Plus Seán Mo­ran talks to Ea­monn Cre­gan; Keith Dug­gan re­vis­its Gal­way’s 1980 break­through

Lim­er­ick have lost five All-Ire­land fi­nals since their last ti­tle 45 years ago and one man has been ring­side for three of them

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - ALL-IRELAND HURLING FINAL SPECIAL - Seán Mo­ran Gaelic Games Cor­re­spon­dent

It has got to the stage that nearly half a cen­tury has passed since Lim­er­ick’s last All-Ire­land in 1973. Five times, in other words ev­ery decade since, the county has been back to Croke Park in Septem­ber for the se­nior fi­nal but on each oc­ca­sion the MacCarthy Cup has taken the other road home.

Ea­monn Cre­gan has been a cen­tral per­son­al­ity in three of these fi­nals. A key fig­ure in the 1973 team, he had been switched from cor­ner for­ward, where he was an All Star, to cen­tre back to mark Kilkenny’s Pat De­laney in the fi­nal. Paddy Downey in these pages de­scribed his per­for­mance as “a re­sound­ing suc­cess” adding that “Cre­gan played a ma­jor role in a great vic­tory”.

A year on and the same coun­ties were back. Kilkenny had been miss­ing play­ers in ’73 but were now at full strength. Lim­er­ick how­ever were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing prob­lems af­ter a first All-Ire­land in 33 years.

“It was ob­vi­ous every­thing wasn’t go­ing well,” Cre­gan re­calls, “and it was ad­dressed too late. Hav­ing won the All-Ire­land, the de­mands on play­ers were im­mense.

“Ea­monn Grimes (1973 cap­tain) was at so many func­tions; ev­ery­one wanted a piece of him and other play­ers. I only went to about one-third of the events I was in­vited to. I know the view would have been that ‘he’s a stuck-up so-and-so’ but I wanted to win another All-Ire­land. We all did.

“We got through Mun­ster in 1974 purely on the con­fi­dence we had as All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons. There was no doubt that we weren’t putting it in to the same ex­tent, that we hadn’t the same drive and ea­ger­ness.

“Six weeks be­fore the fi­nal we were all called in and told that we weren’t as fo­cused or com­mit­ted as we had been in ’73 – but it was too late.

“Every­thing was slop­pier. Two peo­ple missed the train to Dublin, in­clud­ing the county chair who said, ‘pick me up at Lim­er­ick Junc­tion’ and no sooner had we pulled out of the sta­tion, than we felt our­selves re­vers­ing again – be­cause another se­nior mem­ber of the county board had left ‘a con­sid­er­able sum of money’ in his car.

“When we got to Dublin, the bus broke down on the way to the Green Isle, which was a dif­fer­ent ho­tel to one we stayed in the pre­vi­ous year. It was dread­ful prepa­ra­tion. When Joe Sch­midt com­plained about the rugby team ar­riv­ing late on their bus I sym­pa­thised be­cause any de­par­ture from rou­tine up­sets peo­ple.

“We still led by five early on (0-6 to 0-1 on 11 min­utes). Kilkenny were clearly bet­ter on the day but we didn’t give our­selves the best chance.”

Mishit pass

In an in­ter­view with The Ir­ish Times in 1994, Cre­gan re­called the morn­ing of the 1980 All-Ire­land fi­nal. He knew that, at 35, he hadn’t many chances left to add to his All-Ire­land medals. On the ra­dio, he heard Abba’s The Win­ner Takes it All. “I thought, that’s it,” he said. “Com­ing sec­ond means noth­ing.”

He still re­mem­bers the episode. “That’s true. Funny thing is I was at Mama Mia, Here We Go Again on Wed­nes­day – and I en­joyed it im­mensely!

“We had beaten Cork in the Mun­ster fi­nal and John Flana­gan (cen­tre for­ward and fa­ther of cur­rent Lim­er­ick full for­ward Séa­mus) was im­mense for us. Strong as a horse, if he crashed into you, you fell. He was cre­at­ing ‘as­sists’ be­fore the term was in­vented. Un­for­tu­nately an an­kle in­jury forced him out of the All-Ire­land be­fore half-time but you’re as good as your last sub.”

Cre­gan ended the match with 2-7, 1-2 from play, but most vividly re­mem­bers a mis­take made in the dy­ing min­utes with three points in the match. He mishit a pass to Joe McKenna, un­marked and in front of goal, and Gal­way cor­ner back Conor Hayes in­ter­cepted.

“If I had hand-passed the ball prop­erly, we might have sur­vived,” he says. “I can still re­mem­ber how I only got con­tact with the tops of my fin­gers and the chance was lost.”

When Lim­er­ick re­turned to the fi­nal 14 years later Cre­gan, in an awk­ward twist of fate, found him­self man­ag­ing the op­po­si­tion.

“One of the rea­sons I went to Of­faly in 1992,” he re­mem­bers, “is that as well as some very good hurlers in the county, I thought there wouldn’t be much chance of play­ing Lim­er­ick in a dif­fer­ent province. They [Of­faly] were in tran­si­tion and I was only go­ing to be there a year.”

A mis­cal­cu­la­tion

That was a mis­cal­cu­la­tion. He was per­suaded to stay. Lim­er­ick emerged un­ex­pect­edly from Mun­ster and Of­faly de­throned back-to-back All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons Kilkenny.

By the end of an All-Ire­land fi­nal re­mem­bered for its ex­tra­or­di­nary de­noue­ment, which saw Of­faly over­turn a five-point deficit with 2-5 in lit­tle over four min­utes at the end of the match, Cre­gan had led the down­fall of his own county.

“It was dif­fi­cult and to an ex­tent, still is. In the dress­ing-room af­ter­wards – I had some of the Lim­er­ick play­ers at U-21 but my loy­alty was to Of­faly, who had won a great fi­nal, and I knew there wasn’t any­thing I could say to soften the blow. They came back two years later but didn’t win.”

He has worked with many of the cur­rent team when they were in de­vel­op­ment squads and at mi­nor and be­lieves strongly that they will bridge the gap at some stage, maybe even this week­end.

“Peo­ple are talk­ing about the 1973 team but that’s in the past and these are go­ing to make their own his­tory.”

Pho­to­graph: Inpho/Tom Ho­nan

Still dif­fi­cult... Cre­gan takes charge of Of­faly in 1994 de­feat of Lim­er­ick

1980

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1974

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