Ciarán Murphy: Limerick fans conflicted by hurlers’ upturn in fortunes
The team is young, big and has scoring threats, but it’s too early for bullishness
Tipperary’s Donagh Maher with Aaron Gillane of Limerick. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
A lot can happen to one’s reputation in two weeks, as the Tipperary hurlers have discovered. The losers of Galway and Wexford next Saturday will also probably suffer a precipitous drop in the minds of hurling fans. But the other game on Saturday night will test the limits of the Limerick hurling public’s optimism for their team, too.
Going into their opening round-robin game against Tipp last Sunday week, Limerick hadn’t won a Munster championship game in three years. They won that game, and now find themselves as many people’s “dark horse” for the All-Ireland. As Ferris Bueller might say, life moves pretty fast.
In fairness, that win in the Gaelic Grounds isn’t the only thing they’ve done so far to merit that level of confidence. They went to Pearse Stadium in the group stages of the league, absorbed all that Galway had to offer and beat them in a sprint for the line in the game that decided promotion from Division 1B.
They’re young, they have size, they have scoring threats, they have had underage success in the recent past to frank that potential, they have a very good manager, and they now have a trip to Pairc Uí Chaoimh to navigate.
So people have every right to be feeling bullish. But when the Limerick Leader had an interview with Ciarán Carey on their back page on Monday, they had to field a few phone calls from disgruntled locals. Carey’s (and the paper’s) crime? Feeling bullish about their hurling team.
“I believe their journey can go as long as they want it to go – I firmly believe that. I think they smell something this year and it’s in their own hands. It’s going to take a serious team to beat Limerick this year.”
Carey’s comments were pretty upbeat, it’s true – he also likened their physical development to that of the Dublin footballers. But what might have really got the locals a little annoyed was that, deep down, in places they don’t talk about at parties, they agree with him.
The primary reason to be cheerful might well have been Limerick’s response to conceding Jason Forde’s goal in the 51st minute last Sunday week. They outscored Tipp 1-5 to 0-2 from there to the finish. Having failed to make their early superiority count on the scoreboard, having been pegged back, they went ahead and won the game anyway.
That meant a lot. Too often, as in their two championship defeats last year to Clare and Kilkenny, Limerick played in fits and spurts, but couldn’t put it together to get a win. When the pressure came on, they blinked first … but not this year. Not in Pearse Stadium, when Galway came back at them late on, not against Clare in the league quarter-final, and not against Tipperary.
What Limerick people are perhaps most fearful of is basing their optimism on the underage successes of recent years. They’ve been burned before when waiting on underage, and particularly under-21, wins to convert into senior trophies.
They won three All-Ireland Under-21 titles in a row in 2000-2002, and yet all they had to show for it was an All-Ireland final appearance in 2007 that ended in predictable, but reasonably creditable, defeat to Kilkenny.
Séamus Flanagan is the starting full-forward for the Limerick seniors now, but was on the bench for their two latest under-21 successes, in 2015 and 2017. Aaron Gillane is undroppable now, but was left out for a game along the way to the most recent win, too. They are brilliant talents, but their work rate has been questioned in the past – not this year.
The mantra repeated ad nauseam in the aftermath of those triumphs was that the academy system is about producing players for senior. If the wins at the start of the millennium were celebrated as wins in their own right, and the transition to the senior ranks was thereafter left to nature, then this time around the success of an underage team is measured at least as much by the solid preparation of graduates to the top level as it is by silverware.
The age profile of the current team is such that they would have no memory of that three in a row from the start of the century, but institutionally, and as a hurling public, maybe those harsh lessons have been learned.
If we started the 2018 season saying eight teams have realistic ambitions of winning the All-Ireland, then on Saturday night we’ll see the four teams not to have those ambitions seriously dented yet.
Waterford, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Clare have all suffered damaging losses. Galway set the standard last Sunday, and Wexford now have a chance to measure themselves directly against the best. Limerick will have a much better idea of just how quickly they are improving by 8.30pm on Saturday night.