Tipping point for Limerick after a lost decade
Underachieving Tipperary may have swapped places with their championship conquerors
After all the anxiety about competitiveness attending the start of the football championship, who could have expected the hurling championship – compared to which its big-ball equivalent is an access-all-areas utopia – to produce such an intriguing weekend with all three matches turning out – or in the case of Tullamore the scale of the outcome – unexpectedly?
Go back nearly three years and the respective trajectories of Limerick and Tipperary hurling were so divergent. Tipp had strung together the under-21 and senior double and boasted a clutch of players who had contributed to both All-Irelands. The future looked bright.
Limerick’s situation that summer had been desperate. The county had become the latest in Munster to experience a player revolt against management and with predictable consequences: loss of top-division league status and championship blanks. It was a continuation of the sorrowful mysteries that had plagued the hurling team during a lost decade when three successive All-Ireland under-21 titles created nothing more substantial than outsized expectations.
Limerick’s difficulties over a 10-year period can be rationalised post hoc as being caused by the unseemly haste with which older, more established players were moved on or the bewildering number of managerial changes – averaging one a year for 10 years – or the inadequacies of the under-21s. Former player Stephen Lucey said last week that he once worked out about 20 different reasons in answer to the question, ‘where did it all go wrong?’.
Ultimately though luck plays a role in how success gets achieved and the arrival of players at the same time as exceptional teams are dominating the landscape is a traditional hard-luck story. Even had things been better for Limerick they would still have had to find a way past Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row team as well as Cork’s back-to-back winners.
Tipperary’s post-mortems and the rising recrimination after Sunday’s defeat at least takes place in a context that features a senior All-Ireland. Since then Tipp have disappointed their followers almost as much as Limerick, more so because they had firmer grounds for expecting more titles instead of the serial disappointments which culminated in last Sunday.
It will be a long way back and although the county memorably found redemption through the qualifiers three years ago there was a sense in Eamon O’Shea’s post-match demeanour that he didn’t exactly thrill at the prospect of having to retrace that journey. He drily cautioned when reminded of 2010 that he had hoped not to have to use that experience again.
Such caution is understandable. Great revivalist surges become harder to inspire when players have to seek redemption too often. Tipp are a team who haven’t known a truly satisfying day since the All-Ireland of three years ago. Their flash and brio have been well suppressed in a couple of All-Ireland defeats by Kilkenny, one a humiliation, plus last month’s league final. Now, after Sunday’s setback they face an uncomfortable truth.
They have failed to deliver on their talent to the extent that O’Shea must be wondering about the need for radical changes in personnel. The crisis is genuine. Declan Ryan’s management took a plausible if convenient hit for the underachievement of the past two years and O’Shea’s calm and cerebral prescriptions were widely seen within the county and elsewhere as the cure that would restore the team to its best. This hasn’t happened so where to now?
On Sunday you could see that the veterans, Eoin Kelly and Brendan Cummins, for all their pride are coming to the end of their lease whereas even a fully-fit Lar Corbett is more of an asset executing an ambush than resisting one. Another veteran John O’Brien was the only starting forward to score more than once from play whereas three other starters, Patrick Maher, Shane Bourke and Séamus Callanan didn’t manage even one.
Into this land of opportunity stepped John Allen. His declarations of confidence after the match weren’t spurious – he privately told one of the media beforehand he felt Limerick were going to win. His approach to team management, encouraging decision-making and engagement, could be seen in the response of his players to the moments of greatest challenge. Unlike Tipp, they neither appeared to believe the match was in the bag when they went a few points ahead nor, crucially, that it was irretrievable in adversity.
If management is about putting your team in the best position to succeed he did just that with his second-half replacements. One of those was Niall Moran. Despite being just 30 this year he, like Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne, remains the only survivor of the generation that brought home those under-21 All-Irelands at the beginning of the last decade. Afterwards, in acknowledging the eternal truth of competitive sport, he paid tribute to his manager’s Zen-like composure.
“Ultimately, at the end of your career you are going to be judged by what you have won. Myself and Donal (O’Grady, centrefielder and captain) as older players have won nothing in our senior careers and the same goes for the younger guys. That has to be the focus and nobody better than John Allen to reinforce that.”