A summer of great memories and even greater champions
Equally damaging was the service to both Mannion and Whelan
AFTER the greatest ever hurling championship, at least in my memory, we didn’t finish the season with the cracking final we had hoped for, or even a game that lived up to the excellence that had preceded it all summer. Thirty-six wides did for that.
What we did end up with, though, were thoroughly deserving winners and fitting champions. The best coached team in the competition, the best prepared team to ever come out of Limerick and a side playing an intelligent, attractive brand of hurling that was easy on the eye. A side that brought all the attributes — physicality, aggression, intensity — to Croke Park last Sunday that Limerick sides at their best over the years have traditionally played with.
No one can question Limerick’s credentials. This team came through eight tough, demanding championship matches, with the loss to Clare the only blip along the way. Even then there were extenuating circumstances as it was their third game in three weeks, and had the inevitable performance dip we saw consistently from all the teams with a similar schedule; in hindsight, it didn’t do them any harm.
For a team to beat Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway in the same championship is unprecedented. That speaks for itself, and credit where credit is due, to John Kiely, Paul Kinnerk, Brian Geary, Jimmy Quilty, Alan Cunningham, Joe O’Connor and the rest of the Limerick backroom team for the job they did in getting the absolute best out of the team when it mattered most at the business end of the season.
What they’ve done in Limerick is impressive, because this team is built on solid foundations. In JP McManus, they have a great benefactor, who won’t forget the tremendous summer the team has given him. With their age profile, the depth they have in the panel and a management team that knows the pitfalls success can bring, they are going to be around for a while.
That said, Clare and Cork will both travel to the Gaelic Grounds next summer with the belief that it could have been them. That’s something to look forward to, and in all likelihood two probable sell-outs for the Munster Council. Tipp in Thurles won’t be easy; and, irrespective of where the Waterford match is played, after what Limerick did to them back in June, that’s not a gimme either. Champions or not, Munster will still be a minefield in 2019.
For Galway, there will be regrets, and a lot of them. I certainly didn’t envisage them being as below par as they were last Sunday. At half-time, we were baffled in the TV studio by how poorly they had used the sliotar when in possession. It took nearly ten minutes for the first ball to go into Johnny Glynn and I can’t remember a single instance when he got a ball he could really attack, or set his feet for. It meant whatever size advantage he had over Mike Casey was negated, and with the type of ball that was coming in, Casey just had to concentrate on spoiling him. In fact, on more than one occasion, Glynn found himself in a footrace for possession of ball that was angled towards the sideline, rather than in front of him, and which played right into the Limerick full-back’s hands.
Credit to Casey because he did a tremendous job overall, but Galway certainly made his life a lot easier, especially early on by spurning the opportunities that were there to ask a few questions and sow some doubt in Limerick minds.
Equally damaging was the lack of service to both Cathal Mannion and Conor Whelan. Galway failed badly to get two of their most talented attacking players on the ball, reflected in the fact they had fewer than ten possessions between them. The argument can obviously be made that the onus is on them to win their own ball. Fair enough. But to win big matches, you have to get the ball into the hands of your most dangerous players. Galway didn’t do enough of that. Mannion was gone after 40 minutes and until Whelan’s late goal, when we finally saw what he’s capable of, he had no impact either.
In contrast, one of the things that really impressed me about Limerick was the service given to Graeme Mulcahy, Seamus Flanagan and Aaron Gillane. They have clearly worked long and hard at both getting their movement right and the type of delivery they need to find their inside forwards. I’ve been to five of Limerick’s championship matches. Along with their puck-outs, you could see how they got better as the season progressed.
Kinnerk deserves great credit for that, because the small percentages they gained made all the difference.
Also fatal to Galway’s chances were the three soft goals they conceded. The first was a comedy of errors; the next two the by-product of turnovers in the wrong part of the field. In total, 3-6 came directly from ball that Limerick turned over — most unlike Galway to cough up scores that easily. That’s down to the pressure applied by the Limerick forwards. No Galway defender got a second on the ball, and the energy, work-rate and physicality they brought wasn’t replicated by the Galway forwards. No one was more impressive in that department than Kyle Hayes, who finished with four points from play, was the width of the post from a couple more and a deserving man of the match.
The timing of the goals really hurt Galway. The second and third in particular both came just when Galway looked to be getting back into the match and killed whatever momentum they might have been building. It’s a testament to their resolve that after all that — the poor performance and use of the ball, the three soft goals, the 16 wides, the fatigue and lack of energy — that they still had a chance to get something out of it at the end.
In hindsight, I certainly underestimated just how attritional the last seven weeks have been. Sunday proved that five matches in that time-frame was a bridge too far, especially given the knocks and injuries they were carrying. John Hanbury and Gearóid McInerney in particular didn’t look fully fit, and faced with Limerick’s energy and raw hunger, they needed to be in the whole of their health to withstand it.
Seventeen or 18 years ago, when our club team were riding high and competing for Munster and All-Ireland club titles, a cheeky seven- or eight-year-old kid would often land out to training with his neighbour. Ger Hoey, our corner-back, was living in Caherdavin, beside the Na Piarsaigh club in Limerick city at the time. Shane Dowling had the same smile back then that we saw in Croke Park last Sunday. Tragically, Ger didn’t live to see it, but I’m sure he was with Shane in spirit every step of the way. Hats off to him. And hats off too to Seamus Hickey, who was with me in St Flannan’s, and the other senior players Graeme Mulcahy, Nickie Quaid, Tom Condon, and Richie Mulcahy, who have given great service to Limerick over the years. What a summer. Roll on 2019.