Last Wednesday’s episode of Reeling in the Years on RTÉ One featured the year 1994. The brief hurling segment about the All-Ireland final between Limerick and Offaly still makes for nightmare viewing – even after a lapse of 27 years.
Limerick were leading by five points with just five minutes to go. The first clip shows Offaly rattling in two goals within a minute or so, and the second clip shows their captain Martin Hanamy hoisting the Liam MacCarthy Cup. In a scoring blizzard in those dying minutes, Offaly emerged triumphant by six points!
Like tens of thousands of other Limerick fans there on the day, it's a scar that lingers in the psyche. And it's one of the reasons why, despite all the pundits – including many former hurling greats – making Limerick favourites on Sunday, nobody on Shannonside, from John Kiely downwards, or Limerick folk scattered elsewhere, will be losing the run of themselves.
Of course, we’re in an utterly transformed place now, chasing a third All Ireland title in four years. It’s the stuff of dreams and Limerick followers have never had it so good.
When I was a child, older people still talked about the Mick Mackey era; a legendary team he captained won three All-Irelands, in 1934, 1936 and 1940. But they never put back-to-back titles together. And down all the years since then, there was just one All-Ireland in the next 77 years (between 1940 and 2018). No wonder the emergence of today's super team has us all a bit discombobulated.
We conquered the summit in 2018, and again last year
We’re simply not used to luxuriating in greatness or superlatives. Former hurling greats from all counties are raving about our team, drawing comparisons with the magnificent four-in-a-row Kilkenny team of the noughties, and predicting an emerging Limerick hurling dynasty. Who? Us? It’s definitely nose-bleed territory.
But however cautious we might tend to be, we can’t deny what we see before our eyes. We conquered the summit in 2018, and again last year, while the third-quarter turnaround against Tipperary in the Munster final last month was out of this world.
Sweltering, heatwave conditions, 10 points down and everything on the line. It was then that Limerick delivered what John Kiely has described as their best performance yet. Limerick were rampant, mesmeric, untouchable. A fitting embellishment was one of the greatest goals ever scored in hurling, at any venue, by heroic Kyle Hayes from my native parish of Kildimo-Pallaskenry.
Another source of pride and joy for fans is the way this team and mentors conduct themselves, both on and off the pitch. Several former hurling greats have pointed out that Limerick are now the team with a target on their back, and can expect their opponents to use fair means, and foul, to try and topple them.
So it was, in the first 20 minutes of the semi-final, as Waterford launched an out-and-out physical ambush to try and put Limerick off their stride. But our boys didn’t retaliate; they focused on their hurling, and let the scoreboard do the talking,
It was also very pleasing to see some of our players reprising the awesome skills they had displayed at different times during our four-year fairy-tale adventure. There again was the radar-like accuracy of Séamus Flanagan and Tom Morrissey; the balletic movement of the giant Gearóid Hegarty; the sorcery of Cian Lynch and the awesome shot-stopping agility of Nicky Quaid. In fact, there isn't a single weak link in the whole team
But our new-found success is not just down to the innate skill and intelligence of the players. We're blessed too with outstanding leadership off the pitch. Manager John Kiely brings great clarity and authority, hurling coach Paul Kinnerk has woven a hurling pattern that is as mesmeric as it is effective, while team psychologist Caroline Currid is a calming retreat for amateur players coping with a cauldron of pressures.
The handling of the Peter Casey red-card saga is a good example of their style. There were no histrionics from Kiely, or indeed any of the players. They kept their counsel, amassed their defence, and won their appeal. End of story.
Of course, we miss what would be the normal build-up to Sunday’s final; fundraising dinners in Limerick and Dublin, and a chance to meet old friends and swap stories, while luxuriating in the exploits of our heroes. But the green and white flags and bunting are again smothering the city and county. And thanks to science and the vaccines, we’re banishing the dystopian Covid spectre, and gradually getting back to normal.
Next Sunday's gathering of 40,000 spectators is a further, giant step towards post-Covid normality
I was privileged to be among the 2,400 fans allowed in when we beat Cork in the Munster semi-final, and one of the 7,000 fans at the final against Tipperary. It was very much like old times two weeks later again against Waterford when 24,000 were allowed attend. Except for the tell-tale masks, it was very much business as usual.
Next Sunday’s gathering of 40,000 spectators is a further, giant step towards post-Covid normality, not just for sport but for everyday life. Indeed from this vantage, last year’s hurling championship seems like a Gothic fantasy; played in the autumn gloom, empty stadiums, lashing rain, players travelling alone to and from training and matches. And a final played in the cavernous gloom of Croke Park just eleven days before Christmas.
The Artane Boys Band is back too. So let's hope we'll see the traditional parade of the teams around the ground before throw-in. And when five o'clock comes around, I'm hoping and praying that Declan Hannon will be hoisting the MacCarthy Cup for the third time in the past four years.
Too much to hope for? Well, maybe it’s written in the stars. A century ago, Limerick also won the All-Ireland, although the 1921 final wasn’t actually played until March 1923 due to the War of Independence and Civil War. And they were also the first recipients of the MacCarthy trophy, first awarded to the 1921 winners.
Dare I say it! Cue Dolores O’Riordan and the Cranberries with Dreams, the modern-day Limerick hurling anthem.
- Stephen O'Byrnes is a public relations consultant and former journalist.