A sum­mer of great mem­o­ries and even greater cham­pi­ons

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES - JAME­SIE O’CON­NOR

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.

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