John Kiely: ‘Is that the best they’ll ever be? No, they’ll be better’
Limerick manager thrilled new champions now in a position to inspire future generations
John Kiely lifts the Liam McCarthy Cup. “That’s the challenge for us there now – to come back and back this up with consistency, not just within the year but beyond the year.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The last thing John Kiely does is apologise. In the lobby of Citywest, the morning after delivering Limerick’s All-Ireland hurling title, and minutes before completing the last step in its 45-year homecoming, he’s been tracing the trail of exactly how they went about it.
Three weeks earlier, minutes after Limerick had beaten Cork in the semi-final, Kiely had sternly requested – us, mainly – to leave his team of mostly kids alone, or he would “shut the whole thing down”. This was their chance to do what no Limerick team could do since 1973, and nothing was about to derail it.
“I’m sorry if I offended any of ye a few weeks ago, it wasn’t meant, I assure you of that,” says Kiely, who with that shook hands with the firm, practiced grip of someone who knows some things can be measured by the strength of it.
“What I’ll say about that now is, on a personal level number one, after the semi-final was a very difficult situation. You’re being pulled and dragged, left, right and centre, fired into a room full of reporters, and I’m a fighter. So when I’m put into a corner, I will fight.
“I’m a protector, I’m a teacher, I’m a parent. I wanted to protect the people that mean most to me, and I was protecting the Limerick players. I was quite happy with it afterwards. I do know within 24 hours of that happening, six players rang me the following morning by eight o’clock, having been approached by people. Once they pushed back, that was the end of it that day.
“I know what it is to have my phone on, on a daily basis in school, and get 10, 15, 20 phone calls from various outlets. It just takes too much time and it’s hard to make that time and it’s hard to get that much personal energy to invest in all that.
“We still enjoyed the build-up as well you know. My own village at home in Galbally was nuts. I haven’t been in the village for very long, I’ve gone down for a haircut or a newspaper or whatever it might be.
“But I’m looking forward to going down there tomorrow or the day after and spend a few hours and enjoy what they enjoyed for the last few weeks. It’s hugely important because I know the benefit it brings to a whole county. These things lift people, give people a great sense of satisfaction and pride and happiness, and they need it.”
Part of Kiely’s sense of protection stems from his own dedication. The 46-year-old, principal of Abbey CBS in Tipperary town since 2016, can count on two fingers the number of full days he’s missed at school since taking over as Limerick manager in September 2016; managing Limerick is certainly no hobby, and would be impossible without establishing some priorities.
“Obviously it does have an impact on the job, there’s no getting away from that. But I’ve huge support from the board of management, the staff are incredible in terms of their support. But you’re there until half four, five o’clock. Then you’re gone out the door like a bullet to get to Rathkeale or the Gaelic Grounds.
“And of course your family too. They know what’s been put into it. They’ve heard the door opening at one or two o’clock in the morning when you were heading out into the back yard to look up at the stars and figure out the solution to some problem that you were worried about.
“It’s just a busy day. That’s all. I’m not the only one in the country that’s busy. Everyone’s busy, like. It’s just the responsibility. We managed it quite well this year. We didn’t allow the phones to take over. Sometimes you might have to just tell people ‘sorry’ and that’s it. Some of it is a challenge. Most of it is very positive. Because young fellas, they see me every day on the corridors, in the class rooms, in the office, out of the pitch. So when I say to the lads ‘if you work hard enough, good things will happen’ they know I’m coming at that from a viewpoint that stacks up.”
Keily has spoken before about his own connections with the Limerick teams of 1994 and 1996, both of which lost All-Ireland finals, and the need not to get too caught up in them; in ways it had nothing and everything to do with Sunday’s win over Galway.
“It’s a new beginning. I’m just so thrilled for all the people that are at home this morning with young kids in Limerick. Because that’s the real dividend from this – that spin-off for the thousands of youngsters that are going to go around with hurleys this week, next week and the week after, dreaming of being Cian Lynchs and Shane Dowlings and Peter Caseys.
“That’s the challenge for us there now to come back and back this up with consistency, not just within the year but beyond the year. I said it last week, I just wanted the lads to be the best team that they could be on Sunday. Is that the best they’ll ever be? No, they’ll be better.”
In the decade since first putting his hand up to help with Limerick hurling, when it was far from fashionable, what still drives him is the desire to constantly raise standards.
“That’s why we did the boxing, because the previous year, the standards were allowed to let slip because fellas weren’t challenging enough, whereas this year the standards were set because of the boxing. There was no drop.
“I don’t think there was a single session I went home unhappy about. We simplified things, we took out a lot of the rubbish that was in there. They’re only 20, 21, 22. Kyle Hayes doesn’t want 20 texts a day, he just wants to know where he is to be on a Tuesday and a Friday – ‘that’s it, boss, leave me alone’. So we left him alone. At the end of the day, you need to trust them to go out on the field and do the job and play his part on the field, which he does.”
Kiely also trusts them to be the best in other ways too: “Humility is one of the great attributes that all the great teams have had. If you look at the Kilkenny teams for the last 15 years. The challenge to these boys is to be able to carry their success on their shoulders, and if we can be the same people we were a year ago in a year’s time, I think we’ll have done a very good job.”
Such are the demands of the modern game, particularly with the provincial round-robin format, John Kiely believes the number of replacements in hurling needs to be increased from five to seven; he also believes championship panels should be extended from 26 to 36, at least when it comes to the All-Ireland series.
“The panel restriction needs to be changed [names must be submitted the Wednesday before championship matches]. Sure lads get injured in training on Friday night. Peter Casey got an injury the other night, went over on his ankle on a sliotar. It’s not good enough like that you’ve 36 players on a panel, you name 26 on Wednesday.
“One gets injured on Friday and you can’t use any of the other 10 fellas who have been working their ass for 10 months. That’s wrong. It’s very unfair on Peter that he has to spend two days trying to get himself right or some way right literally 24 hours of the day and you have some lads that are 100 per cent ready to go and you can’t just name them.”