When John Kiely started to plan his epic voyage he knew had to have the very best crew available. He would need to go shopping, whose American Express card he used is a matter of no consequence, rest assured he didn’t leave home without it.
Caroline Currid and Paul Kinerk were on top of his list. Currid’s cv was highly impressive with success with 3 other counties and he had also helped Paul O’Connell. Kinerk, from Monaleen, was with Clare and a must get for Limerick.
Joe O’Connor was brought in as strength and conditioning coach. He had been with Clare in 2014 and with Waterford before that. Other essential backroom men joined, a number retained from TJ’s team.
In 2017 success, silverware and crucially promotion eluded the senior team but Pat Donnelly’s young guns would keep the flag flying at U21 level. Many this squad would join Kiely, some had played already in ’17. In mid-December in Mallow one of the first gatherings took place. Stock was taken of the objective, and everybody was on board.
The Na Piarsaigh boys were excused because of club commitments. They would re-join in late March. Although matches took place in early January, most were against 3rd level colleges or Counties with depleted squads.
THE ALLIANCE LEAGUE
Promotion from 1B of the league was a goal that previous managers did not achieve. Always 1 county would get there before us, this year 2018 would be different.
First up for shaving were Laois. The midland county has been trying to make progress but exclusion from the top tier in the Liam McCarthy Cup hasn’t helped. On a brisk January day, 28th to be exact, Laois arrived to start their League campaign and although they were full of honest endeavour, few of the team showed that they would use up much column space in the sport section of the regional newspapers.
It finished 1-25 to 0-18 and most agreed that Limerick could only beat what was in front of them leaving the Gaelic Grounds that day.
There were 3 matches in February. Away to Offaly, where possibly Limerick displayed that this team had serious potential, a score line of 0-10 to 1-24 issued a statement to others in 1B that they were extremely serious this year. Dublin arrived and were sent home meekly after a 1-26 to 0-17 drubbing and then Antrim were disposed of in Cushendall by 0-13 to 3-21.
Snow caused the cancellation of a visit to Salthill in early March. The replay took place on March 11, 2018 and the All-Ireland champions looked a very impressive side for the first 30 minutes. Limerick slowly but surely fought back and emerged with 2pts to spare. Final score was 1-19 to 2-18. Some dared to hope about promotion.
Na Piarsaigh had to give best in the Tommy Moore Cup but a few days later an encounter with Clare would cause all kinds of firsts, chief among them was a shoot-out to determine who would gain promotion. In the end, Limerick prevailed with a final score of 4-21 to 0-33. We were going to join the big boys in 2019.
The semi-finals of the league took place on a Saturday night against Tipp in Thurles. Nicky Quaid would have a lot of fond memories of 2018, that night wouldn’t be one of them. It was a match played at breakneck speed and finished with Limerick in arrears by 3pts. For the record, it finished 2-31 to 1-31.
April and some of May was reserved for club championship matches so the players returned home to their own for 3-4 weeks.
2018 was a new departure in the SHC. A round robin series in Leinster and Munster with the top 2 teams qualifying for the provincial finals. 3rd place teams would play the McDonagh cup finalists, the winners to emerge to play the losers of the provincial finals in the quarter finals etc.
Tipp and Limerick rivalry has no equal and 2018 would be no different. Tipp, although they had reached the final of the league, came into the match under a cloud of speculation, injuries, talk of disquiet had not made for ideal preparation. Early points were exchanged and then Dan McCormack struck a goal from a pass from John McGrath. At half time, it was 0-12 to 1-10 and all to play for.
Limerick began to assert themselves from the throw in and Barry Murphy scored a spectacular goal. In the 3rd quarter Jason Forde found the net followed quickly by a Noel McGrath point but Tipp would only score once more and Limerick were winners by 1-23 to 2-14. A jubilant crowd invaded the Gaelic Grounds, heroes all, onwards to Páirc Uí Chaoimh the following Saturday week.
All roads led to Cork on Derby Day. As Masar gave Sheik Mohamed his first victory in the race after 30 years trying, Kiely’s men were warming up for the most exciting contest between these two counties for years. James Owens threw in the ball on a balmy evening before a packed stadium.
After 7 minutes disaster struck, Hannon our Captain was taken off injured but would be able to return for the Waterford match. Played at a 100 mph the enthusiastic crowd was treated to a feast of top drawer Hurling.
Towards half time Cork’s Sean O’Donoghue formed the opinion that Aaron Gillane had trouble of a mammary nature that should be investigated and pinched him viscously, Gillane reacted and earned himself an early shower. There were 26 points scored in the first half, Cork 2 ahead.
If the first half was exciting the 2nd was even better, Limerick matched every score till Patrick Horgan scored a goal at the city end. Sean Flanagan replied with 3 pts in a row and in the end, it finished 1-25 to 0-28. Tom Morrissey took over the free taking in Gillane’s absence and finished with 0-08,5 f. Nowhere else in the world could it happen. 30,000 people walked down the street together, the topic, a proper hurling match.
Waterford had so nearly sipped from the cup of success in 2017. Derek McGrath would later say that anything that could go wrong did go wrong. Injuries retirement and absence for one reason or another meant that he could only field half of the team that started the final the previous year. So, on the 10th of June they arrived in Limerick more in hope than expectation.
A packed Gaelic Grounds saw a proud county being put to the slaughter. Early goals by Hegarty and Mulcahy added to by points from all angles left Waterford reeling and they sought the sanctuary of the dressing room at half time looking at a score line of 2-14 to 0-07. Essentially the match was over.
Other sides would let leads like this slip but not these pros from Shannonside. Tom Ryan did get a consolation goal but it was game over ball bust at that stage. 2-26 to 1-16 was a fair reflection of Limerick’s performance, Dowling chief among the scorers with 0-15, 13 f, also 9 different men found their target – a stat that put many different intercounty managers on guard.
The home and away system meant that Cusack Park would be the venue for the much-awaited clash of Clare v Limerick on June 17th, a third outing in as many weekends which proved a bridge too far for Kiely’s Heroes. 18,000 capacity wasn’t half what was needed so many opted to watch at home.
Probably better to leave it to people far more qualified than me to offer reasons why we weren’t successful, losing Sean Finn in the early stages didn’t help, and as Fred Cogley used to say, “interesting decisions” by James Owens left it a 14-a-side match. Home advantage certainly helped but in the end, we were shipwrecked and would miss the Munster final. If there was a plus we would have a break of 3 weeks and would play Carlow next.
The McDonagh Cup is a fantastic competition and the weaker counties can aspire to their day in Croker playing teams of their own standard. The reward for this is a crack at the big guns and so it proved that Carlow would host us at Dr Cullen Park on July 7th. They fought bravely and even put it up to us for a brief spell, however the floodgates opened and Hayes Mulcahy and Gillane poured through.
Colm Bonnars side never gave up but 3-09 to 0-03 at half time did not bode well for the Carlow men. Limerick pushed on in the second half and Byrnes first and then Peter Casey ended their misery. Carlow will play in the round robin series in 2019, final score here was 0-13 to 5-22.
If Páirc Uí Chaoimh was the ‘Doldrums’ of Kiely’s voyage then taking on the Cats in Thurles was definitely going to be his ‘Southern Ocean’. Since ’73 we have not met them that often and probably better off given the strength and sheer class of the Black and Amber over the last 40 years.
However, we battened down the hatches and headed for Thurles. On a rain-sodden afternoon Limerick demonstrated to all comers that they had character, belief, ability and a never say die attitude that would hold them in good stead throughout the remainder of the season. The early stages of the first half were an exhibition of all that is good about the greatest field game on the planet.
Both teams scored classy points, Reid demonstrated why he is the envy of most if not all free takers with his low trajectory shots parting the uprights as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea, Gillane no less skillful at the other end. Eoin Murphy must be awarded favourable mention for his brilliant saves throughout. At the break, it was 0-15 to 0-12 to Limerick.
The cats were the team that had to put their thinking caps on, this Limerick team weren’t going away. In the second half, a feature of Kilkenny’s game was the amount of unforced errors 8 wides (not good). It was nip and tuck until 5 mins to go. John Donnelly who wasn’t on the pitch that long saw Richie Hogan on the edge of the square, picked him out, BANG, Goooooooal, possible disaster.
Stall the ball, this is Limerick, Tom Morrissey decided enough is enough. Quaid pucked out the ball with the accuracy of a scud missile straight into the Ahane man’s lámh, he shrugged off 2 tackles and replied to Hogan’s heroics the only way he knew how. The foundations of the old stand in Thurles held on for dear life as the Limerick fans went wild. It brought the score to 1-22 to 0-23.
The cats would not score again and Limerick would win by 0-27 to 1-22. In 1994, I sat beside Jim O’Brien’s wife in Croke Park. She had Jim’s neck tie wrapped around her hands hoping, hoping, hoping. I thought of this moment as James McGrath blew the final whistle and maybe, could we? Naw they’re too young, they might be but by jeepers ‘twill take a fair team to beat them.
It’s late July, the hay is saved and Tipp are bate, it must be time for the Galway Races. However, this year we must go to Croke Park. We’re in the All Ireland SHC semi-final against Cork, worthy Munster champions, every bit as hungry for success as us. The motorway is chockablock but most get there on time to see Paul O’Dwyer throw the ball in. The previous day, Galway and Clare played what was hailed as a classic draw and it couldn’t be equaled ever. Fasten your seatbelt is all I say.
How our hearts stuck it is a mystery, the previous matches were played at top speed this one surpassed all before. As with the other rounds it was tit-for-tat all through the 1st half until on the stroke of half time Cian Lynch raced through the cover and its green flag time. 0-14 to 1-12. Nothing in it for much of the 2nd period, again Lynch denied by fantastic save by Nash.
After 56 mins Cork were ahead by 2 when Conor Lehane scored Cork’s first goal and he followed it up with a point from a pass from Coleman from an outrageous angle. The rebels were 6 ahead.
It was time for Kiely to call on the Cavalry, he introduced Shane Dowling who was asked to take a free with a tumultuous degree of difficulty. Pat Horgan who was a doubtful starter began to falter but would not give best. At the Davin end a ball was sent goalwards and Harnedy collected. He cocked the trigger and fired, Tommy Quaid looked down from heaven and said block it down son.
In the millisecond that it took Harnedy to squeeze the trigger Nicky had done his father’s bidding, Richie English cleared and a free won down the other end. Gillane sends the sliothar half way to Lucan but not before a white flag is raised.
O’Dwyer gives Cork one last chance and Horgan converts, overtime of 20 mins. All hands on deck, everybody out with ice trying to rehydrate and loosen tired muscles.
Kiely decides, attack attack attack. Fresh legs are introduced, Cork reintroduce men who have limped off only minutes ago. It’s Cork with a free who score first. A high ball is pulled out of the sky by Gillane who sends it over the bar.
Next, it’s Dowling’s turn twice. Men collapse with cramp all over the shop. Horgan pulls one back. Shane Dowling breaks clear and is fouled in the square. He scores the penalty. Pat Ryan, just on, decides he wants in on the action and lobs Nash for another goal. Every metre of concrete in Croker is tested as the crowd is ecstatic at this stage. A consolation goal by Cork is scored as the ref blows the final whistle.
It takes the stadium much longer to empty as exhaustion hits the crowd. What a weekend, and it would take another cracker in Thurles to find who would play us in the final. The final score was 2-31 to 3-3.
In my memory anyway, it was the first final ever played in mid-August. The search for tickets was compared to the search for Charlie’s Golden ticket from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We left the village bedecked in a sea of green, sambos packed, with flasks of tea and holy water bottles topped up.
The young, the old, the brave and the bold off to Dublin to see Kiely’s Heroes attain the status of champions. All the pundits had tipped Galway, Kiely thought otherwise. He secretly hoped Gearóid McInerney would start (he was well aware how long it takes a calf muscle to heal), he also was hoping that Glynn would try his case with Mike Casey (no contest).
Again, he reasoned – attack attack attack. With formalities over, a full house and not forgetting 20 thousand more in the Gaelic Grounds, we waited nervously for James Owens to get us underway.
I must pause and choose words carefully lest I write anything which might be deemed insensitive but the intensity of the Limerick advance was breath-taking.
Galway hardly got to bless themselves and fell 0-03 to no score and this could have been so much more only for 6 Limerick wides.
However, the tribesmen weren’t champions for nothing and clawed their way back, even going in front briefly after 15 mins. Limerick were driving it deep into the corners and a resulting pass found Mulcahy who scrambled (they all count) it into the net. A lot was expected of Joe Canning but Declan Hannon had other ideas and intercepted 2 passes and converted both.
Galway were next to score through Burke, Canning (f) and Cooney the only Galway forward to score from play in the 1st half. Gillane (f) and Flanagan would reply to leave it 1-10 to 0-09 at HT with Limerick having 11 wides.
Hayes having taken McInerney on a tour of every blade of grass in CP decided it was time to really turn the screw and scored 3 of the first 4 points after the break, another point and Limerick were coasting. Canning dragging his team by its bootstraps scored 2 more points. McInerney clearly not his best, tried to clear a ball, never saw Tom Morrissey and although a suspicion of 1 extra step, finished a fine goal. Surely match over.
Mike Casey had not recovered from a 1st half injury and was down for some time, also James Skehill was concussed after a very brave save from Flanagan. Although Limerick had a couple of shots, all drifted to the left or right wide. During this time, Galway scored 4 unanswered points. Shane Dowling had come on and was waiting to shine. His chance came after 68 mins from a pass by P Casey.
Owens signaled to his officials that there would be 8 mins overtime (I cursed him and all belonging to him). From what should have been a foul on Peter Casey, we were still 8 ahead 3-15 to 0-16 points, a humongous clearance the length of the field found Conor Whelan and from point blank he couldn’t miss.
I hadn’t even time to pray to the Sacred Heart when the ball came back into the square, Owens said the ball was handled on the ground, 21 yard free. Canning stepped up, Canning blasted it into the top left hand corner of the net. 2-point game, shades of ’94 came flooding back.
Niall Burke, a sub, scored again. Character, class, belief – as Owens got ready to blow the final whistle – came brimming to the surface for Limerick, so cometh the hour cometh the man and Mulcahy pointed from the sideline on the Cusack side.
Almost as if in a Stephen King Horror movie, it still wasn’t over. Galway won a free on their own 40 out on the sideline which is almost 90 meters from the goal. Any ordinary match it would not be impossible for Canning, he knew time was up, he could not afford to send it wide.
He dropped it in. The ball did bounce in the square, Connor Whelan missed it by a smidgen, Tom Condon grabbed it and brought it out and at last the final whistle blew. Tears flowed freely.
Declan Hannon spoke eloquently and didn’t omit anybody. The celebrations are in full swing. Kiely was quick to point out that when you become champions, you should behave accordingly. As he sailed in to port in Colbert Station on Monday night his crew all had a look of sailors who had been on a stupendous voyage together.
It was a voyage that had taken years of planning, setting up the underage academy, blending in the crew, funding the entire venture. Hurling is now a product. Whether played at county or club level. If it is to prosper at club level, those in charge must continue the good work they have started, combining long standing traditions with modern technology.