Limerick shutting it all down so that hype and history rhyme

The county has got carried away in the past and is paranoid about doing it again

John Kiely addresses his Limerick panel after the All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

John Kiely addresses his Limerick panel after the All-Ireland semi-final win against Cork at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Sir,

I, along with most Limerick people, am absolutely delighted with Limerick’s victory over Kilkenny in Thurles on Sunday. It was an epic battle where two teams went toe-to-toe, with Limerick the last team standing, thank God.

I write to you to urge caution in the coming weeks in your paper’s coverage of the upcoming semi-final. I, along with many people throughout the county, religiously buy your paper in eager anticipation of what’s in the “Leader” this week. You may not acknowledge this but in the past your paper has had a tendency to get carried away when Limerick get to the latter stages of the hurling championship.

Your coverage throughout the year is always measured and excellent but for some reason you feel the need to “up the ante” when our county gets within touching distance of the Holy Grail. In- particular I remember, in my opinion, the completely over the top coverage in 2013 of Limerick’s All-Ireland semi-final v Clare. It may or may not have contributed to our ultimate defeat but such over the top exuberant coverage is unhelpful.

I do not expect your paper to print such a critical letter but I do feel many people throughout the county have similar feelings.

Yours, etc,

Noel O’Dea, Kilteely, Co Limerick

Letter to the editor of The Limerick Leader, July 19th 2018

Noel O’Dea was not wrong. Not that he was entirely right, either. His letter to Limerick’s main local paper back in July did, as it happened, make it into print, as missives carrying the rejoinder, “I do not expect your paper to print such a critical letter” generally tend to. But where he was completely on the money, his finger vibrating snug on the pulse of the Limerick hurling community, was in his contention that he was far from alone in his thoughts.

You only had to listen to the Limerick crowd in Croke Park three weeks ago as Shane Dowling’s post-match interview was carried over the tannoy. Dowling’s heartfelt exhortation for Limerick people to leave the team alone in the build-up to the final was met with knowing and enthusiastic applause from the stands, the scars from hype trains past itching them even now, mere minutes after qualifying for their sixth final in 45 years.

This is, undeniably, a thing. It may not make a lot of sense looking in from the outside but however the county as a whole has arrived at this point, the push for Limerick people not to go mad over their appearance in tomorrow’s final is real. It is the paranoia that dare not speak its name, too – four different people involved to various extents with Limerick hurling down the years declined to talk to talk on the subject for this piece. They genuinely didn’t want to add to the hype.

David Breen knows all about it. Wing-forward on the Limerick teams that went to All-Ireland semi-finals in 2013 and 2014, his work as a physio has taken him to London in recent years. But when he was here, he was living in Caherdavin, round the road from the Gaelic Grounds, in the thick of it whether he liked it or not. He looks back now, at the 2013 game against Clare especially, and instinctively agrees with the idea that the mania in the build-up affected the result.

“I do, yeah,” he says. “I think it would be naïve to say it didn’t have an effect. For me, that day, we were tactically outgunned and that was spearheaded, ironically, by Paul Kinnerk and the rest of the Clare management team. It was a weird one for me because I was living with Paul at the time.

“We were the only outlet for each other – the one way we could avoid talking about hurling was to sit down together and talk about something else altogether. That was my escape from the hype – sitting down with the coach of the other team and watching a bit of TV in the evening!

“It’s tough. It’s very difficult as a player. You’re relying on good leadership from your management to almost mentor you through that period leading into the game. But you’re also relying on having a mature bunch of players and being a mature individual yourself. You need to be surrounded by good people, your family have to be aware of it, your friends have to insulate you from it all.

“I can only speak for myself but I found it difficult to get a break from all the talk about the next game and how Limerick hurling had transformed overnight. That’s an example of hype. You’re after winning your first Munster championship in 17 years and all of a sudden you’re tipped nearly to win the All-Ireland.”

Press night

John Kiely was part of the management team in 2013, of course. His decision to lock and load before a question was even asked in the post-game press conference three weeks ago was clearly informed by that experience. Threatening the “shut the whole thing down” if any reporters contacted a Limerick player outside of the press night sounded fairly extreme in the moment but it soon became obvious that his audience wasn’t in the room. Or not all of it, anyway.

Alan English was the editor of the Limerick Leader in 2013. He calls from his car, heading home after putting the last Leader before the final to bed. He’s not the editor any more, having moved upstairs to a broader role, but he’s still in and around the place, especially in a week like this. An All-Ireland final is the biggest week of a local paper’s year. In the majority of counties, you’re lucky to get one or two weeks like it in a decade. You’d be mad if you didn’t want in on it.

“As a newspaper man, it’s my strong conviction that it’s the job and responsibility of a local newspaper to reflect the mood of the county,” English says. “I’m in my car here as I’m talking to you and I look out the window and I see green and white flags left, right and centre. The mood of the county is massively behind the team.

“People have taken on board the John Kiely thing, they have given the team space, there’s no member of the media who would even dream of approaching a Limerick player outside a press night. The media has respected that and understood where it’s coming from.

David Breen in action against Clare’s Brendan Bugler during the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. “I found it difficult to get a break from all the talk about the next game.” Photograph: Alan Betson
David Breen in action against Clare’s Brendan Bugler during the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. “I found it difficult to get a break from all the talk about the next game.” Photograph: Alan Betson

“But at the same time, we’re in the week of an All-Ireland final and the idea that the Limerick Leader or any other Limerick media organisation should sort of deliberately roll back its enthusiasm is a bit of a nonsense.”

That said, the notion that the local paper cost Limerick against Clare five years ago is one that definitely gained a bit of traction in the aftermath of yet another fruitless trip to Croke Park. Ahead of the game, English had Tweeted a picture contrasting the sea-of-green front page of his paper and that of the Clare Champion, tapping into the sense of occasion that was obvious around Limerick at the time. Afterwards, it was held against him in some quarters – as Noel O’Dea’s letter five years later would show – a symbol of everything that was wrong with Limerick’s preparation.

“That season, Limerick had won the Munster title in great style against Cork,” says English. “And there’s no doubt that amongst other media outlets the Leader definitely got behind the team in a pretty spectacular way and in an incredibly positive way. And I have no regrets about doing that.

“You’re almost made to feel that the Clare Champion did their team a service by putting nothing on the front page about the match and that we ruined our team’s chances! I think it’s unfair on previous teams to suggest that their downfall was hype. And the idea that this team, having come so far, would be undone by excessive enthusiasm in and around the county is total nonsense.”

For Breen, everything fed into everything that year. Limerick were drastically undercooked in that semi-final – and with good reason. They had played two games in 19 weeks since the end of the league going into it whereas Clare were playing their sixth game of the summer. But that’s the sort of open manhole people only see on CCTV after you’ve fallen down through it.

In the week running up to the game, Kilkenny were gone, Tipp were gone, Leinster champions Dublin were gone. Cork were in the final and Limerick had already walloped them in Munster. Only Clare stood in their way and Limerick had beaten them in a qualifier the previous year. All the while, the drums beat louder and louder the closer the weekend came.

Long wait

“What I remember most of all is just the wait. It was such a long wait since the Munster final – I think it was five weeks. And at that point, we had only played two games in the championship altogether. You might not want to be playing every week but every fortnight or three weeks would have been ideal. It was just a very long wait and it’s a difficult one to manage.

“And in the background, everything was growing, growing all the time. You were celebrating the Munster title like it was a mini-All-Ireland in some ways. And in the same breath, you were trying to keep yourself level-headed and down to earth and prepare for a big job in the semi-final.

“I totally understand it. Limerick people are intensely passionate about sport and very proud about any sporting story that comes out of Limerick and reaches national or international headlines. And the dominant sports in Limerick are rugby and hurling so when something like that happens, it’s hard for Limerick people to put a lid on it. It’s not in their nature not to get excited.

Mayo papers have gone even bigger than that in the past, they’ve done 72. So 48 pages – that’s our contribution to rowing back the hype!”

“That’s probably predicated on the fact that in Limerick hurling terms, we haven’t delivered much silverware compared to what maybe we should have. I think if we’re consistently reaching Munster finals and consistently reaching All-Ireland semi-finals and finals, that hype will settle a little bit. But when it’s a real novelty factor, it think it’s only natural.”

That’s the broader point, of course. Limerick is ablaze because this is a spark that comes along so rarely. The ache for an All-Ireland is deep in the bones of the people at this stage. English was there as a boy in 1974 when Limerick made it back to the final as defending champions. His father bought a ticket outside the Gresham Hotel on the day and ferried the pair of them in on it.

He’s lived and died with all the days since and, through all that time, this is the team that has given him the most hope. The summer has been glorious, whatever happens tomorrow. Kiely’s young side has brought its people with it, standing ready to do whatever is necessary. If that means getting out of their way, so be it. But at the same time, a local newspaper man gotta do what a local newspaper man gotta do.

“I think what it’s really all about is this almost suffocating desire that is within the county to win this,” he says. “I understand where it’s coming from and I think people have respected it. I can understand why the applause rang out [to Dowling’s entreaty].

“But at the same time, it’s still an All-Ireland final we’re at now. Whatever about a semi-final – the atmosphere around the semi-final was markedly restrained compared to 2013. But this is an All-Ireland final.

“We’ve done 48 pages in the Leader on it. I mean, the Mayo papers have gone even bigger than that in the past, they’ve done 72. So 48 pages – that’s our contribution to rowing back the hype!”

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