As night fell on the GAA's longest hurling year, the Limerick hurlers lingered in Croke Park to enjoy what was, after a hugely challenging year, a perfect season.
Despite Waterford’s wholehearted efforts, this generation of Limerick hurlers confirmed that they are a special team on Sunday.
They finished with a beautifully neat scoring flourish of 0-30, with 0-24 of those coming from play. League champions, Munster hurling champions and now, with the Christmas lights glittering across the capital city, All-Ireland champions for the second time in three years.
All of Limerick’s hurling woes – the rowing, the golden generation of 20 years ago, the agony of 1994 – none of that seemed to matter in Croke Park on Sunday evening. Hurling may have its new dynastic team.
"It is a just reward for this group," said manager John Kiely.
“They have great inner belief, great togetherness and an appetite for work. You saw that today out on the pitch more than anything else, the appetite for work they had. It is all about the players. It is like a student. You want to see them achieve their potential and we have seen them achieve their potential for 2020.”
The game finished 0-30 to 0-19. Everyone knew what Limerick were going to do and they did it anyway. Gearóid Hegarty was a monstrous presence, nonchalantly firing 0-7 from play and cantering around the field with the distinctive long-limbed physicality of his.
He is such a visible presence but has an uncanny ability to ghost into unoccupied areas of the field and strike his shots with all the time in the world. Tom Morrissey, the other wing forward, was another huge scoring presence.
But it was Limerick's marauding and ravenous defensive game that broke this All-Ireland final up. They never allowed Waterford to enjoy having the ball. Everything was done under pressure. Everything was challenged.
The Cranberries dream pop classic Dreams was played on the sound system and under the stars, with the crowd missing, it was a poignant reprise of the afternoon two years ago when Limerick stormed to victory in front of a crowded house on a bright afternoon.
This time, the whoops and war cries of victory bounced around the lonesome stadium. And before John Horan presented the cup, he pleaded with the public not to “tarnish this great victory”.
Declan Hannon raised the MacCarthy Cup against the backdrop of hundreds of empty seats. That image will become iconic in the rich history of GAA photography for its pure strangeness. And in John Kiely's immediate reflections on the season, he was instinctively brought back to the languid, hot days of the first lockdown when GAA teams could not even meet. To when the All-Ireland days felt out of reach.
“Ah sure watching the boys on a laptop online doing their training online through zoom. We had zoom calls going out to the boys in their garages and gardens and they running around the place. Lifting weights and just breaking out into groups and chatting each other and getting back into it again. I think that was the telling moment of the year for us – how hard they worked through March, April and May. They were relentless.
“And the break for the club over the summer was brilliant, They came back so fresh. I remember that the first evening back. I said to myself: oh my God look at these fellas, they are literally like cattle coming out of a shed after the winter. Raring for road. And they kept that freshness right through the autumn time. It was constantly there. Friday night they were just bursting to get out onto the field. We had to hold them back.”
And there would be no holding them back. Waterford have been such a gorgeous story this year that it’s easy to forget that these hurling counties have so much in common. Both are fleeing stories of hurt and disappointment. Waterford came so far this year but met a team that, frighteningly may yet have to peak. And they had no luck.
The sight of talismanic defender Tadhg de Burca, hobbled again by cruciate trouble, leaving the field after 20 minutes was demoralising. The Clashmore man sat in splendid isolation in the substitutes bench, a picture in frustration as Limerick purred into a 0-10 to 0-4 lead. Tom Morrissey clipped three points off his left, so close to the sideline that he threw shadows into the Cusask stand.
And Limerick had a conspicuous desire to create goals every time Cian Lynch got the ball. They would have had at least one but for a game-saving double save from Stephen O'Keeffe on Kyle Hayes and Lynch's first-time follow-up.
But for much of the half hour, there was a mood about the big, empty stadium that Limerick would ease away, any minute now. And yet. Stephen Bennett punished every Limerick foul with seven perfect frees. Austin Gleeson chipped in with a very efficient 0-3, including a sublime sideline cut. And Waterford, despite the physical pummelling around the field, did create goal chances in both halves. Critically, none registered.
"We needed to score two or three goals, definitely, we said that," admitted Liam Cahill afterwards as the new champions posed for a photograph in the middle of the field.
“Massive congratulations to Limerick. They have so many options and you are concentrating on those so much it can be hard to implement your own game plan. We came to have a real cut and go right to the end, we gave it everything.”
It could be a motto for the hurling season. The teams put on a show. It was half a miracle that the season was completed and, in the end, it reaffirmed what everyone knew to begin with; that something special has been brewing around the Shannon. Suddenly, what Mick Mackey might have said to Ring all those years ago doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.