Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

It’s so won­der­fully anoma­lous to see Lim­er­ick in with a shot at win­ning not only the best All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship of all-time but the most dif­fi­cult. Kiely’s team have played seven games al­ready.

LIM­ER­ICK hurlers may be the great un­der­achiev­ers of the GAA. Ev­ery­one knows a win to­day would give them a first All-Ire­land since 1973. But that pre­vi­ous vic­tory also ended a long fal­low spell, one last­ing 33 years. Lim­er­ick have won just one of the last 77 All-Ire­lands. What makes this drought so re­mark­able is that in most of those years they’d have had hopes of con­tend­ing. Water­ford and Clare would have had pe­ri­ods where they were a long way off the com­pet­i­tive pace. Lim­er­ick not so much.

In those 77 years Lim­er­ick have won nine Mun­ster se­nior, six Na­tional League and six All-Ire­land un­der 21 ti­tles. Four dif­fer­ent clubs from the county have made the All-Ire­land fi­nal, a bet­ter record than Clare, Wex­ford and Water­ford, and the same as Tip­per­ary. This is a strong hurl­ing county.

How­ever, dur­ing the time Lim­er­ick won that sin­gle All-Ire­land they’ve been out­per­formed by ev­ery other se­ri­ous hurl­ing strong­hold. Even Water­ford, ev­ery­one’s idea of a team strug­gling against the tide of his­tory, won two, in 1948 and 1959. Wex­ford bagged five and Of­faly four. Last year’s Gal­way vic­tory was treated like the end of a famine. But to a Lim­er­ick fan, Gal­way’s four ti­tles since 1980 must look like riches.

That’s why it’s so won­der­fully anoma­lous to see Lim­er­ick in with a shot at win­ning not only the best All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship of all-time but the most dif­fi­cult. John Kiely’s team have played seven matches al­ready and prob­a­bly played more good hurl­ing than quite a few teams who’ve won All-Ire­lands in the past. When the cham­pi­onship started they were sev­enth favourite with the book­ies. This ap­pears to be that most sin­gu­lar of phe­nom­ena, an over­achiev­ing Lim­er­ick team.

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances were a side as young as this Lim­er­ick out­fit to lose by a cou­ple of points to­day their sup­port­ers might feel a break­through wasn’t far away. Yet such is the county’s his­tory of fail­ure it feels im­per­a­tive Lim­er­ick don’t add to it to­day. As Water­ford, whose fu­ture seemed pretty bright af­ter last year’s fi­nal de­feat, found out, an aw­ful lot can change in 12 months. A sixth fi­nal de­feat since 1974 would be a crush­ing blow. It would also equal the record for suc­ces­sive fi­nal de­feats set by Dublin be­tween 1941 and 1961, and Gal­way from 1990 to 2015.

One of the best of all hurl­ing books is

Un­lim­ited Fail­ure, Henry Martin’s story of Lim­er­ick’s tra­vails in the ’90s and noughties. Read­ing it is like watch­ing that se­quence in The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob steps on one rake af­ter an­other and they all spring up to clat­ter him in the face. Ex­cept with a few ex­tra rakes thrown in.

There’s the squan­der­ing of the three ina-row-win­ning un­der 21 team which might have been the finest team to play in this grade, the cease­less in­ter­nal wran­gling, the pub­lic re­crim­i­na­tions and a turnover of man­agers which would make Ro­man Abramovich blanch. Kiely is Lim­er­ick’s tenth man­ager in 16 years, few of his pre­de­ces­sors have de­parted with­out some ill feel­ing. The im­pres­sion has been that Lim­er­ick hurl­ing isn’t half set­tled.

What’s strik­ing about this year’s model is how un-Lim­er­ick their vic­to­ries have been. In the past Lim­er­ick have been to snatch­ing de­feat from the jaws of vic­tory what Kilkenny were to the opposite. Yet in this year’s quar­ter-fi­nal it was Lim­er­ick who got the win­ning points against Kilkenny in in­jury-time. And in the semi-fi­nal they pre­vailed de­spite find­ing them­selves six points down with seven min­utes to go against an­other one of their se­rial tor­tur­ers, Cork.

The con­fi­dence en­gen­dered by All-Ire­land un­der 21 vic­to­ries in 2015 and 2017 and the dis­re­gard of a young team for what’s hap­pened in the past might have some­thing to do with this change of at­ti­tude. Yet the 2000-2002 un­der 21 teams were even more tal­ented and their sole achieve­ment at se­nior level was a 2007 All-Ire­land fi­nal ap­pear­ance which owed a great deal to the fa­tigue of the Water­ford side they beat in the semi. In the fi­nal, they con­ceded two goals in the first nine min­utes to re­move any dan­ger of win­ning the match.

This propen­sity for self-sab­o­tage has been a con­stant Lim­er­ick thing. The 1994 col­lapse, when they went from five points up with five min­utes left to a six-point de­feat by Of­faly, ranks as the great­est fi­nal give-away of all-time. Two years later they started as favourites against Wex­ford, had an ex­tra man for the whole sec­ond half af­ter Ea­mon Scallan was sent off and con­trived to throw that one too.

That team was full of su­perb play­ers — Ciaran Carey, Gary Kirby, Mike Houli­han, Dave Clarke and Mark Fo­ley, but noth­ing seems to sum it up as much as the fate of two for­wards. In 1994, Damien Quigley hit 2-3 in the first half, two years later Barry Fo­ley clipped over four points in the open­ing pe­riod. Both looked un­stop­pable and nei­ther got a ball in the sec­ond half.

In 1980 it was Gal­way who were given a two-goal start by a Lim­er­ick side which came up three short at the fin­ish. The fol­low­ing year Lim­er­ick were prob­a­bly the best team in hurl­ing and would have beaten Gal­way in the semi had Sean Fo­ley not been sent off early on. The 14 men held on for a draw and looked to be head­ing for vic­tory in the re­play when lead­ing in the sec­ond half. Then Leonard En­right, the out­stand­ing full-back of the day, went off in­jured which al­lowed a hith­erto sub­dued John Con­nolly to score a game-turn­ing goal.

Lim­er­ick were dec­i­mated by in­juries that day but, as was the case in the mid’90s, you felt that an­other county might have got an All-Ire­land out of the same team. The Kilkenny and Of­faly sides which won in 1979 and 1981 were prob­a­bly weaker in­di­vid­u­ally than a Lim­er­ick team which con­tained En­right, Ea­mon Cre­gan, a peak-form Joe McKenna, Liam O’Donoghue and Tommy Quaid.

The odd year out is 1973. Lim­er­ick’s vic­tory has had a cer­tain res­o­nance for me be­cause it’s the cen­tre­piece of the first GAA book I ever read, Ray­mond Smith’s

Play­ers No 6 Book of Hurl­ing (no po­lit­i­cally cor­rect wor­ries about ad­ver­tis­ing back then). I read that book so many times it fell to bits in the end.

By that stage I knew by heart how Lim­er­ick’s jour­ney to the sum­mit had be­gun with their shock vic­tory in the 1966 Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship over Tip­per­ary and how of­ten they’d come up just short be­fore mak­ing the break­through. I read how they’d won the Mun­ster fi­nal by switch­ing de­fender Ned Rea to full-for­ward where he made wreck against Tipp and how for the All-Ire­land against Kilkenny they moved Ea­mon Cre­gan from cor­ner-for­ward to cen­tre half-back to curb the great Pat De­laney.

Ray­mond Smith’s hurl­ing and foot­ball books were, I sus­pect, child­hood read­ing for most sports jour­nal­ists of my gen­er­a­tion. The books tend to be de­cried th­ese days for their sup­pos­edly un­so­phis­ti­cated style, mainly by lads who’re un­likely to ever be mis­taken for Proust them­selves. I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber them fondly.

Smith also pub­lished an ex­haus­tive and in­valu­able book of GAA sta­tis­tics which is al­most im­pos­si­ble to find. I last saw it a decade and a half ago when the land­lord of a Dublin pub near Heuston Sta­tion put his own copy on the counter. “It’s a rare book, Ea­monn,” he said to me, “I keep a close eye on it. I caught a fella go­ing down the street with it one time.” Per­haps Ned Rea, de­fender turned full-for­ward and Park­gate Street pub­li­can, had spot­ted an un­scrupu­lous glint in my eye.

So be­tween the Play­ers No 6 Book of

Hurl­ing and Ned Rea I’ve al­ways had a soft spot for Lim­er­ick hurlers. Then there’s a his­to­rian friend of mine from Lim­er­ick who told me be­fore the semi that an­other big-match de­feat would be un­bear­able. “Not for me but for my fa­ther. He’s fol­lowed them all th­ese years. He re­mem­bers 1973 and Mick Lip­per, the Lord Mayor of Lim­er­ick, driv­ing the train with the team on it down from Dublin. I think he’s suf­fered enough at this stage.” (NB: Mick Lip­per was a train driver by pro­fes­sion. They hadn’t gone com­pletely mad.)

I think they’ve all suf­fered enough at this stage. So I won’t bring up 1966 when Lim­er­ick let in a last-minute goal to lose to a Cork team who went on to win the All-Ire­land. Or even the Mun­ster fi­nal in 1944, when hordes of peo­ple biked and walked to Thurles in a coun­try crip­pled by Emer­gency fuel re­stric­tions and bed­ded down overnight in Lib­erty Square.

In a richly sym­bolic fin­ish Mick Mackey, the great­est player of the 1930s, shot just wide at one end be­fore Christy Ring scored the win­ning goal at the other. The man­tle passed from Mackey to Ring and Lim­er­ick’s great­est era, where they’d won four All-Ire­lands be­tween 1934 and 1940, was over. From now on it would be Cork and Tip­per­ary and Kilkenny’s world and Lim­er­ick would just live in it.

Yet here they are in 2018 with the scalps of the big three hang­ing from their belt, a team from a county which knows more than most what it means to go home with your bright­est hopes in ru­ins, a team which be­gan the sea­son un­re­garded and start to­day as out­siders.

It’s been the most ex­tra­or­di­nary cham­pi­onship. Maybe it’ll give us the most ex­tra­or­di­nary cham­pi­ons.

The im­pres­sion has been that Lim­er­ick hurl­ing isn’t half set­tled

Photo: Bren­dan Moran

Lim­er­ick man­ager John Kiely speaks to his play­ers af­ter their semi-fi­nal vic­tory over Cork.

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