‘You want your best performance to be in an All-Ireland final’

Final flourish proves fitting reward for Limerick’s ravenous work-rate and hunger

At the end of the first quarter, Cork were bent double, like a boxer whose opponent had spent the last round working the kidneys.

They had responded to Gearóid Hegarty's early goal with a blinder from Shane Kingston but once Peter Casey scored a point straight from the puck-out, Cork found themselves needing to go a ferocious gallop just to keep them in view. They scored 1-6 from their first eight shots and still went to the water break five points down.

Limerick had scored 2-7 at that stage, with each of their starting forwards having scored from play. Every ball coming into the Limerick forward line seemed to stick, whereas Patrick Horgan and Jack O'Connor always seemed to be outnumbered as they gave vain chase for the missiles that rained down at the Hill end of the pitch. In the parlance, you'd say Cork were having to work a lot harder for their scores.

But that phrase has always felt like a bit of a cop-out. You know what it means, clearly. The thing is, on a day like this, nothing is more obvious than the hard work Limerick have put into their scores. Croke Park on All-Ireland final day is only the end-point. You don't get all six starting forwards scoring from play in the first quarter just by putting a shift in when the whistle goes.


"The enjoyment is the feeling of going back training in April," said Hegarty afterwards. "And we're doing runs out in Rathkeale in Neville Park, one of the coldest places in the world. You're thinking, 'This is the worst thing ever'.

“The enjoyment is looking back on those nights. You want your best performance to be in an All-Ireland final and All-Ireland semi-final. To get that performance in the first half was incredible.”

Had there been a vote for Man of the Match, Cian Lynch would have been the winner by a margin that would make Kim Jong Un blush. But betting without Patrickswell's answer to Zinedine Zidane, the Limerick inside forward line of Aaron Gillane, Séamus Flanagan and Peter Casey would have all had their say. By the time Casey went off injured just before half-time, that trio had scored 1-9 between them, all from play bar two Gillane frees.

Casey in particular was having the day of his life. He had five points on the board from his first five shots, all inside the opening 25 minutes. His fifth was a particular joy, a dropped shoulder under the Cusack Stand, a quick do-si-do to send Niall O’Leary flailing and a crack of the wrists to split the posts.

His afternoon ended soon after, as he jarred his knee chasing out after yet another lasered ball into his corner. He tried to run it off but was replaced by Graeme Mulcahy a minute before the half-time break. Afterwards, he sported an ice-pack the size of an emu egg strapped to the side of his knee.

“I know, I know, it’s just unfortunate,” he smiled. “I twisted my knee. I don’t know the severity of it yet or what’s going to happen to it. These things happen, it’s all part of the game. I’m okay. I’ve had worse pain. I’ve had worse days.

“I think everyone was just playing so well. We really targeted the first quarter to try and get hold of the game. Séamus and Aaron inside with me were fantastic. It’s not just the three of us, there’s six or seven lads there in the forward line all clicking together. We’re all so used to playing with each other now, be it in A v B games or in training or whatever. It’s just great when it works out and all comes together in a game like this in Croke Park.”

Gillane’s goal

It’s probably laughable to pick out a key score of a game that ended up being such a threshing exercise but if there was one, it was Gillane’s goal on 14 minutes. Cork had finally started scoring from play and had put three of the previous four scores on the board to get the margin down to one. They weren’t getting up much of a rhythm but they were in there pitching at least.

But when Diarmaid Byrnes sprayed a long ball into the Limerick full-forward line, all of a sudden it was two-on-two and Flanagan was already winning the first ball. Gillane showed to go for it, luring Sean O'Donoghue into a misstep and by the time the Cork corner-back realised what was happening, he was already a magician's mark. Flanagan turned inside, didn't consider the handy point that was his for the taking and pinged the pass to Gillane. He buried it from 15 metres out.

“Séamus’s pass to Aaron for the goal was incredible,” said Hegarty afterwards. “They play for each other. There’s no selfishness. There’s no selfishness on our team. The man in the best position gets the ball 99 times out of 100. That’s the way it has to be.

“It’s drilled into us by the management team, there’s no choice in the matter. The man in the best position has to get the ball. There’s no single person looking for the plaudits. Whoever gets it, gets it.”

They'll keep on getting it too. Of Limerick's outfield players, only Declan Hannon is over 28. Their third sub off the bench was Colin Coughlan, who will get his Leaving Cert results in a couple of weeks and is the first player born in the 2000s to win an All-Ireland.

“I was 27 last week and I feel old,” Hegarty smiled. “That’ll tell you where we’re at. Once upon a time you weren’t in your prime until 29, 30 and now I’m feeling old at 27. That’ll tell you what’s in the dressing room there.”

They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times