Limerick surprise themselves as the past melts into the future
Apparently handicapped by their league status, the county’s revival under John Allen has already ensured a major breakthrough
Limerick’s Seamus Hickey and manager John Allen celebrate after the Munster final victory over Cork at the Gaelic Grounds. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
The latest instalment of hurling’s remarkable season on Sunday brought a 19th Munster title to Limerick and completed a truly historical All-Ireland semi-final line-up. It also leaves the counties which have taken 15 of the last 20 All-Irelands – Kilkenny, Cork and Clare – to fight it out with Galway in the quarter-finals.
Limerick and Dublin haven’t won their provincial titles in the same season for 79 years – Dublin coincidentally also beating Kilkenny in a replay that summer.
In those years, uncomplicated by qualifiers and second chances, there was only All-Ireland semi-final in which Limerick beat Galway, a scenario that could very well be repeated in the weeks ahead.
Limerick went on to defeat Dublin in the 1934 final although not until after a replay; last year’s drawn All-Ireland between Kilkenny and Galway was only the second since then.
Another strange aspect of the two provincial champions is that they campaigned in Division One B during the spring; in fact they contested the divisional final in April.
Hurling at a lower level of the league has been assumed to be inimical to any team’s championship prospects and yet both Dublin and Limerick each defeated two Division One A counties on the way to their success. Limerick manager John Allen has been a particularly passionate advocate of an expanded first division to eliminate what he sees as a damaging differential.
The new Munster champions earned the right to promotion two years ago but were frustrated by a format change and despite topping the table in the two years since have lost the promotion play-off. Asked is he surprised by the new provincial champions’ progress he doesn’t beat about the bush.
“I am of course. Somebody said to me that the teams in One A were afraid to make too many changes for their league matches because the margins were so small. We didn’t make too many changes in our league matches either. The margins were tight enough there as well so I wouldn’t put that down as being any sort of an advantage for us in terms of trying out players.
“We weren’t really. If you’d come down here on a cold evening in February and saw us playing Carlow or Antrim, it wasn’t a case that we were trying out fellas. We went out with our strongest available 15 most days but I suppose it is a bit amazing that two Division 1B teams have won the provincial titles.”
Séamus Hickey is one of the longer-serving players on the team, having made his debut in 2007 and lining out with the team that reached that year’s All-Ireland final. He too was conscious of the league issue.
“I thought of the league final just as Donal was lifting the cup. It was worlds apart in terms of my feeling at that moment. We were so hurt after that game – we were very wounded. We felt that we could have beaten Dublin and it was a big stage where we needed to perform but we came up short. It was gut-wrenching, it really was.”
Hickey was in the advance guard of the new generation of Limerick players, who emerged in the past couple of years. Limerick defeated Sunday’s provincial opponents Cork in the 2011 Munster under-21 final, which went to extra time, and 11 of the players on view last weekend took part.
Another significant milestone was Ardscoil Rís becoming the first Limerick school in 17 years to win Munster’s Harty Cup. According to Hickey the steady successes at these levels played their part.
“No question. I felt that. Winning is a habit. You’ve to develop that and it showed with the work that was done underage. We’ve done that and I’d really like to credit the Limerick County Board and the work they do at underage.
“You only reap the rewards of the work you put in: the Harty programmes, the minor programmes, our minors today. It’s great to see tangible results from it.”
John Allen, who took his county Cork to back-to-back Munsters in 2005-06 and an All-Ireland in the first year, is careful not to appear astonished at his team’s feat. Was he however surprised?
“If you’d asked me that halfway through last year I would have said yes, absolutely as I felt there was a huge gulf between where we are now and what we were at then.
“But I think once we played Tipperary [in last year’s provincial semi-final] and given that we played so well for so long, we knew then that we weren’t too far off the level of Tipp and Kilkenny.
“And I think certainly this year, I’ve said this before: we played Kilkenny a few weeks before the Tipp game. We played very well that game and I think that night a bulb was lit inside a few players; that this team knew it was good enough to compete, had an impetus and I think we’ve proved that since.”