FI­NAL SPE­CIAL . . .

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DER­MOT CROWE

Der­mot Crowe vis­its Gal­way and Lim­er­ick to meet with play­ers and sup­port­ers and Jame­sie O’Con­nor analy­ses the strengths and weak­nesses of both sides in search of clues as to who will win to­day’s All-Ire­land fi­nal.

ON Wed­nes­day last Ea­monn Grimes, maybe out of a sense of duty, phoned De­clan Han­non, the Lim­er­ick hurl­ing cap­tain. Grimes isn’t go­ing to dis­close the de­tails but is more open about life as the last Lim­er­ick cap­tain to re­ceive the MacCarthy Cup. Were that dis­tinc­tion to dis­ap­pear to­day there would be no hap­pier man than he. It is his most earnest wish that Han­non will be­come only the sec­ond man since Mick Mackey in 1940 to join that elite band. When Grimes climbed the steps 45 years ago, end­ing a 33-year wait, it fu­elled hopes of a revolution. It couldn’t stop there. Could it?

Grimes has reached the age of 71. He re­mains the last win­ning cap­tain. He wants to make it clear that he is not be­ing dis­re­spect­ful in seek­ing a new iden­tity. It was a tremen­dous hon­our which brought him last­ing re­spect and in­fi­nite joy. But there came a time when it be­came more of re­minder of the fail­ure that fol­lowed. At ev­ery turn on the road dur­ing th­ese last 45 years, where it looked like he might have an heir, there was crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment lay­ing in wait.

He was there in ’74 as Kilkenny ex­acted re­venge in the fi­nal, when Sean Fo­ley cap­tained the team. He came on for his last ap­pear­ance in the 1980 fi­nal de­feat by Gal­way, flash­ing a late chance wide. The un­for­tu­nate Fo­ley was cap­tain that year too. He was a spec­ta­tor dur­ing the two heart­break­ing end­ings of the 1990s, and present again when they fell to Kilkenny in 2007. The past has not tread softly on Lim­er­ick dreams. In all of this he has been last cap­tain. Last cap­tain.

It is a mere an­noy­ance com­pared to the big­ger chal­lenges in life. Two years ago he had a quadru­ple by­pass op­er­a­tion, ten years af­ter three stents were in­serted in his ar­ter­ies. In the space of a few days he had two col­lapsed lungs and a spell in in­ten­sive care. The man who last lifted the MacCarthy Cup as cap­tain was told on leav­ing hos­pi­tal that the most he would be able to lift for the fol­low­ing 16 weeks was a cup of tea.

They did not tell him that he had to stop at­tend­ing Lim­er­ick matches. On Fri­day he trav­elled to Dublin with his wife, He­len, to stay with their daugh­ter. All-Ire­land fi­nals are al­ways a re­minder that their wed­ding an­niver­sary is al­most upon them. The cou­ple mar­ried eight days af­ter Lim­er­ick de­feated Kilkenny in the rain in 1973. His close friend JP McManus drove them from the wed­ding re­cep­tion the same night to Dublin air­port in a Mor­ris Mi­nor (he can still re­cite the reg­is­tra­tion plate, “EIU 277”). From there, they took a flight to Mal­lorca for a 10-day hon­ey­moon. It was a tem­po­rary re­lief from the mad­ness which fol­lowed Lim­er­ick’s win. But even there, they weren’t en­tirely safe. A cou­ple of priests at the re­sort recog­nised Grimes and one re­marked that he was a long way from the hurl­ing field.

He re­turned home to a litany of so­cial en­gage­ments. “Sure Je­sus, we were par­ty­ing un­til the fol­low­ing March.”

On Fri­day last, he had made a pact with him­self that he was switch­ing off his mo­bile and giv­ing his head peace. The mo­bile had been ping­ing all week. “It’s crazy,” he said, “but it’s a lovely crazy.”

Like ’73? Yes, he says, like then. He re­calls the Fri­day be­fore the fi­nal against Kilkenny, when he was in his car on the last day of Au­gust, head­ing to­wards evening, bolt­ing for Adare. Two days be­fore the fi­nal, fer­ry­ing match tick­ets to a well known pub­li­can. “I was go­ing over a bridge and driv­ing a choco­late brown Anglia and I hit the bridge and heard this thump. I broke the sump in my car. And I looked back and there was a streak of oil. I was go­ing too fast, nearly killed my­self sure, try­ing to get rid of them. And that’s what it was like then.”

The yearn­ing was very much like now, the world much dif­fer­ent. On Septem­ber 2, the day Lim­er­ick took on Kilkenny in the fi­nal, a pub­li­can in Clon­tarf re­ceived a phone call that he would later de­scribe as “ex­tremely un­usual”. The caller ex­plained that he was in an Ir­ish bar in Los An­ge­les where a group of around 400 Lim­er­ick sup­port­ers had gathered for an RTÉ trans­mis­sion of the fi­nal that did not come through. Faced with a des­per­ate sit­u­a­tion, they de­cided to call a pub in Ire­land and ask to have the re­ceiver placed near a tele­vi­sion so they could lis­ten to the com­men­tary. Tim Kin­sella, owner of the Peb­ble Beach Bar, was pulling a pint when the phone rang.

“The phone was tuned into the fi­nal for the full 80 min­utes and ev­ery time Lim­er­ick scored I could hear scream­ing and cheer­ing on the other side of the line,” ex­plained Kin­sella. The call cost over £90 — or around €1,100 in to­day’s money — but the Lim­er­ick fol­low­ers on the west coast of Amer­ica didn’t re­gret the bill that needed to be set­tled. It was money well spent.”

The year be­fore South Lib­er­ties won their first se­nior hurl­ing cham­pi­onship, en­abling them to nom­i­nate a cap­tain to lead Lim­er­ick in ’73. Grimes was the cho­sen one. He was a spe­cial tal­ent. In 1966, on the eve of sit­ting a Leav­ing Cert exam, he made his se­nior cham­pi­onship debut against Tip­per­ary, the reign­ing All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons. They caused a shock by win­ning the match and Grimes was in­tro­duced to the hard­est man he ever hurled against, Len Gaynor. Cork beat them in the Mun­ster semi-fi­nal.

In the next four sea­sons they won one match in the prov­ince, a re­play over Clare in 1970. The near­est they came to a break­through was the ’71 Mun­ster fi­nal de­feat by Tipp in Kil­lar­ney. Two years later Grimes led them to their first Mun­ster ti­tle since 1955.

Mem­o­ries flood back now. On the night be­fore the 1973 All-Ire­land fi­nal he and a few oth­ers went into Dublin city cen­tre, stop­ping at Clery’s where the MacCarthy Cup was on pub­lic dis­play. He roomed with Pat Har­ti­gan. “The fol­low­ing morn­ing we got up, we had Mass, and then we had break­fast and got a pa­per and I went back up to the room. They were all on the bus and they did a count and I was miss­ing. And they came back to the room and I was fast asleep.”

Af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle his el­derly fa­ther made an at­tempt to reach him as he was be­ing car­ried off the field. “I think he made about four at­tempts with­out the walk­ing stick to come down the steps. He couldn’t walk with­out the stick prior to it.” Then in his mid-70s, he died a year later. “He took a mas­sive heart at­tack in the Gaelic Grounds; we were play­ing Water­ford in the League,” says his son.

His fa­ther try­ing to reach him, try­ing to defy all com­mon sense and his ail­ing phys­i­cal con­di­tion, is one of the day’s abid­ing mem­o­ries.

“I will al­ways re­mem­ber that,” he says. “Ah that . . . that was fam­ily.”

***** LIM­ER­ICK hurl­ing has hit many troughs over the past 45 years, its peo­ple have fre­quently de­spaired, but maybe there was no pe­riod as try­ing as eight years ago when the play­ers went on strike in a dis­pute with the team man­age­ment. The pre­vi­ous year they had been de­stroyed by 24 points by Tip­per­ary in the All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal, and the fol­low­ing League ended in in­evitable rel­e­ga­tion as they fielded sec­ond-string teams. In their last match against Dublin they were beaten by 31 points. The vast ma­jor­ity of their bet­ter hurlers re­fused to play. Fol­low­ers were faced with a dilemma of whether to shun the team or of­fer those play­ing moral sup­port.

At that time, Stephen McDon­agh was pre­par­ing to head to Cork for a Mun­ster semi-fi­nal he knew they could not pos­si­bly win. He planned to take his six-year-old son Dar­ragh with him, who had also been in Croke Park when they were trounced by Tipp the pre­vi­ous Au­gust. Th­ese were the mem­o­ries his young son would be car­ry­ing but McDon­agh felt a child might still reap some ben­e­fits, re­mem­ber the good bits. And any­way, he wanted to go.

“Dar­ragh is mad to go,” he ex­plained about the Cork game at the time. “He wouldn’t re­ally be aware of it (the strike). I think it goes over their heads at that age and no harm at the mo­ment the way things are go­ing. He is aware that Lim­er­ick are do­ing pretty well in foot­ball, though; he’s aware of that all right. He knows they are in the Mun­ster fi­nal and anx­ious to go to that as well. He asked me the other night would I take him to the foot­ball.”

McDon­agh ex­pressed his con­cern about the dam­age that was be­ing in­flicted by a di­vi­sive dis­pute. “I hope it won’t set us back eight to 10 years. I think hurl­ing in gen­eral needs Lim­er­ick, it is cry­ing out for a county from the mid-tier to make a right burst. Just to freshen things a bit. That is no dis­re­spect to Kilkenny or any of the hurl­ing strongholds.”

We are back in the same room in McDon­agh’s farm­house in Bruree where we had that con­ver­sa­tion eight years ear­lier. Dar­ragh is now 14 and the fam­ily has grown to four, along with Cian, Sophia and Ava. All en­ter the room at some point, four beau­ti­ful happy chil­dren, maybe on the brink of wit­ness­ing some­thing that will have a pro­found im­pact on their lives. They may be for­tu­nate to be grow­ing up in a dif­fer­ent era for Lim­er­ick.

“All are go­ing,” says McDon­agh chirpily. “I have the cheque to prove it. They are all go­ing. I said if I was in a po­si­tion to get tick­ets, which I was lucky enough to get, I said I would take them all. So we are all go­ing. If we are lucky enough to win it, they will have a mem­ory for a life­time.”

He had planned to drive up early this morn­ing and first visit his wife Kay’s fa­ther, Dan, in the Mater Hos­pi­tal where he is re­cov­er­ing from a re­cent back op­er­a­tion. They will park the car

“Ever since our dra­matic win in the Mun­ster fi­nal, the in­ter­est in hurl­ing among young and old has climbed to a fever pitch in a city where soc­cer and rugby held the dreams of our youth. Now there is a bright fu­ture for hurl­ing in Lim­er­ick. There is not a street in the city or a field in the county where boys will not em­u­late the stylish mastery of hurl­ing dis­played in Croke Park on Sun­day by the he­roes of Lim­er­ick.” Al­der­man Mick Lip­per, Lord Mayor of Lim­er­ick, 1973 “That is the pat­tern ev­ery day since we de­feated Tip­per­ary in the Mun­ster fi­nal. The surge of in­ter­est has been stag­ger­ing. If we win the All-Ire­land we will win ev­ery young boy in the city.” De­clan Moy­lan, Lim­er­ick County Board trea­surer, speak­ing to John D Hickey of the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent be­fore the 1973 All-Ire­land fi­nal

If we are lucky enough to win it, they will have a mem­ory for a life­time

there and drive back home af­ter­wards, come what may. In 2014 McDon­agh got in­volved with the county mi­nor team that reached the All-Ire­land fi­nal, with a num­ber of the cur­rent se­niors emerg­ing from that group, like Sean Finn, Cian Lynch, Sea­mus Flana­gan and Tom Mor­ris­sey. His two sons were at nu­mer­ous train­ing ses­sions and went to all of the matches.

“Tom Mor­ris­sey pre­sented a few camo­gie medals last year in Granagh-Ballingarry (where the girls hurl) and the first ques­tion he asked was, ‘How are the boys?’ Lit­tle things like that. ’Twas great for them. I re­mem­ber when we were beaten, when Kilkenny beat us (in the All-Ire­land mi­nor fi­nal), they were dev­as­tated. Ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated when the match was over. They were with Kay. I re­mem­ber com­ing back, I turned on my phone, and im­me­di­ately Kay sent me a mes­sage to come and get the lads quick, that they were dev­as­tated. I went up and found them and I brought them down into the dressing room and the fol­low­ing match then was the great match be­tween Tipp and Kilkenny. So we watched that right down at pitch­side in the Cu­sack Stand. Barry Kelly and Brian Gavin and I don’t know who the other lines­man was were com­ing in at half-time and they were get­ting hell from the Kilkenny crowd,

dog’s abuse, they got to ex­pe­ri­ence all of that. That was an ex­pe­ri­ence that will last them a life­time you know.”

Be­cause of that in­volve­ment for a year with the mi­nors he feels a deeper and more per­sonal con­nec­tion to this ven­ture. When they were in the fi­nal in 2007 he went with Kay, as their kids were very young. “That was a great Kilkenny team. Deep down I don’t think we felt we were go­ing to win. This time it’s dif­fer­ent. We are go­ing up with a good bit more hope be­hind us.”

When you are so long wait­ing, the temp­ta­tion to won­der what win­ning would be like is chal­lenged by the fear of in­creas­ing the pain if you do and it does not ma­te­ri­alise. “I think it would be fan­tas­tic re­ally,” says McDon­agh. “If we could just scram­ble over the line. I think you’d see an out­pour­ing of emo­tion that would be . . . I think you would see some­thing dif­fer­ent. It would be fan­tas­tic. But that’s the emo­tional side of it. You don’t want to think too far ahead in case there will be dis­ap­point­ment again.”

The two fi­nals he lost as a player, the one against Of­faly with the win­ning line in sight, and the de­feat by a 14-man Wex­ford two years later, are stripped of any sen­ti­ment. “We didn’t win them be­cause we weren’t good enough. We can talk about hard luck, but I am a great be­liever that the best team wins the All-Ire­land. We were so many points up against Of­faly and, sure, to­tally self-im­ploded.”

As a boy he re­mem­bers be­ing driven up to the 1980 All-Ire­land fi­nal with his fa­ther. “Com­ing home dev­as­tated they were beaten, but the dis­play that Ea­monn Cre­gan gave. What a player like! Sean Fo­ley, I grew up idol­is­ing Sean Fo­ley, Joe McKenna and Leonard En­right. I re­mem­ber be­ing in school and Leonard was a rep with the Tayto com­pany and com­ing down from school hav­ing vivid mem­o­ries of see­ing the truck and be­ing in to­tal awe of him. And Cre­gan. I saw him do things even as a young lad go­ing to club matches, and we have won­der­ful skil­ful play­ers here now, but the skill Cre­gan had . . . I don’t think we pro­duced any­one more skil­ful than Ea­monn Cre­gan.”

But you can’t wish Lim­er­ick to an All-Ire­land, as he well knows. “No­body is go­ing to give it to you. And sen­ti­ment won’t give you one ei­ther. And if you didn’t win one for an­other 40 years, Tipp and Cork and Kilkenny, they won’t be cry­ing like. We had a great team then in 1980, should have won an All-Ire­land. I re­mem­ber be­ing above, with my dad, Lord have mercy on him, and Cre­gan very nearly sin­gle­hand­edly tak­ing down Gal­way on his own.” THE other great mem­ory of the bed­lam that fol­lowed their win in 1973 con­cerns his friend JP McManus. They have known each other since child­hood. They walked across fields to pri­mary school to­gether. Long be­fore Grimes be­came a fa­mous hurler they were friends. And long af­ter he re­tired they still are. McManus has been part of the nar­ra­tive in some shape or form dur­ing all the time Lim­er­ick have been wait­ing to add an­other All-Ire­land and for a few years be­fore ’73 as well.

In ’73 McManus was chair­man of South Lib­er­ties. “Go back to ’71,” says Grimes. “At the time we were train­ing with Lim­er­ick you might have three slio­tars. You’d come in af­ter train­ing, you might get a pint of milk and a sand­wich. If you were lucky. JP got in­volved so we went from that up to the Shan­non Arms. We went from milk and a sand­wich to steak and sal­mon. And that was an in­cen­tive to go train­ing.”

So JP picked up the tab for those meals then? “He did.”

He named a horse af­ter you? “Jay­sus, he did.”

Did the horse do you jus­tice? “He did. He had one for Joe McKenna, he called it Joe Mac. And he had one called Pat Har­ti­gan. The one I had was called Grimes.

“Joe McKenna, he ran in Liver­pool, he won in Liver­pool. And he ran down in Gowran Park and jeez, he broke his leg. And Pat’s (horse) was fed to the grey­hounds (he wasn’t suc­cess­ful). I was left hold­ing the can then. Won a num­ber of pres­ti­gious races in­clud­ing the Gal­way Plate. We had some night af­ter that. He is in Martin­stown (Stud) now.”

Which takes him back to that mo­ment from ’73 when JP ar­rived at the dressing-room seek­ing ad­mis­sion and the cel­e­brat­ing crowd gathered out­side the door made en­try im­pos­si­ble. He sought ac­cess through a nar­row win­dow and Grimes and the county trea­surer helped pull him in. It was a tight squeeze and his clothes, Grimes re­mem­bers, were badly creased. But they got him through. “We pulled him in,” says Grimes. “He was the chair­man of our club and the man that fed us.”

More re­cently he spot­ted him af­ter they de­feated Kilkenny in Thurles in the All-Ire­land quar­ter-fi­nal, a match that looked to be veer­ing away from them be­fore Tom Mor­ris­sey set the tone for a dra­matic fi­nale. Their first cham­pi­onship win over Kilkenny since 1973. “I never saw him as de­lighted go­ing over to the he­li­copter,” says Grimes, smil­ing. “There was such a spring in his step. He con­trols his emo­tions now very much but it was like he felt there was some­thing hap­pen­ing.”

The day Grimes felt there was some­thing hap­pen­ing? That would have been when they came from be­hind to de­feat Gal­way in the Na­tional League in Salthill to se­cure a long-awaited promotion back to the top tier. “I said it three months ago af­ter they beat Gal­way in Salthill. I said we were the only team that can stay with Gal­way, phys­i­cally, and point for point. We’ll match them. We have big men. In the right places.”

For Stephen McDon­agh it was the cham­pi­onship game in Cork. “To be hon­est about it, now, I didn’t ex­pect them to beat Tipp the first day. Go­ing down to Cork was al­ways go­ing to be tough but I think the Cork match, the night in Cork, now I know they had a blip against Clare, but the night in Cork told me some­thing about them. You know, down to 14 men . . . I was on the 21-yard line on the cov­ered stand side that evening and pos­si­bly the two best per­for­mances I’ve seen com­ing out of Lim­er­ick were from (Graeme) Mulc­ahy and (Sea­mus) Flana­gan that night. The work they did. The ground they cov­ered.

“Two min­utes into the sec­ond half, (Mark) Cole­man got a ball over on the un­cov­ered stand side and soloed 50 yards. And Mulc­ahy went af­ter him, hooked him, shunted him out over the line, re­ally set the tone. Now ’twas a pure act of de­fi­ance that night. I think Sea­mus Flana­gan cov­ered nearly 15km that night. I said to my­self com­ing home that night, there is a lit­tle bit some­thing dif­fer­ent here now.” MAYBE that says it best of all, how much it has changed, though the yearn­ing stays the same. The baton passes from Mackey to Grimes and now Han­non has his hand out hop­ing to carry it for­ward for a new gen­er­a­tion. But if you cov­ered their faces and changed the colour of their shirts, would you know Lim­er­ick were hurl­ing? It is al­most cer­tain that the safest fore­cast to be made to­day is that not a sin­gle player, Lim­er­ick or Gal­way, will strike the ball on the ground in open play.

And if his­tory has taught Lim­er­ick any­thing, it is that noth­ing can be as­sumed. The cur­rent bid comes on the back of solid foun­da­tions at un­der­age, but the three un­der 21 ti­tles that led to noth­ing but in­creased an­guish at se­nior, even if the cir­cum­stances were dif­fer­ent, is one of those dark chap­ters of un­ful­filled po­ten­tial that have filled the pages of Lim­er­ick’s nar­ra­tive over the last 45 years. They have ev­ery right to feel con­fi­dent to­day, to feel on an equal foot­ing with Gal­way, but noth­ing is yours un­til you have it in your hand.

And no Lim­er­ick man has had the MacCarthy handed to him since Grimes, and be­fore him none since Mackey. So, the idea that it will hap­pen be­cause it must hap­pen . . . no, they are not buy­ing that.

“Well, if you asked me in 2013 af­ter Clare win­ning the All-Ire­land, would it be five years be­fore they’d win an­other one, I would have said in my opin­ion that would cer­tainly not be the case,” says McDon­agh. “So you don’t know. You don’t know. I couldn’t sit here and say for cer­tain that Lim­er­ick are go­ing to be here for the next five years. You don’t know. I mean they’ve a great chance. But if you look at Water­ford last year, OK Gal­way won it but Water­ford were there or there­abouts for a while. You look at what hap­pened (Water­ford) this year. A ball of in­juries. One calamity af­ter the next. You never know what will hap­pen in 12 months’ time. I think they are in a great place now. But who knows what the fu­ture holds.

“From the grapevine, the level of ef­fort that’s gone in here, with the panel, the man­age­ment, the train­ing, be­hind the scenes since last Septem­ber, ob­vi­ously with­out the Na Piar­saigh lads un­til they came back, has been phe­nom­e­nal. Is it pos­si­ble to keep that go­ing over two, three, four or five years? I doubt it. They have ded­i­cated their whole life to this since Septem­ber.”

Ea­monn Grimes re­mem­bers what it was like in his time, hear­ing of the 1940 team and the fa­mous names: Mackey, Jackie Power, Dick Stokes, Paddy Scan­lan. “And then you got to ’73 and — bang! — you were af­ter em­u­lat­ing th­ese guys.”

He can see the turf alight on the side of the road as they left the train in Castle­con­nell on the way home on the Mon­day evening. They went the rest of the way into the city on a float. Their lives were never the same again.

Bang. And it was gone. Lim­er­ick has been wait­ing for the same bang since. They do big bangs only.

“It would be lovely — not just for my sake — if we got a new man. There’s a new gen­er­a­tion af­ter com­ing up that doesn’t know me. But they know De­clan Han­non and Kyle Hayes and all of those.” Ea­monn Grimes, Au­gust 2018

‘No­body is go­ing to give it to you, and sen­ti­ment won’t give you one ei­ther’ “If the boys play ground hurl­ing, which is typ­i­cal of Lim­er­ick, I think they will win.” Rory Kiely, former chair­man of Lim­er­ick County Board, 1973

Stephen McDon­agh (left, with his chil­dren Cian, So­phie, Ava and Dar­ragh and their cousins Sean O’Gor­man and Kate O’Gor­man) will visit his fa­ther-in-law at the Mater Hos­pi­tal this morn­ing be­fore jour­ney­ing on to Croke Park; (above) Ea­monn Grimes, the man who cap­tained Lim­er­ick to their last All-Ire­land hurl­ing suc­cess in 1973, is des­per­ate to see them get the bet­ter of Gal­way in to­day’s fi­nal. Pho­tos: Caro­line Quinn

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