Limerick hurling: home to hope and hardship
It has been 41 years since Limerick hurlers won the Liam MacCarthy Cup and some of their near misses have been tremendously painful – no more so than 1994
All-Ireland Final 1994; Limerick v Offaly Joe Dooley of Offaly chased by Dave Clarke
Stragglers in the Gaelic Grounds on the sombre afternoon of the double bill of league hurling semi-finals might have noticed TJ Ryan and Donal O’Grady sitting alone among the discarded newspapers and sweet wrappers strewn along the Mackey Stand.
It might have been a consoling sight for Treaty hurling fans: the joint managers of the reigning Munster champions, studying the form and plotting the summer ahead, literally in the shadows. As it turned out, the men would not be seen together again. Forty-eight hours later, O’Grady had quit, having taken grave exception to county boards intimations that the management had “apologised” for the team’s performance against Offaly, of all counties. Ryan agreed to carry on alone.
Just like that, it seemed that Limerick had returned to a familiar state of fractiousness and disharmony and, most of all, of blowing a promising opportunity.
Limerick hurling people of a certain vintage are entitled to a bitter smile over the fact that Offaly were inadvertently involved in Limerick woes.
This summer marks a sensitive anniversary for Limerick hurling. For those that remember it, 1994 might well have come marked by a firebrand. September 4th, 1994, a day christened “Ceasefire Sunday” in the newspapers because of historic developments in Northern Ireland. There were 56,458 people at Croke Park for a novel final: Limerick v Offaly.
Limerick, chasing their first All-Ireland title since 1973, the lone year of splendour since Mick Mickey and company had lifted the MacCarthy Cup in 1940 to claim the county’s third All-Ireland in seven years. And just to make things more complicated, Offaly managed by Éamonn Cregan, the Limerick city hurling original and a folk hero in the county.
Could Cregan have guessed, when he took the Offaly job, that not only would he manage his team to the final but that his native county would also show up there for the first time in 14 years? Even if so, he could never have dreamt what would pass in those last five minutes.
“In all of my years reporting for this newspaper or before it, I’ve never seen such a dramatic finish to an All-Ireland final,” Paddy Downey of The Irish Times wrote as his opening line that evening.
He continued: “It reminded me of a dreadfully wet day in Killarney in 1971 when Limerick played Tipperary in a Munster final. They seemed to be winners then too but Tipperary came back to claim the day. And when the final whistle sounded the Limerick players, almost all of them as I remember, fell to the ground and wept.”
In the seconds after the 1994 final, Limerick people were too numb for tears. It finished 3-16 to 2-13, a final score which looks comprehensive. But the scoreboard had read 2-13 to 1-11 in favour of the losers with five minutes remaining. Offaly had been flat and uninspired all afternoon.
At half-time, Cregan had words with his players. “Unprintable words,” he said later. “He ate the shite out of me anyhow,” elaborated Offaly’s Johnny Pilkington that evening. “Really ripped into me.”
With the final drifting towards what seemed like an inevitable Limerick victory, Offaly won a free 20 metres out. Johnny Dooley looked to the sideline and saw a signal to take the point. “I just said I would do my own thing for once. I just blasted it.” It wasn’t the fiercest shot that Dooley ever hit but it evaded the Limerick wall.
The Dooley brothers would contribute 2-11 that day: Johnny 1-4, Joe 1-2 and Billy 0-5. The score had scarcely registered when Joe Quaid restarted play, sending a ball out to Ger Hegarty. Those watching on television that afternoon didn’t see the restart as the coverage was focussed on Dooley’s goal. In the weeks afterwards, Quaid was criticised for the restart but as he told Henry Martin in Unlimited Heartbreak, he had done nothing differently.
“I didn’t rush back to the goals. I went back and picked up the ball, walked behind the goals like I normally would. Hegarty was out in the middle of the field on his own. I dropped the ball into his hand 70 yards out from goal. He caught the ball and in contact the ball squirted out of his hands.”
What the hundreds of thousands of people watching on television saw was a long ball dropping in front of the Limerick goal and Offaly’s Pat O’Connor hitting it on the run as it bounced up perfectly. Bang. In the blink of an eye, the score was now 3-11 to 2-13 and the Limerick players were dazed on the field. The grip they had on the game deserted them and to compound matters, Billy Dooley began to bang over distance points from fun.
He would tell Leo O’Connor in the Burlington the following afternoon that he hit the shots out of pure exhaustion: an asthma sufferer, he was out on his feet and when the three possessions fell to him, he hit the ball just to get rid of it.
Offaly whipped over five points in what was the ultimate sporting raid. Even as it was happening, there was the sense that only Offaly would have the chutzpah to compress their afternoon’s hurling into five minutes and still come away with an All-Ireland title.
There was an 11-point flip in those six minutes, nobody could quite believe it. Limerick hurlers walked around in a daze, while Offaly came to terms with suddenly having won a game which they had looked like losing all afternoon.
The only person associated with the Offaly camp not smiling was Éamonn Cregan. The winning manager looked ashen and disbelieving: it was one thing to manage a win against his native county but to do so in this fashion felt like some cruel, cosmic trick.
After the speech, the emotions travelled with the players into the respective dressing rooms. Silence dominated the Limerick quarters.
“I can’t put it into words,” Hegarty told a group of reporters. “Worked so hard out there. We did everything. I can’t talk about it.”
Cregan materialised in the middle of dressing-room floor and spoke to players he had watched growing up. “It’s hard for me to come into a Limerick dressing room and say I’m sorry. We’re still shaking inside. We don’t know what happened. We know we have won. With five minutes to go we were gone and I know what’s it’s like to be in this dressing room. But you’re good enough. Stick together, lads. Stay together. Stick together and you’ll be back again. Thanks lads.”
They applauded him out and slowly thought about getting changed, getting out of Croke Park again and facing the rest of their lives.
Limerick made it to the 1995 Munster final and went all the way to the All-Ireland final in 1996, a championship season distinguished by the immortal, galloping point with which Limerick’s Ciarán Carey knocked out the reigning All-Ireland champions Clare. But there was a sense that Limerick hurled on without ever really shaking off the trauma of the previous September final.
“I still get nightmares about it, not as frequently as I used to,” Damien Quigley confided in Unlimited Heartbreak. “I don’t think we ever addressed 1994 properly and it cost us in 1996. The 1994 final was living hell, the game was wrapped up and it got away from us. And we never talk about 1994 at all ever. That was traumatic stuff. As a group we never watched the game and learned from it or whatever.”
The 1996 final proved to Limerick that there is no pleasant way to lose an All-Ireland. They never caught fire and couldn’t exploit the dismissal of Wexford’s Eamonn Scallan in the second half. Having the extra man was just more salt to add to the wound. A disallowed goal and several bad wides during the fraught closing minutes didn’t help.
Just like that, the door closed gently on a Limerick side that unquestionably had the talent to win an All-Ireland during that period.
Wexford’s hugely emotional victory and Clare’s second coming a year after confirmed something unprecedented was happening in hurling: the under-class counties were having their day. Limerick contributed so much to that period without ever reaping their true reward of an All-Ireland title.
On it went. The huge surge of optimism which followed Limerick’s consecutive All-Ireland under-21 titles of 2000, 2001 and 2002 had faded by the time that Richie Bennis, a player from the 1973 vintage, had managed the county to a surprising All-Ireland final appearance in 2007.
They were unfortunate to meet Kilkenny during a period of crushing summer dominance.
Last year’s Munster championship marked a return to the overwhelming scenes of 1996. It even had the bright sunshine. But the latest chapter of behind-the-scenes upheaval leaves Limerick hurling on the cusp of another championship still no closer some 20 years after that the one that got away.