Great hunger still lingers in Limerick in advance of Tipperary clash

Years of unfulfilled potential weighing heavily on the Treaty County

Limerick’s Declan Hannon in action against Clare’s Colm Galvin. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Limerick’s Declan Hannon in action against Clare’s Colm Galvin. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Ten years ago this weekend the giddy expectations of an entire county were subjected to a downbeat reconciliation with the real world. In a replay defeat by the Waterford hurlers on a sunny afternoon in Thurles, Limerick began the process – admittedly not yet entirely complete – of becoming the first county to win three successive All-Ireland under-21 titles (2000-02) without any of those players adding a senior medal.

It might appear vaguely irrelevant to the county’s Munster hurling semi-final tomorrow against provincial champions Tipperary but this year also marks the 40th anniversary of Limerick’s last MacCarthy Cup and those four long decades have been marked by fatalism, desperation and enough false dawns to cause insomnia.

When asked about what happened to the hopes kindled by those under-21 triumphs, Stephen Lucey sighs. He was on the first two of those teams and is one of a number of players who also won the rare distinction of a Munster under-21 football medal and a place in the 2000 All-Ireland final against a Tyrone team featuring nine players who would go on to add senior titles.

The divide
He retained an old-fashioned commitment to being a dual player, which didn’t always help his hurling career but his commitment to the small-ball game was genuine and he won a Players All Star in 2007, a year when his generation came closest to bridging the divide by reaching the All-Ireland final and falling to Kilkenny by a respectable margin.

“There are so many reasons,” he says. “I think I sat down once and came up with about 20 of them, way down to small things like schools. Whatever about the reasons the lesson’s obvious and I’d say it to the lads that are playing: once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“There are just a finite number of opportunities there and you have to make the most of them and we didn’t. You’ve got to seize the moment.

“I saw them playing in the under-21 match last week. On paper it looked good. The only Tipp player I recognised was Jason Forde and most of the Limerick names were reasonably well known but they never turned up and I’ve no reason for that. I hope we turn up for this (tomorrow’s Munster semi-final against Tipperary).”

Once again green shoots have been visible and Limerick have hopes of advancement.

Two Harty Cups for Ardscoil Rís marked a first for the school and, if the All-Ireland finals that followed were narrowly lost to St Kierans, the public was alerted to the presence of significant talent.

The Munster under-21 title two years ago was won after a blockbuster final against Cork had gone to extra time. Further evidence came when Na Piarsaigh won the Munster club hurling title with teenager Shane Dowling in a starring role.

Declan Hannon has been well-known since the prodigious scoring totals – again as a teenager – he was racking up for his club Adare were broadcast on national radio.

But the senior team is battling for traction, controversially moored in Division One B despite having originally earned promotion before a restructure and having to get up to the pace of elite hurling during the summer. Expectation plays a role in the pressure but does underage achievement breed a sense of entitlement?

“Yeah,” says Lucey, “ looking back I do think that with a lot of lads once you get to being on a county panel you think, ‘ah, I’ve made it’ when the opposite is the case. I think that’s a mindset that has to be got rid of.”

Despite the legendary tales of hyperactive socialising, he says disciplinary problems were exaggerated out of all proportion but they were a factor.

Cracked the whip
“Someone asked me once were we off the rails or were we always out – was there an issue there? But someone else said to me, ‘you weren’t the only ones out’; the whole country was out back then. Everyone was out and about and you got caught up in all of that stuff.

“You know I wish we had someone who really, really cracked the whip and grabbed us by the collar and sorted us out when we were young. But that wasn’t the only issue.

“Two-thousand-and-eight was a lost opportunity after reaching the previous year’s All-Ireland. When we were younger, I thought we got rid of the guys from the 1990s too soon. There were too many changes of management. Multiple reasons.”

Lucey reacts sharply to the suggestion that perhaps his generation needed more role models and refers to the team of the 1990s who came agonisingly close in 1994 and ’96.

“I remember the night before the All-Ireland final in 1996 I stayed up all night long with two balls of wool, a green one and a white one, making headbands. The Limerick Leader had pen pictures of all the lads and I had a straw hat.

“I cut up a cornflakes box and stuck the pictures of each of the lads onto the front and back of the cardboard squares and let them hang down from the hat the way Australians do with corks!

“We had huge role models and all we were doing was dreaming of playing with Limerick.”

In Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo a character says: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” and Galileo replies: “No, unhappy the land that needs heroes”. In Limerick it’s two sides of the same coin.