Four seconds of eternity before the birth of a beautiful new beginning
IT doesn’t really bear thinking about, but of all the glorious images available from last Sunday’s cinematic panorama, the one that was seared in the mind came from a darker scenario.
It recurred all week in one’s memory, perhaps because fear goes deeper than joy, because terror is a more visceral emotion than happiness. The abiding image is that of the ball dropping short, onto the edge of the small parallelogram, as Limerick are clinging frantically to the dream of a lifetime.
The All-Ireland final is in its 80th minute. Joe Canning is preparing himself for the monstrous free that will save Galway if he lands it. “It’s up to Joe,” declares Marty Morrissey as the great man eyes the target, regulates his breathing and slows his heart rate. Then, as Michael O’Hehir used to say for dramatic effect: he bends, he lifts, he strikes.
We put the stopwatch on it afterwards: the ball is airborne for over four seconds. It is more than enough time to be assailed by a flood of thoughts and fears. Immediately it becomes apparent that the ball is not going to make it over the bar. So Galway cannot get the draw. But a vista far worse is rising in the mind as the white dot falls: this could end up in the net. Jonathan Glynn is in there, all 6 foot 5 of him, among a few others in maroon and white. And sure enough, arms and hurleys are brandished skywards, like the sword Excalibur shooting up from the waters of the lake.
This viewer, for one, was waiting for the net to ripple. For those of us with Limerick loyalties, it was a terrifying moment. A deflection, a ricochet, and the net was billowing and . . . the horror, the horror, the horror. No, it doesn’t bear thinking about but suffice to say, if Limerick had lost that one, the implications would have been too profound, too painful to contemplate.
Those young guns who’d lit up the summer with their blithe audacity would have suffered a loss of innocence so calamitous, a trauma so wounding that they might never have recovered from it for the rest of their careers. Having led by eight points going into injury-time, and having seen that lead lopped down to one, the consequences of defeat would have been much deeper than the consequences of the victory they ultimately achieved. All of a sudden, the future of Limerick hurling for at least a generation was riding on their ability to see it out, to survive the onslaught, to simply get over the line.
One wonders if any of them have woken up in a cold sweat since, visited by flashbacks to that scarifying moment.
On Sunday night we were in Nancy Blake’s, the famed Limerick city hotspot, and swear to God, as the multiple TV screens which were replaying the game showed it again, some supporters were still squealing with panic as the Galway sticks went up. And this was a good eight hours after the match had ended.
But all was well. The joint was heaving, the city was pulsating with euphoria. And on Monday evening, the boys were back in town. It may be noteworthy that while they were merry, it was a merriness born out of the purest joy rather than the purest liquor. Presumably those among them who take a drink had supped well at the banquet on Sunday night. But for as long as they were on the open-top bus that paraded them through the city, not a bottle or a can was to be seen among them.
They are ordinary lads, one wouldn’t wish to build them into plaster saints, or to demand they conform to the stilted standards of public role models; but their conduct in general has been impressively intelligent and sound. If they’ve gone on the lash, and most assuredly at least some of them have, it’s been discreetly done whilst obliging all comers with selfies and autographs and a couple of words. We’ve heard one sentiment repeated regularly the last few days: “You’d be proud of them.”
One could see the guiding influence of John Kiely in their public decorum. The Limerick manager has demanded a thoughtful standard of behaviour off the field too. “These lads have to be as good in their ability to be post-successful as they were in their quest to be successful, if that makes sense,” he said in the after-match press conference. “They need to carry themselves well as All-Ireland champions. That is very, very important.”
Kiely does not project the sort of charisma that some managers can call on to inspire a group of players. He generates much of his authority through what he says and how he says it, through what he does and how he does it. Of course he preaches the gospel of hard work. But there is clarity, steel and common sense in his methodology. He has evidently surrounded himself with good people. He has insisted on best practice in all aspects of the coaching, preparation and logistics. Limerick GAA’s long-entrenched culture of mediocrity has been quietly quarantined on his watch, the players and backroom staff ringfenced from anything that might compromise the standard he knew was needed.
On the homecoming stage at the Gaelic Grounds on Monday night, he was asked what factors had made the difference this year. “When you’ve got people who are really, really committed and willing to do everything in their power to get everything right,” he replied. “And that was one thing that we set out at the start of the year, (it) was just to do everything right.”
And still it could have gone horribly wrong among those flailing hurleys at the death. But it didn’t. Those four seconds of agonising eternity were in fact the death rattle of an era that had lasted 45 years — and the birth cry of a beautiful new beginning.
‘We set out at the start to do everything right’