I’m pro-Treaty, they’ve suffered enough

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I’m pro-Treaty, they’ve suffered enough

Hold The Back Page: All-Ireland Final Special


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

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 in-a-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.

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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 Final Word: Galway minors already showing huge promise

Galway have produced some terrific minor teams, but there looks to be something special about the one which takes on Kilkenny today. Jeffrey Lynskey’s side have won their three matches so far by a whopping average of 11 points.

The most impressive victory was a 3-22 to 0-16 destruction of highly-rated Leinster champions Dublin in the semi-final, while they’ve already scored a seven-point win over Kilkenny in the round robin quarter-final stage.

Players to look out for as they bid to make it three wins in four years are live-wire corner-forward Dean Reilly from Pádraig Pearses, who has notched 2-7 from play in his last two games, outstanding Gort midfielder Jason O’Donoghue, and dead-ball expert Donal O’Shea, son of former Tipperary manager Eamon, who has scored 1-27 in the championship so far.

Having lost to Dublin and Galway earlier on, Kilkenny scored a shock win over Munster champions Tipperary in the semis and their upset hopes may rest with brilliant Ballyraggett full-forward Jack Morrissey and O’Loughlin Gaels midfielder Conor Kelly who starred on this year’s All-Ireland-winning St Kieran’s College team.

* * * * *

It seems like a long time ago now but there was some very good stuff played in the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup which saw Carlow promoted to the senior hurling championship for next year. It’s a pity the competition seemed to get a bit lost in terms of coverage.

Carlow subsequently took a heavy beating from Limerick but runners-up Westmeath’s 11-point defeat by Wexford was an honourable effort. It certainly suggested that Offaly, who got a 24-point hammering from the Slaneysiders, don’t have much of a case when suggesting that playing in the 2019 Joe McDonagh Cup will be somehow beneath them.

Down the pyramid, wins for Kildare, Donegal and Sligo in the Christy Ring, Lory Meagher and Nicky Rackard Cups will provide some encouragement for those engaged in the noble and frustrating pursuit of trying to keep the game going in the frontier outposts.

* * * * *

Fair play to the members of the 1,450 Club. That’s how many spectators were at the Gaelic Grounds when Limerick began their season by defeating Laois 1-25 to 0-18 in their opening Division 1B match.

It’s actually a smaller figure than last year’s average home attendance for beleaguered League of Ireland side Limerick FC. Galway’s attendance against Antrim in Pearse Stadium was a bit better, but 3,977 was low enough considering it was their first home game since winning the 2017 All-Ireland.

Those figures mean that an absolute maximum of slightly more than 5,000 Galway and Limerick fans have seen every one of their team’s games this season. I hope they all got tickets. The difference between the much-vaunted big summer crowds and the relatively paltry attendances at the start of the season seems a uniquely GAA thing. It’s as if teams open their season in the League of Ireland and finish it in the Champions League. I’d prefer a league match to a homecoming myself.

Sunday Indo Sport

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