A few weeks ago, I was working in the bar one of the Sundays during the league. A few lads were in and they were talking away about how this team was really going for the league and how that team was taking it handy and all this stuff. Limerick aren’t the same after losing so many matches, etc. After a while, I stopped them and asked a question.
“Tell me this – who won the league last year?”
Blank faces all round. They hadn’t a clue.
I had to break it to them that Galway shared it with Kilkenny. But they basically made my point for me. Nobody loses any sleep over who wins or doesn’t win the league. It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything - it means different things to different teams.
Limerick went through the early months of the year getting beaten in the league, Waterford went through it blowing through nearly everyone they met. But on the first day of championship, Limerick blitzed Cork and Waterford had to dig deep to get past Tipperary. The league is there to try things. The championship is where you find out if they work.
Waterford looked like a team that had been hindered by expectation. They found it tough to get going in the first half. They were tight and nervous looking. They weren’t playing with the freedom they had in the league.
Why not? I personally think expectation has a lot to do with it. When you have the whole county telling you you’re great, when you have your former manager Derek McGrath being so bullish that this is going to be your year and that you’re the team to beat, it becomes very difficult to block it all out and focus on the job.
No matter where you are as a GAA player, you always, always hear that stuff. It’s impossible to keep it out. If you’re the manager of a team that’s in with a chance of winning an All-Ireland, you’re nearly better off if the stuff in the media is negative rather than positive. You want your players setting out to prove the bad stuff wrong rather than getting their head turned by the good stuff.
In 2009, Portumna played Ballyhale Shamrocks in the All-Ireland club semi-final in Thurles. We went into the game as defending All-Ireland champions and we felt we were in good form going into it. But when we saw the odds for the game, we found that we were underdogs. A lot of the media went for Ballyhale too.
We were going mad. Like it or not, we spoke about that before the game. We are All-Ireland champions, we’ve won it twice in three years and still we’re the outsiders? No way. It didn’t make sense to us. And ultimately, it had a huge impact on our performance.
You obviously don’t try any harder to win just because you’re annoyed. But the effect of it is that your focus on the job and on the game plan gets wound in that little bit tighter. You snap right into it because you have a chip on your shoulder. You leave nothing to chance.
I'd say John Kiely was laughing to himself in the past few weeks when he heard some people questioning Limerick's form. Even the disciplinary stuff with the sendings-off and people giving out that they go too far physically. Kiely would have been thinking, 'Bring it on, the more of it the better'. Anything to give his players that edge, to make them think that people were doubting them.
I still have a picture on my phone of the headline on a match report from a league game Galway played in 2017. We lost to Wexford in Salthill in Division 1B and the headline read: ‘Fitzgerald’s charges lay down marker as Galway flops blow six-point lead’. A league game in February and we were getting called flops in a national newspaper.
As it happened, we didn’t lose a game for the rest of the year. We won the league, we won Leinster, we won the All-Ireland. Did getting called flops in February feed into that? It did for me anyway. I kept that on my phone as a reminder of what people thought of us. I still have it, five years later. The abuse we got walking off the pitch that night was something Micheál Donoghue referenced as the year went on too.
I loved having that chip on the shoulder. I wanted it. In 2017, I was coming back from a really bad injury - I had torn my hamstring tendon off the bone in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary. At the start of that 2017 league, someone sent me a clip of a piece written by Jackie Cahill in The42 headlined: 'Nine players with big points to prove in the Allianz Hurling League'.
I started looking down through it and I saw Patrick Horgan's name on it and I was going, 'Ah here, Patrick Horgan doesn't have to prove anything to anyone'. But then I kept scrolling and found that I was there too. I was coming back from a career-threatening injury. I had been out for the guts of seven months. And now I had a big point to prove? F**k Off!
Sometimes you don't have to go looking very far. Ger Loughnane gave it to us in 2016 after the Leinster Final loss to Kilkenny. He said we were made of nothing, that we had no guts and you could forget about us altogether. He called Donoghue Father Trendy – which we found hilarious but only after we beat his native Clare three weeks later. Before that Clare match, we used everything Loughnane said about us. I remember Davy Fitz not being one bit happy with the motivation we got out of it.
If I was in that Limerick camp over the past couple of months, I’d have been loving every bit of it. I’d nearly have been searching out the criticism, trying to find somebody who said Limerick are struggling. The worst thing you need to hear is people bigging you up and telling you you’re great. That can make the mind soft if you keep getting told you’re great.
Tactically, I would love to see Waterford try something different and go man-for-man on Limerick. Push up 15 on 15. They almost certainly won’t because Tadhg de Búrca’s role as a deep-lying centre back is such an integral part of how they set up. But the more I watch Limerick, the more it seems like madness to continually be giving them a free man in defence.
Watch Limerick's touch work. They very rarely drop a ball. They very rarely give teams chances to turn them over. The key line of their team is Gearóid Hegarty, Cian Lynch and Tom Morrissey and if a team could find a way to keep the ball away from them, they might have a chance against them.
But one of the reasons those three guys are able to get on so much ball is that Limerick nearly always have a spare man coming out of defence with time and space to pick one of them out. Once you play an extra defender against them, you generally leave someone like Barry Nash all the room in the world to get on the ball and play the pass he wants. And remember, Barry Nash started life as an attacker. He is accurate, quick and he thinks like a forward.
So if Barry Nash is coming out with the ball, he will have Hegarty, Lynch and Morrissey all making runs. And because they are so dangerous, defenders have to go with them, leaving space in front of the full-forward line. Yes, Tadhg de Búrca will be there to cover across but if there is no pressure on Nash, he can just bypass him. Pressure out the field is the best help a marking defender can have.
Limerick just played around Cork last Sunday, even though Mark Coleman dropped off and Ger Millerick took Lynch. Was Coleman able to cut off the supply line to Kyle Hayes and Aaron Gillane? Not really. On top of that, Nash scored two points, Declan Hannon and Dan Morrissey got one and Diarmaid Byrnes was man-of-the-match with three from play. That's seven points from out the field because Limerick always had a spare defender in space.
I know it isn't as simple as just going man-on-man on them. I know there's every chance they would annihilate you anyway. Their interplay is so good, their stick-work is so accurate and they're so long together that Paul Kinnerk would be very likely to figure it out. And of all the teams who might try it, Waterford are probably the last who would consider it because it goes totally against their way of playing.
But I’m just not sure how you beat Limerick if you keep giving them a spare man in the pocket of the pitch where they launch all their attacks from.
They obviously work extremely hard on restarts, be it puck-outs or line-balls. When did you ever see four defenders setting up on their own 21 for a puck-out? By doing this they created so much space around their half-forward line for that first or second ball.
Nickie Quaid is the best in the business at making the right decisions under pressure and he is absolutely critical to how they play. To me, he is Limerick's most important player and their most under-rated. Everything flows from the Limerick puck-out and for that to work, they need someone who isn't going to get ruffled, who is calm under pressure, who can make the right decision every time.
You never see Limerick doing that routine of goalkeeper passing to a defender, back to the goalkeeper and then just launching it long down into the opposition full-forward line. Why not? Because as soon as the opposition defence sees the ball going back to the goalkeeper, they think he’s going to hit it long and so they all congregate around the D, ready to fight for the breaking ball. I lost count of the amount of times that happened in the Wexford v Galway game but Limerick are far too well-drilled for that.
They engage the brain and think differently. Look how Seán Finn just turned and picked out Hegarty making a run across the 65 last Sunday. A quick 50-yard pass to Hegarty and bang, a point. Simple and efficient. It was definitely something they worked on in training. Cork were expecting the long ball, instead they played it short and scored easily.
It's going to be a fascinating game. Waterford's forwards will work harder than Cork's did. They won't get bullied like Cork's did. Dessie Hutchinson won't be bullied, Shane Bennett can handle himself, Neil Montgomery won't get pushed around the way the Cork forwards did. Austin Gleeson, if picked, won't be walked all over. Waterford have hardier boys in general and they won't concede that ground to Limerick.
But in the end, that spare player coming out of the Limerick defence is going to be very hard for Waterford to stop, given how they like to set up. It could make all the difference.