Hope not hype as Limerick limber up for All-Ireland final
Manager John Kiely intends to keep his players focused over the next three weeks
Limerick’s Declan Hannon and Pat Horgan of Cork during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Still, small insights into their unbreakable spirit trickled out of Croke Park last Sunday evening. Like how they beat several shades of love into each other before winter set in.
“It probably started back in November when we did a boxing fundraiser and went at each other on the night,” explained Declan Hannon, the 25-year-old captain who felt the dream of climbing up the Hogan steps drain away at this stage in 2013 and 2014. “It built morale, built the bond that hasn’t been broken this year. I think everyone just bought into what we are trying to do. That’s the main difference.”
That and an aloofness great sides possess and protect.
“We don’t play a whole lot of challenge games against other counties,” said Hannon, feeding the mystery, “we’ve stuck to in-house [games] and just worked on ourselves.”
There is always heartbreak in losses but I don’t think we were ready in those years for the occasions and the semi-finals
After dismissing Cork, all Limerick players beat the same rhythm. One would be forgiven for presuming it was a pre-planned hype-dampening exercise set in motion as their travelling support went hoarse belting out The Cranberries.
The larger-than-life characters are everywhere. Shane Dowling spoke about not just getting “to the final to march behind the band” a moment before Kiely threatened to strip all access to the players if one journalist so much as looks at them without formal permission in the coming weeks.
This meant only the barefoot Hannon spoke to the written press after the semi-final. The big centre back has been around since 2011, winning a Munster title in 2013 only to falter against the rising Clare in that season’s All-Ireland semi-final. A year later Kilkenny had their number.
“There is always heartbreak in losses but I don’t think we were ready in those years for the occasions and the semi-finals. We were a different group mentally and physically to this 2018 squad. I just thought we were in better space coming into today and going six points down, we kept going and ground it out until the final whistle.”
Where their resolve comes from is unknown, and there certainly hasn’t been a Limerick team for decades who can hurl like these young men.
“Just character, really,” said Cian Lynch, the 22-year-old lieutenant, when asked on RTÉ to describe come-from-behind victories over Kilkenny and now Cork. “We dream of these days, coming to Croke Park, playing matches, it’s not often we come up here, you know, so it’s time we started coming up and enjoying the moments, embracing it, instead of getting carried away and blowing things out of proportion, which we have done before.
“To see the Limerick crowd there before the game when we came out of the tunnel, like, I’d never experienced anything like it. Words can’t describe what it meant to the lot of us but the lads showed . . . six points down and to bounce back is immense. Thing is now to get the heads down and drive on again.”
That’s the mantra. All of them said it after Kilkenny and now Cork.
Head down, drive on.
There’s been a few sorry stories over the last few years. We are sick of it, we just want to kick on now
“The attitude is ‘next ball is all that matters’,” Lynch explained. “Whether we go up a point or down a goal, two goals, it’s ‘next ball, next ball’.”
Yet, as presenter Joanne Cantwell noted, this attitude works for a Munster final or All-Ireland semi, but how do Limerick approach the lead-up to an All-Ireland final?
“It’s only another game at the end of the day,” Lynch smiled. “Two thousand and seven was the last time Limerick were there, but that’s a sideshow, that’s for people outside the camp to worry about. We’ll get back on the horse next week and drive things on, please God.”
They are all the same, keeping themselves under wraps yet betraying huge personalities with a smile or quip. Aaron Gillane was man of the match despite spurning three clear goal chances – two after the hurley was stripped from his hand by the wily Colm Spillane – but 0-13 (six from play) left him first among scoring equals.
“We just want to do well. Simple as that. There’s been a few sorry stories over the last few years. We are sick of it, we just want to kick on now.”
Gillane was unable to finish the match with his ankle heavily ice-strapped afterwards.
“Ah, it is all right. It happened me a few times now so I’m used to it. I’ll do the rehab now and there’ll be no fear me.”
These are not Limerick of bygone years simply because the weight of history seems light as a feather to them.
“It’s gas,” Hannon concluded. “The boys in that dressing room, they never talk about that or think about that. It is kind of a new group of lads, a new era. As Tom Morrissey said before, ‘trying to create their own history’, and we’ve got to the All-Ireland final but we obviously want to win it because we really want to make history.”
Kiely claims the incoming hype of these next three weeks does not really exist. Hannon understands what he means, what Limerick hurling is all about in 2018.
“It is just from past experience of Limerick teams and management that we kind of roll on a wave of emotion after winning a Munster title or an All-Ireland quarter-final and then coming up to Croke Park for a semi-final not ready and just expecting it to happen. Obviously it doesn’t . . . We try and take ourselves as far away from the hype as possible and just get back training for the next few weeks.”