test of our discipline. The only people who could tell the papers are the people standing in this dressing-room. So, if someone does it, it's you. You can't tell your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your cousin. I can't tell my wife, my children or anybody else. That's what's known as being a man. We've got to man up to this thing. Are we prepared to do that? If it even gives us one per cent, couldn't that be the difference?"
Storey said to me afterwards, "I don't agree with you, I think you're making a mistake here. If you bring in somebody, then someone on the panel who's not playing will squeal." I said, "Martin, we're either a panel now or we're not. I'm going to trust those lads. So far a lot of them haven't got games, but they're all still onside because we ring them every single time before the team is announced and explain to them why they are not being picked. Martin, we are going to have to show our trust in them because if we don't trust everyone in this dressing-room, then we'll get destroyed anyway. We've got to trust them all."
Eventually we got an agreement on it, and we had a meeting in Ferrycarrig to meet the sports psychologist. I had picked Niamh Fitzpatrick. So I said to the players, "He'll be down in a minute to us now." So I opened the door, and in comes in this young, good-looking girl. A beautiful woman, as a person absolutely fantastic. To this day, lots of them are life-long friends of her.
I said, "Now, lads. Does anyone want to put this in the paper - 'Wexford hire woman sports psychologist to win hurling matches'! That's what the headline in the Star is going to be if anyone breaks. This is your new sports psychologist, Niamh Fitzpatrick."
And from the minute she took over she was absolutely brilliant. I said, "Niamh, there's only one rule with me. You keep out of the game-plans and the physical fitness side. You stay completely on your side of it. You do that and I will always come to you about anything on the mental side. If you're discussing something with the players, come back to me if you want something resolved. You don't have to tell me who said it in case there's any bias or whatever. Just say this or that is a concern. I need to know the honest to God, 100 per cent truth, because we're basing everything on honesty." She was absolutely amazing, brilliant, and fantastic, and I love her to bits.
JH: I'd imagine the players could see fairly quickly that all of these strategies were working, and that made them believe in them all the more?
LG: Yeah, when they could start to see that we were getting closer, and closer, and closer. Now, when you're coming to the big day in Croke Park instead of ranting and raving you have your key performance indicators. This is what is going to govern this match. This is what we can do and this is how we do it. We have done it before and we can do it again. Forget the crowd, it's a heap of concrete with grass on it, and all the people out there are a distraction. That's all they are, and if you allow them to become a distraction then we won't win. The noise goes up, we keep playing. We're out there to play and do a job. At the end of the day don't forget there'll be seagulls running around picking stuff off these stands in an hour and a half from now and no-one will give a shit about what happened. You'll either go home happy or you'll go home sad. But how we react to this when we go out there is going to decide it.
JH: One the way to the 1996 Leinster Hurling Final you famously stopped the team bus at the county border with Wicklow, got everyone off the bus, delivered an inspirational speech, and then everyone walked across the border together before getting back on the bus. What was your thinking there? Did you consult Niamh Fitzpatrick?
LG: Yes, I did involve her in that decision. And what I said to her was, "I'm going to do something big," and I passed it by her. Brian Cowen, to his eternal credit, was on the television on the Wednesday before the match. The cameras went down to Offaly before the Leinster Final. And on the Six O'Clock news, Brian Cowen was sitting on a high stool drinking porter, as he does. And he was singing the 'Offaly Rover' with a crowd of lads.
They were singing the 'Offaly Rover' and I suddenly thought to myself, "'The Boys of Wexford', 'Kelly the Boy from Killane', '98! And there's the Offaly Rover' being roared around Kinnity in the middle of the night! We've got real songs to sing! This is bullshit!" That was me building myself up. That was me, to use a sports psychology term, finding an anchor. Quite unwittingly, because I wouldn't have even called it an anchor at that stage. I decided that this was where we needed to make a stand. Who the f**k are we? So I got excited then and I got up at five o'clock in the morning and I walked the beach in St. Helen's up and down. I was saying to myself, "This is much more than a hurling match." I had gone into too many dressing-rooms as a youngster with lads saying, "It's only a game, lads, go out and hurl your hearts out."
This was not only a game. This was way bigger than any game. I started to think, "We're actually fighting for a way of life here. This hurling is on the way out in this county. We haven't won an All Ireland Final since 1968. We're nobodies now. We're hurling for the actual saving of this God damn game here."
And then I thought of my own Dad. I thought of George O'Connor's dad who was now dead too. All the matches that my father brought me matches as a kid and all the matches that George's father came to as well. So I actually thought, and this sounds mental, but that we were actually fighting for the dead people who gave us all of this as well. They brought us to League matches in Enniscorthy and New Ross and the places packed to the brim. We couldn't even get crowds anymore. We had been beaten by Meath last year. We were fighting for a way of life!
So, what do you do about that? I went home and wrote a speech. And I've never written a speech, I just speak from my heart. And when it's good it's good, and when it's bad, it's bad. I just try to say what's in my heart. I went back and asked myself, "Who are we? Who are we?" And then I just said, "Look at your names. Great Wexford names. Flood, Kehoe, O'Connor. Great Wexford names. So why should we fear Offaly? Why should we fear Offaly? Look at where we've come from. Think of the people who have put us here."
So I wrote a speech, and the speech was all about who we were and where we came from. And I actually traced the place-names. I spoke to Niamh about what I was going to do and I said, "Am I going to drive them mental?" She said, "No, I think it's brilliant." I said, "I want them to come back into Wexford with that Cup. So I'm going to stop the Bus." Then she said, "Walk them out of Wexford then again. And let them walk back in again with it." I think she said that to me, I'm not sure. But I did involve her and we did discuss it. I showed her the speech and she said, "That's awesome stuf. Do it, do it, do it!"
I didn't tell Rory, and I didn't tell Seamus about it. It was the first thing I never told them. Because I was afraid they'd try to talk me out of it and make me lose my nerve. So, I wrote it out and it was short and snappy. One of the great speeches, 'The Gettsburg Address', is a very short speech, so I said this can't be a long one because it would bore the shit out of them. So it's going to be sensible. I remembered when I was in a dressing-room listening to lads talking about Vinegar Hill and thinking, "What a load of bollocks!"
It was fierce important to me to make the players understand that this was way bigger than a game. This is not just a hurling match, you're fighting for a way of life, you're fighting for dead people, you're fighting for yourself and all the fellas with you. Every game you ever played was all about getting to a day where you could do this. Think about all the games when you're a kid, they were all about leading you to this day. And here is the day laid out in front of us. We're going to walk out Wexford and we're going to walk back and we're going to do whatever it takes to bring that Cup back to this County tonight. That's what we're focused on from the minute we start walking.
And if that means bringing death itself, then we put our bodies on the line today. We do everything we're supposed to do and you know what you're supposed to do. Tackle, hook, block, discipline. They're the things that you've got to do. And if you do that, then you give us a great chance of bringing back that Cup. And if we resolve to do it, then nothing's going to stop us. We're ready. And we're going to walk out of Wexford.
I remember Niamh saying to me, "You make them deep-breathe when they're walking up that road." So I said to them, "Breathe long and hard, we're walking out of Wexford. And when we put our feet outside this County, you remember that when we put them back in here we'll be carrying that Leinster Cup.”
So we walked out of Wexford. I needed something big to try to raise us above the norm. To try to get us to get up there. To not be afraid to get up there. Something bigger than us. We were up at Cahore point, so from there down to Curracloe, from Curracloe back to Rosslare, and from Rosslare to Fethard and the Hook, and all the way back to Vinegar Hill, through Rathnure. There's who we are, that's where we come from. And that's what we are and we should be proud of ourselves. So when they sing the 'Offaly Rover' it doesn't mean a whole lot to me, but these songs of Wexford sure mean a lot to me. And they should mean it to you and they mean a lot to your parents before you.
JH: You must have been apprehensive about doing it. So when you walked together across the border could you sense you had struck the right chord?
LG: The thing that struck me was that nobody said a word. That was eerie. There wasn't a word being spoken as we walked. I think I may have said we'll walk out in silence with a steely determination that no-one was going to stop us this time. Don't forget, Storey and the boys had had nightmares against Offaly. Not even getting a score from play for several years in League Finals, Leinster Finals, Leinster semi-finals. So we had a lot of demons to erase, and that must have been surely going through their heads.
We had a good game-plan. Rory McCarthy was going out to the middle of the field, he'd be turning and coming back. He was going to pick up all the breaking ball. He was going to run at their defence all day long. So they knew there was a system that they could play. Billy (Byrne) was on the line and everyone knew he would come on at some stage for Gary (Laffan). They knew there were lots of methodology going to come into the whole system as well. We were not going to just go up there and take it like we had every other year. We were going up with a methodology this time. We were going to play a hurling match on our terms. Every match we played we wanted to play it on our terms, and in every single Championship match we played that year, bar Dublin, we got the game played on our terms so we were always comfortable.
So, anyway, I got back into the bus and I sat down beside Rory Kinsella. There was silence for a minute, and he said to me, "Where the f**k did that come from?! You know now that if we lose this match you'll be the laughing stock of County Wexford." I said, "Rory, I don't give a shit! I don't give a shit! I don't care if they ridicule me to hell and back. I have to put me on the line as well. So let it happen. And, sure, what about it? At least we tried to give it our best shot." Now, Rory didn't say what he said to be derogatory, he was just trying to break the eerie silence.
JH: The way the team then played in the Leinster Final against Offaly must have been all the more satisfying so.
LG: That was my greatest level of satisfaction because of how well we played that day. And because we were playing such a great hurling team, we were able to express ourselves and still play hurling to that level. We couldn't do that again for the game against Galway, it was a different match-up. And then the All-Ireland Final we had to go a different style altogether because we were down to 14 men. We could express ourselves against Offaly. There were a few hardy boys on it, but they were a good hurling team. And they were a team that were going to let us hurl. And we really hurled well against Kilkenny.
It was just a hugely satisfying Leinster Championship, but the banana skin was always going to be Dublin. And it was. At one stage Sean Kearns in the middle of the field for them got straight through with the ball, and Fitzy made a huge save. I said to Rory if he sticks this in the net we're finished. I genuinely felt that. We were only two or three points up. Don't forget Shiner Brennan and Eamon Morrissey were playing for Dublin and they had a good team that time. They were missing Vinnie Murphy who was one of the best hurlers they had and had beaten us in the League on his own.
They were a good team and there was always a chance they could catch us on the hop because no matter what we said to everybody, there was always going to be a little bit of complacency having beaten Kilkenny in the first round of the Championship. We got through it and won by six points in the end. But there was a moment in that game when we could have lost it and that was the closest we were to getting beaten that year.
JH: What did it feel like to bring the Bob O'Keefe Cup back to Wexford. Did you get off the bus and walk it across the border like you planned?
LG: No, we didn't, because it just pure mental. The place was swamped, there were cars beside us, and it was dangerous. I was getting really worried that someone would get killed and it would destroy everything. There were fellas hanging out of windows of cars and going berserk. There were bonfires everywhere and the whole lot. The whole place just went mental the whole way down the road. We had to go through Arklow in those days and there were people everywhere in Arklow as well because Wexford and Wicklow are very close. When we're playing well in hurling, Wicklow come out to support us. There was a pipe band in the middle of Arklow Town. The Wicklow people were fantastic. I wrote to the Wicklow papers afterward thanking them for their support because they were brilliant for us.
JH: Was it difficult to ground everyone again because it was the county's first Leinster title for 19 years?
LG: First of all, we had the Cup and we let them have a couple of nights. There was a thing arranged in Wexford town, the Mayor or someone organised something in the middle of the Town. We hadn't won one in a long time so we said we might as well, of course, no problem.
So they let their hair down for those couple of nights and then we said, ok, we've five weeks until the next match which is too long by the way, crazy stuff. Five weeks before a provincial Final and an All-Ireland semi-final is the craziest thing of all time. And another four or five weeks to the Final? 10 weeks for two matches? You'd have played three World Cups in that time!
We actually went out to Curracloe to the beach and we got Sean Colllier to bring them for a bit of a run down the beach and into the sea for a mess around. We just said, "Look it, what's next lads? Are ye happy enough? Ye have reestablished yourselves which is great and everyone thinks it's brilliant. But have you had enough? Is that it? Do we just pull up the shutters now on a great year. Everyone is going to think ye're great for the rest of your lives anyway, so what do you want to do?"
They actually said, "No, no, no, we're not happy with that." So I said, "Fine, but we've got to really want to do it. We've got to forget this now, lock that Cup away, and be finished with it because it's done and dusted and we need to move on if you want to. But you need to decide that. We need to up the training a bit, we need to get ourselves geared up for a Galway team that beat you by 10 points in the League. I think we're going to beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final, it's the right draw for us."
No disrespect to Antrim, we didn't want to play them. We wanted to keep going and win this All-Ireland the hard way. We had two hurdles left to climb, and the only two teams that had beaten us that year had been Galway and Limerick. Nobody else had beaten us. They had both beaten us in the League. So I was saying to the players, wouldn't it be nice to be able to say that you met them all, and you beat them all. That was a prize as well. It would bring us a bit of redemption. No-one would be able to turn around to us and say, "Ah but we beat you in the League." Yeah, ye did, but we beat ye when it mattered.
Everyone quickly bought into the message. Now, we had the advantage of having a mature crowd of guys that had been through the hard times, that had now broken through the glass ceiling a bit, and I suppose they were ready for going forward. They weren't giddy with the excitement of having won Leinster. Don't forget, they had also brought into a process. So it wasn't a major job to get them to raise the bar again and say, "We can do this."
JH: Who were the real leaders in the dressing-room that helped to drive the thing on?
LG: I think myself, to be fair, the quieter fellas that you'd expect to stay quiet, stayed quiet. Colm Kehoe was an absolutely outstanding player at corner-back. He played so well. But he wouldn't get up and say a whole lot. And in the hierarchy of things, it almost wouldn't have been his place because he was new to the team. Ger Cushe would have spoken very strongly to his own backs. We used to break them up in meetings anyway.
At training we'd say, "Right, all backs go down there and talk it out. All forwards go over there and talk it out. You are the fellas that are hurling. Talk about what we need to do here. We have a game-plan, but you go down and talk about what it's going to take to deliver it. What are you going to do to back each other up?"
Fitzy would have been good to talk too, but we let them talk in the field at training on their own. And then come in collectively and talk. But not go on all night. When training started it was always going to finish at a certain time. I'm a talker, and in fairness to talkers, you never overestimate a fella that talks too much. But, from my perspective, at the same time, too much talking isn't good either. And too much talk from a manager is not good. I was never a paid manager from another county so I never felt the need to justify myself. We left everything out there, and I don't think any of the three of us (Grifin, Rory Kinsella, and Seamus Barron) needed to justify ourselves.
We had done our homework, and we were doing it for all the right, honest, and passionate reasons that we all had. Rory was every bit as passionate as me and so was Seamus, maybe more so even. So we started training at a set time and we finished it at a set time. We didn't go on all night. We tried to make everything happen quickly. And if you're going to make it happen quickly on the field it has to happen quickly at training. There has to be an urgency about everything, everything has to be urgent.
I suppose I'm an urgent kind of a guy in my own personality. And I can't stand hanging around and not getting something done. Business has taught me that I have to be like that. I got more urgent as I got older with the Celtic Tiger nearly killing us. So, from that point of view, it was measured, and, again, it was strategic.
There was fellas within the dressing-room who would lead, and we'd leave them alone to talk while we'd talk amongst ourselves. And Storey, in fairness to him, was a very good leader as well because he lead by example on the field.
Most of our talking was done on the field, really. The fellas were doing it by setting an example. They were doing what they were supposed to do and that's why you didn't need to do much. And that's why our mantra was, "JUST. DO. YOUR. JOB." And if you fail, then do it on the next ball. Don't worry about it, just keep doing your job and keep thinking, 'next ball, next ball'. Stay in there, stay in there. Keep your work-rate going, your hooking and your blocking and your tackling. If the ball breaks, then we had another key-word which was, "DRIVE". If the ball breaks then you absolutely drive towards it. I learned from my own experience playing that sometimes a ball breaks and you hesitate for that split second and you don't get it. So DRIVE!
The likes of Adrian Fenlon was absolutely amazing. Because he never played a game that he wasn't superb in. He was a superb hurler, and a great man to move the ball. And we had Gary Laffan playing full-forward who loved a fast ball coming in from midfield coming low and hard.
JH: Fenlon was some man for lengthy ground-strokes into the forward line.
LG: Oh, Jesus, yeah. And he'd take it on the rise and he could time it to perfection. And when Billy Byrne would then come on at full-forward for us in matches we could change the game-plan. We'd switch to a high-ball. Billy was told, "You have to win the first high-ball. You have to win it. There's just no ifs or buts, you have to win it. And you've got to want to win it, you have to see yourself winning it."
Before he came on against Kilkenny in the Leinster Quarter-Final, Pat O'Dwyer was on an All-Star performance. He was a great full-back. He was hurling all around him. We waited, and waited, and waited until we felt it was the right strategic moment to bring Billy on. That led to us on the line having a little bit of a discussion.
"No, wait. No, wait. No, the time is not right yet."
"But, Jesus, he's getting a lot of ball."
"Yeah, but he's getting too confident. And when he catches another big ball, we'll make the change then."
So, we brought on Billy. And as he went on, I said to Adrian Fenlon, (Griffin points to the sky with his hand), Adrian took out his gum-shield, nodded his head, went back in, and delivered a perfect high ball into the square. Catch, touch, strike, ball in the back of the net. Billy absolutely buried it. I just said to Rory, "Game over."
I was so thrilled for Billy because Billy was much maligned. He is a super-hero in Wexford today and I'm so thrilled for him. Billy was a magnificent hurler. Never given credit for what he could do. Seen as a failed man, but he was so brilliant it wasn't funny. And then in '97 he beat Kilkenny on his own, because now people believed in him! And Billy probably didn't believe in himself either until he suddenly started to find he could do things.
I probably got more satisfaction from what Billy and George O'Connor did for us than anything else. We knew that Billy could do something for us because he was a brilliant hurler. We were trying to look at the whole picture of what we had as players. Who can bring what to the table here? What's missing from this link here? What do we need here?
My first meeting with Billy was to say, "Listen, Billy, we probably won't start you in nearly any game. But we will need firepower and you need to do that for us." And he said, "I don't care about not starting. I'm committed. I'll do it. If I'm number 14 or 28, I'll give it everything." And George said the same. Now, here's George, an icon of the game who had been absolutely one of the best hurlers in the country for years. He's now 36 or 37 years of age and has won nothing despite all his years in the trenches. And he's being asked to step back there and told he won't be starting every game. He could have turned around to me and said, "Well, I f***ing deserve more than that." But, no, he said, "Whatever you say, I'll do it."
JH: So they were all leaders in different ways?
LG: That's what I'm saying. That's where the leadership stemmed from. I was able to stand up at meetings and say, "Lads, you don't need me to tell you this, that man (Billy Byrne) is not starting but he's the best forward in the county at the moment. And at training he's the best forward. And he doesn't start. And he's doing that for us as a team. He's prepared to sit on the sideline. No whinging, no messing, no sulking. That's what he's prepared to do for us so we can achieve something. He'll get his just rewards. But, remember that he's prepared to do that. So what does that tell the rest of us? We owe it to people like Billy who's prepared to sit on a sideline and not be in any parade around the pitch. We need him." That's why we refused to have any team photograph without the full panel. Because we were a panel. Years ago it was 15 players and the rest of you get out of the way, you're cluttering up the photograph.
JH: What was the All-Ireland Final itself like. There was incredible colour from the Wexford supporters on Hill 16. That must have been some sight for you?
LG: It was fantastic. Because if you wanted to write the perfect summer for Wexford supporters, this was it. The Wild Swans brought out a song before the Leinster Championship, 'Dancing at the Crossroads', that became the song of the summer. The weather was fantastic, we never played on a wet day. We never got one drop of rain through the entire Championship. The heat was sweltering in Croke Park, it was a brilliant summer. And there was a full-moon when we won the All-Ireland.
And I'm going through Enniscorthy afterwards and thinking, "The moon is shining on the Castle at the back of the Hill. What this town has been through. 30,000 people died in this County in '98." People don't realise that. This town is so stepped in history it's not funny. So, to come back to this town with a full-moon, for me it meant so much. Because my mother was such a great Wexford woman. My Grandparents and my mother's Grandparents are buried in Boolavogue Graveyard, right in the heart of Boolavogue. My mother used to sing Boolavogue in the car going to matches.
I don't know, it was just a journey that you can't describe. It was much more than just a hurling match. It was a reclaiming of Wexford in some respects by a crowd of hurlers. Not by me, by the players. I wasn't hurling. It was a reclaiming of who we really were.
JH: I have seen a video of the team coming to Oulart a few days after the All-Ireland with the Cup and you gave a speech where you said that Wexford people had reclaimed their dignity.
LG: Exactly! Exactly! I had forgotten that, but that's exactly it. Because we used to be respected. We were called the Model County. We were highly respected. When I was young and went to De La Salle, I went to De La Salle for the first time the day after we won the All-Ireland Final of 1960. I wandered in with a hurl in my hand. Because I'm from Wexford, we've won the All-Ireland. That's who I am. I always felt on the hurling side that I was cock of the walk and could hurl anybody. I was playing against Cork, Tipperary, and Kilkenny fellas and they were bloody good, I'll tell you that, but I was fit to match them because I wanted to and I knew who I was and where I had come from.
So 1996 was about reclaiming that sort of dignity. Earlier that year the golfer Greg Norman had lost the Open after being six shots ahead, and the banner headline in the paper was 'Even Wexford don't lose them all, Greg'. Now, I blew that up to as far as I could blow it up that time and stuck it up on the dressing-room wall. I was really, really, really offended by that. Not offended with the journalist Tom Humphries, who was a marvellous writer, but the fact that it could be written about us.
And Vincent Hogan had written about us in the League match (against Offaly in 1995) that we were all fire and brimstone that day. Now, we were loused that day by the referee and I've said it since to Vincent. The referee really robbed us that day. Brendan Kelly kept dropping on the ground and he kept giving him frees and he got them for nothing.
We came with a late burst that day that fell short, but Vincent Hogan wrote about us that it was something to do with our blood-lines. If Wexford fellas were in a room, they'd go to the window to get out. He wrote a whole lot of stuff. But, Jesus, it was such a ridiculing of Wexford and who we were and what we were. I cut that out as well and I have all of that at home still.
Now, I'm very fond of Vincent Hogan. He's a very nice man, he's a gentleman. Vincent Hogan was only reflecting a point of view, I don't blame him for writing that. But he was reflecting a point of view that could now be levelled against us. And why were we accepting that this could be levelled against us? We were the people who fought for our country centuries before that and on the hurling field we were the first new team to emerge in the game ever. The first new team to come into the whole lot was Wexford in 1951. Then we came back in '54. Then we came back in '55 and '56 and won it both years. We were back again in the '60s. 1960, '65, '68. We had come out of nowhere. We came out of Killane with the Rackard brothers and Padge Kehoe and Ned Wheeler and a few fellas like that.
And we had come out with a team that was loved and adored by everybody outside the county. Why were they so adored? Because they were fair men. That’s where we had come from and we had earned the respect of everyone, and now here we were being ridiculed. We were the butt of everyone's ridicule, making little of us. We didn't deserve that. Or if we did, it was our own fault. So, could we reclaim it? For a summer we did.
JH: Did the way in which ye won that All-Ireland Final against Limerick illustrate just how much all those little gains you were striving for added up? You were always big on discipline, and the team didn't concede a single free in the second half which was crucial. Especially as ye had been reduced to 14 men after Eamonn Scallan had been sent off.
LG: Yes, what happened there was that we had gone down to Limerick to play Limerick in the League earlier that year. And when we went down there it was a killing match. We were brought out from Limerick to Kilmallock and there were people everywhere calling me all sorts of names from behind the wire. They were really nasty bastards.
Limerick had been rotten, bad, dirty on the pitch too. John O'Connor, who was an assassin for us, he was a dangerous man, like, so we brought John to the middle of the field that day with George just to fight a war because it became a complete and total war. George got the hurl of one of the Limerick fellas and threw it on top of the stand in Kilmallock. It was just a savage game of hurling, really disgraceful to be honest. Anyway, what I said to them in the dressing-room afterwards was, "We'll meet these boys again. And if we meet them again in the Championship lads, remember this day. We'll beat them playing hurling, but we will not be intimidated by them ever again."
That led to the parade around the pitch on All-Ireland Final day. We had a meeting the week before the All-Ireland Final and I felt if I was to be true to our policy of visualisation, then I had to do some myself. What are we going to do on the day we get up there? What about the parade around the pitch? What about the whole ceremony?
So I said to the lads, "Right, I'm just going to throw something out to ye. What do ye think of all of this ceremony before the match?" Someone said, "I think it's a load of bullshit to be honest, standing and waiting for the President." So I asked what anyone else thought, and the general agreement was that it was a pain in the arse to be standing around for 15 minutes before the match starts.
So I said, "But we're glad to be there, aren't we? So why don't we turn this on its head and do it differently? Why don't we embrace the day and do it like soldiers? Why can't we stand to complete attention when the President comes out with our hands behind our back and stand up like men? No jerking around the place and doing press-ups and all sorts. Can we stand up like men? What difference is it going to make if you get an extra stretch? You'll get a stretch before it and afterwards. So we'll stand up like men and shake hands with the President and be respectful right through to the National Anthem. And then go out and hurl our match. And remember, no intimidation."
I'm saying this and it might sound boastful, but it's not. I said to them, "Limerick will not parade the full round of the pitch. I'm telling you that. They'll break early because they're going to try to set the agenda. But we ain't breaking, guys. We're going to parade the full round of that pitch because this is our first chance and it could be our last chance. So we're going to parade the full round of the pitch and enjoy it."
So, eventually, people started to think about it differently and they all agreed that's exactly what we're going to do. And when they break we don't even look at them. Straight ahead and keep going. There's a picture, and I have it at home, of me on the sideline and I'm like this (fists clenched) and I'm saying to the players, "Straight ahead, and keep going." Limerick had broken and started hurling balls across a few of the lads as they were going by, I've been told. But all our people were on the hill and Limerick had broken before they got to the Hill.
I'd say they thought that if they broke before they got to the Hill then the whole Parade would break. But we kept going right down in front of our own fans. Now, our fans deserved to see a parade around the full length of the pitch. We were from Wexford. We were never not going to walk the first round of the pitch if we were true to what we said we were before the Leinster Final. Who are we? Why would we ever be the sort of team who would break from a parade around the pitch on an All-Ireland Final? The greatest day of our lives! No f**king way! Excuse my language.
We're going to parade around to the last step. And then we'll go out and hurl our game. But we did say, no intimidation, and if a row breaks out, yes, you all jump in. And you keep saying to them, "You won't intimidate us today!" That's all you need to keep saying, don't pull on anybody. And just get in there and jostle for your place and that's it.”
Now, I let Eamonn Scallan down a little bit after that All-Ireland Final because I wasn't fully aware of the facts. Scallan got put off and I saw it back on the video afterwards and I said, "If we broke our discipline, then that's our own fault and Eamonn shouldn't have done that." I was a bit wrong because what had happened was that the row broke out and Pat Horan went to throw the ball in and he was throwing it in between Stephen McDonagh and Eamonn. But didn't Gary Laffan come over behind McDonagh just as he was about to pull and he hooked McDonagh's hurl so when Eamonn pulled he was the only one pulling. He shouldn't have got a straight red for that because he went to pull on the ball but Laffan came in so Stephen McDonagh couldn’t pull with him. But it wasn't Eamonn's fault that Stephen McDonagh didn't pull.
JH: At the moment it happens, and you're reduced to 14 men just before half-time, what are you thinking?
LG: What I'm thinking is, and this might sound incredible, but my stomach used to have more butterflies at U-12 matches when I was coaching kids than it ever did at a senior match. My stomach would get into a knot with the kids. I actually had myself semi-hypnotised that day. I had said to myself that I can't afford to lose my head in Croke Park. Of all the people in Croke Park, I have to be the steadiest man here. I've got to be able to think straight, I've got to be able to forget the crowd. I never did it before in life in most things, but I was saying to myself this is too big for me to be going around fretting and getting involved in all sorts of rubbish. I've got to stay focused.
I managed to keep myself focused in the match. And when Eamonn was put off just before half-time I knew we had discussed having a man sent off. You'd wonder if my father or someone was working for me in heaven throwing ideas into my head, but we had gone through this exact scenario with the players. We had a check-list of everything that could possibly happen in an All-Ireland Final and we did it on a mind-map and then I linked it all together and put in the bullet-points. I just let my head run free.
Because if you start to think too analytically you're being lead by the previous comment and that leads you somewhere else and it doesn't lead you everywhere. So you need a scatter-gun approach and a mind-map that connects everything up for you. I had a thousand different points on a plan. Every detail down to having spare studs one the sideline. And Storey lost a stud early on in the game and we had the stud there ready to sort it out for him. We had a check-list of everything we needed to do, and one of them was what we'd do if we had a man put off or they had a man put off.
One of the plans we had if we had a man sent off was that we would decide who their extra man was going to be. I think Tom Dempsey said, "Jaysus, Liam, you're starting to manage Limerick as well!" I said, "Yeah, we will. Why wouldn't we, Tom? Why can't we pick up the extra-man and force them to have someone else as the extra-man. And then keep swapping them. What happens then?" And that's what we did.
And Fitzy was told to puck to puck the balls out to the wings so even if it went out over the sideline then we'd have 14 on 14. Everyone has a man. But, above all, the biggest thing we emphasised was discipline. We had a few lads who would have liked to take revenge for Scallan, but we had to say to them, "No revenge. If we lose our heads now and try to take revenge on these fellas or get sucked into a fight then we're finished. This is the time to do what we always said we'd do. This is the day for discipline."
We had forecast before the game that if Gary Kirby got more than four points from frees, then Limerick would probably win. But if we could keep him to four points or less, then we would probably win. We kept him to two, and we won by two. Now, I don't want that to come across as me being some sort of genius. Do the maths! Do the logic! It works! He was getting seven points a game in other matches from frees and they were winning by three or four points. You don't need to be a genius to work it out, like!
JH: Ye really smothered them very effectively in that second half.
LG: We did. We were tight. And there's on great moment after Billy came on as a sub in the second half where Tom Dempsey and Billy who would have been two of the slowest men chased down one of the Nash brothers and didn't let him have an inch to even strike the ball. We were chasing everything that moved. The great satisfaction of that game is that it wasn't pretty, but we were doing some great things. Like, Larry O got a brilliant point that day. George hooked someone, got it to Adrian Fenlon, and he got it to Larry O who bashed it straight over the bar. Larry Murphy's point in the first minute, take the game to them, straight over the bar. They got four points in the first few minutes from young Foley. We moved Rod and switched him with Larry O. Rod was actually a problem before the game because he was over-aroused. He couldn't be calmed down. We had to take him off in the second-half because he got lost in the game.
Their extra-man, Davy Clarke, was running up the field and I said to Rod, "Pick him up, pick him up, but Rod is still looking at me. "Rod, pick him up!" Still didn't pick him up. The ball comes out to Clarke and he scores it, one of the few points they scored in the second-half. So we took Rod off and put Adrian back to wing-back so we had Larry O, Liam Dunne, and Adrian Fenlon in the half-back line. We could not produce a better half-back line. And it wasn't possible in Ireland that year to produce a better half-back line than those three. They all ended up with All-Stars.
JH: Two of the Generals on your team, Martin Storey and Liam Dunne, won crucial individual battles against two of their Generals, Ciaran Carey and Gary Kirby.
LG: Yes, and they blame Liam Dunne for breaking Kirby's finger. There's my finger broken the same way (Griffin holds up a little finger) and I don't even remember it happening. Liam Dunne did not pull on him deliberately. Kirby maintains that he did, but he didn't. And he broke his little finger but he put a ball over the bar from 70 or 80 yards off a free just after that. So, come on! He didn't have it when it mattered on the day. Because they thought they were going to f**king walk all over us. They thought they were just going to walk all over us. They thought, "This is our time." They came out of the dressing-room that day like lunatics.
JH: What did it feel like when the final whistle went?
LG: Relief, I suppose. Because I knew I was finished when that whistle went. Though that didn't go through my head immediately because there was too much going on. My biggest thrill that day was watching George and Billy and Storey, fellas who had been great servants to our county. And Cushe and Liam Dunne. To see them fulfil what they deserved to fulfil, that's where I got the satisfaction.
Rory had gotten some cartoonist to draw some great cartoons for us. And our big one was to plant a flag on to of a mountain. That was one of the drawings he did for us the week before the All-Ireland Final. It was produced in the dressing-room. We were going to plant our flag down on top of that hill and that was it. To see those lads who had given so much and they had been ridiculed, to now suddenly arrive at the Holy Grail. It was just a fantastic feeling of looking at them up there and saying, "By Jesus it is great to see those lads up there." That was the great satisfaction.
And the other thing was the relief of actually doing it after two years of solid hard work. The great thing that no-one much mentioned about as well was that we won every competition we entered from October 1995 until September 1996, except the League Final. We won the Oireachtais, the Walsh Cup, the Waterford Glass Tournament, the Leinster Championship and the All-Ireland Final. The only thing we missed out of the whole bundle was the League Final.
JH: How difficult then was it to tell the team that you were stepping down after the '96 All-Ireland Final?
LG: It was a heartbreak. But I had to do it. My big dream would have been to play Clare in an All-Ireland Final. But the biggest and funniest thing of the whole lot was that my brother Pat couldn't take it in England. He was listening to it on the radio. Don't ask me why he didn't come over, I think he has some sort of swimming gala on or something. His wife told me that he left the house to walk around the streets because he just couldn't listen anymore. His nerves were shot coming into the last 15 minutes of it. And when he came back in I couldn't ring him until the following day because it was mayhem.
When I eventually go through to him, he was just over the moon. Unreal! He said to me, after last year (Clare winning the All-Ireland) and this year, if the father was alive this would have killed him! But he did say that his biggest regret, and he cried his eyes out, was that the one thing that was missing was my father.
JH: I'm sure you would echo that sentiment?
LG: Ah Jesus, yeah. Because I suppose it meant so much to him. It's only one miserable All-Ireland in comparison to Kilkenny and all of these people. But what this would have meant to him and to George O'Connor's father as well who's my mother's first-cousin. You actually do think of those people when the journey is over because of who is missing. My mother wasn't missing, which was fantastic. She was sitting in a chapel in Rosslare harbour praying while we were in Croke Park, which, again, is incredible. Actually when I was interviewed on radio afterwards I said, "If someone is down in Rosslare harbour could they go into the church and get her up off her knees!"
My mother was in her nineties at that stage. When we got back to Enniscorthy, Avril Doyle, to her eternal credit, was standing at the back somewhere and someone said, "This is Liam Griffin's mother." And Avril Doyle went up to the top and said, "Get this woman on the stage before the team arrives." And when I walked in and saw her on the stage...(Griffin gets tearful)
JH: That must have been a huge moment for you?
LG: Oh! They were the huge moments, like. I'm getting emotional now, but sure look it. It seems a bit ridiculous, but it has to mean something to you. And I suppose there's a fulfilment as well. Am I proud of what happened? Of course I'm proud of what happened. But I'm proud of everybody on the journey because without the collective we wouldn't have done this.
We had to keep silent and not tell people things. This was part of what we needed to do. It wasn't that we were being secretive or anything like that. We had to be inclusive and we were. We had to enjoy it and we did. We had to be proud Wexford men. We had to behave ourselves on the day. We had to walk like men with a tradition of where we had come from. It wasn't the winning, it was the culmination of getting everything to come together. And why did we get it right? Because between Rory, Seamus, Sean Collier, Niamh, and myself, we had a tight bunch of a team and attention to detail meant everything to us.
And we won it for all the right reasons. It wasn't to be bully boys or wanting to say we're the best so we could stick our chests out. I'd like to think that we were humble as well. Humble can take many forms, but, like, of course we were humble. To win an All-Ireland for us after all of these years, it was a huge thing for us to do. And we realise that in the pantheon of great teams we don't figure. But we did figure for a day. We did figure for a year. And we did ourselves proud. And I'm pleased with the method with which we did it.
• In the third and final part of his 'Big Interview' on GAA.ie tomorrow, Liam Griffin analyses why Wexford failed to build on the ’96 All-Ireland and what the future holds for hurling in the county.