Eamonn Cregan and memories that span the unforgiving decades
Cregan has been a central figure in three of Limerick's five All-Ireland finals since 1973
Eamon Cregan on the sideline as Limerick manager in 2000-. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
It has got to the stage that nearly half a century has passed since Limerick’s last All-Ireland in 1973. Five times, in other words every decade since, the county has been back to Croke Park in September for the senior final but on each occasion the MacCarthy Cup has taken the other road home.
Eamonn Cregan has been a central personality in three of these finals. A key figure in the 1973 team, he had been switched from corner forward, where he was an All Star, to centre back to mark Kilkenny’s Pat Delaney in the final. Paddy Downey in these pages described his performance as “a resounding success” adding that “Cregan played a major role in a great victory”.
A year on and the same counties were back. Kilkenny had been missing players in ’73 but were now at full strength. Limerick however were experiencing problems after a first All-Ireland in 33 years.
We got through Munster in 1974 purely on the confidence we had as All-Ireland champions
“It was obvious everything wasn’t going well,” Cregan recalls, “and it was addressed too late. Having won the All-Ireland, the demands on players were immense. Eamonn Grimes (1973 captain) was at so many functions; everyone wanted a piece of him and other players. I only went to about one-third of the events I was invited to. I know the view would have been that ‘he’s a stuck-up so-and-so’ but I wanted to win another All-Ireland. We all did.
“We got through Munster in 1974 purely on the confidence we had as All-Ireland champions. There was no doubt that we weren’t putting it in to the same extent, that we hadn’t the same drive and eagerness.
“Six weeks before the final we were all called in and told that we weren’t as focused or committed as we had been in ’73 – but it was too late.
“Everything was sloppier. Two people missed the train to Dublin, including the county chair who said, ‘pick me up at Limerick Junction’ and no sooner had we pulled out of the station, than we felt ourselves reversing again – because another senior member of the county board had left ‘a considerable sum of money’ in his car.
“When we got to Dublin, the bus broke down on the way to the Green Isle, which was a different hotel to one we stayed in the previous year. It was dreadful preparation. When Joe Schmidt complained about the rugby team arriving late on their bus I sympathised because any departure from routine upsets people.
“We still led by five early on (0-6 to 0-1 on 11 minutes). Kilkenny were clearly better on the day but we didn’t give ourselves the best chance.”
In an interview with The Irish Times in 1994, Cregan recalled the morning of the 1980 All-Ireland final. He knew that, at 35, he hadn’t many chances left to add to his All-Ireland medals. On the radio, he heard Abba’s The Winner Takes it All. “I thought, that’s it,” he said. “Coming second means nothing.”
He still remembers the episode. “That’s true. Funny thing is I was at Mama Mia, Here We Go Again on Wednesday – and I enjoyed it immensely!
“We had beaten Cork in the Munster final and John Flanagan (centre forward and father of current Limerick full forward Séamus) was immense for us. Strong as a horse, if he crashed into you, you fell. He was creating ‘assists’ before the term was invented. Unfortunately an ankle injury forced him out of the All-Ireland before half-time but you’re as good as your last sub.”
Cregan ended the match with 2-7, 1-2 from play, but most vividly remembers a mistake made in the dying minutes with three points in the match. He mishit a pass to Joe McKenna, unmarked and in front of goal, and Galway corner back Conor Hayes intercepted.
“If I had hand-passed the ball properly, we might have survived,” he says. “I can still remember how I only got contact with the tops of my fingers and the chance was lost.”
When Limerick returned to the final 14 years later Cregan, in an awkward twist of fate, found himself managing the opposition.
“One of the reasons I went to Offaly in 1992,” he remembers, “is that as well as some very good hurlers in the county, I thought there wouldn’t be much chance of playing Limerick in a different province. They [Offaly] were in transition and I was only going to be there a year.”
People are talking about the 1973 team but that’s in the past and these are going to make their own history.
That was a miscalculation. He was persuaded to stay. Limerick emerged unexpectedly from Munster and Offaly dethroned back-to-back All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.
By the end of an All-Ireland final remembered for its extraordinary denouement, which saw Offaly overturn a five-point deficit with 2-5 in little over four minutes at the end of the match, Cregan had led the downfall of his own county.
“It was difficult and to an extent, still is. In the dressing-room afterwards – I had some of the Limerick players at U-21 but my loyalty was to Offaly, who had won a great final, and I knew there wasn’t anything I could say to soften the blow. They came back two years later but didn’t win.”
He has worked with many of the current team when they were in development squads and at minor and believes strongly that they will bridge the gap at some stage, maybe even this weekend.
“People are talking about the 1973 team but that’s in the past and these are going to make their own history.”