When Liam Lenihan was Limerick county chairman around the turn of the decade, there was flying shrapnel from the various wars still whizzing through the air, even in the push for peace. You would have tiled the Vatican with the number of clean slates being declared in and around Limerick hurling after the meltdowns of the Justin McCarthy era. The county board's popularity was in the sewer but Lenihan knew the only way back was slow and patient and piecemeal.
Limerick's intermediate team needed new management for 2010 and, when he pondered where to go looking, he went back to a phonecall he'd received in August. It had come the day after Tipperary's 6-19 to 2-7 annihilation of Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final and the caller had been John Kiely.
Years before, when Lenihan was a selector under Tom Ryan in the mid-90s, Kiely was a squad player. He was diligent and precise, not the most skilful player in the county but easily one of the best prepared.
“He was a sound man, first and foremost,” says Lenihan. “You could trust him to be straight. John had won a county senior hurling medal with his club, a county senior football medal as well. And there had been great reports about his work with Abbey CBS in Tipperary town. I had met him on and off a few times around the scene and I knew he was sound.”
At a Club Limerick event last summer ahead of his first championship match over the county’s hurlers, Kiely detailed the context of their original phonecall, the first step along the road whose next stop is Croke Park tomorrow afternoon.
"I stood on the Hogan Stand on the steps that day when we were beaten very comprehensively by a phenomenal Tipperary team on the day," the Limerick Leader reported Kiely as saying. "For some strange reason I turned around at the top of the steps and looked out over the pitch and I said to myself, 'I am going to do something to try and make sure this doesn't happen again'.
“I said it to my wife Louise but she didn’t realise I was serious. ‘Shut up, come on and get into the car or we will be stuck on the M50 for the evening,’ she said. I rang Liam Lenihan the next day to tell him I wanted to get involved and help out at any level.”
From that day to this, Kiely has been a thread running through Limerick’s hurling teams. The intermediate side he took over got done in extra-time by Cork the first year – a Cork side that went all the way to the All-Ireland final. In 2011, Kiely’s charges beat Waterford but lost out by a couple of points to Clare in the Munster final. A month later, Clare were All-Ireland intermediate champions for the first time. A couple of loose balls here and there were all that separated Kiely’s teams from something special.
“Intermediate teams can be hard to manage,” says Lenihan. “You’re dealing with players who might or mightn’t want to play. They might think they should be on the senior panel or they might think it’s not really necessary to put in the same commitment. John got everyone playing for him. They performed very well in 2010 and 2011, even though results went against them.”
Along the way, Kiely established himself as a cool head and a voice of authority around the place. He joined the county’s U-21 backroom team as a selector under Leo O’Connor that season for a campaign whose highlight was an epic extra-time win over Cork in the Munster final. Lenihan couldn’t be at the game – “I was in Lourdes, praying at the time!” he laughs.
Ultimately they lost to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, a game that featured plenty of faces on both sides who will feature in Croke Park this weekend.
For Limerick, that team spawned Declan Hannon, Shane Dowling and Graeme Mulcahy; for Galway, David Burke, Johnny Coen, Niall Burke and Conor Cooney. Only for a Rorke's Drift stand at full-back for Galway by the late Niall Donoghue, Limerick would have made the final.
Piece by piece by piece, Limerick hurling was putting itself back together, with Kiely consistently thereabouts in the background. When John Allen took over as senior manager a couple of months after the U-21 campaign, he brought Kiely in as one of his selectors. While their first season ended with a trimming from Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-final, 2013 delivered a first Munster title in 17 years.
That summer, Kiely became principal of Abbey CBS and had to step away from the intercounty scene for the duration of 2014. On his return, he took charge of the Limerick U-21s, leading them to an All-Ireland title. That Limerick panel would become the bulk provider to the current senior squad – when Kiely succeeded TJ Ryan in late 2016, his net gathered up lots of familiar faces.
As ever with Limerick, initial progress was slow. In only Kiely’s second game, Cork put a frankly vulgar 7-22 past them in a Munster Hurling League game at the Gaelic Grounds. It was in the black of January and they were trying this and trialling that – but still, 7-22 is a shameful score. They even went a goal up after two minutes and still ended up losing by 21 points.
It wasn't exactly a scratch team either – Richie English, Darragh O'Donovan, Tom Condon and Dan Morrissey all started. Diarmuid Byrnes and Mike Casey both came on. afterwards, Kiely was steely and stoic. Nobody said this was going to be straightforward.
“We’ll have to go away and dig deep,” he said. “We knew there was going to be no easy days, and there was going to be possibly some low points along the way. This is a very low point and we have to respond to it.
“There’s no out clause in this thing, no back door or getting away from responsibility and accountability for what happens out on the field. What happened out there we are accountable for and we have to take responsibility for, and we have to respond. We have to show we’re better than that and that we’re capable of responding.”
The worst of it was they took their beating on home ground. The few hardy souls who ventured out into the January cold didn’t take overly kindly to what they were seeing. Nothing is louder than the braying of an angry voice in a big stadium and the invective that came Limerick’s way that day was still annoying him when the league started a few weeks later.
“We have great support in Limerick,” he said. “Huge support in terms of numbers but they can be rather impatient at times and maybe lack a little bit of perspective on where things are at. That day against Cork in the Munster League, there were quite a number of people in the crowd who were extremely abusive and it was not at all appropriate that players be treated like that on the day, given the amount of time and effort and work they put into preparing themselves on the pitch, and off the pitch.
“That is not something we would like to see again. We have an awful lot of decent people involved in hurling in Limerick, and if they are people out there that aren’t behind the team, we would rather they stayed away. And we would like to see the people who are real, true hurling people in Limerick step up and follow the team through thick and thin, through good and bad, and support the players and acknowledge the effort that the players are putting in.”
In many ways, this was the John Kiely his players knew. He wasn’t going to panic in the wake of a bad result. Equally, he wasn’t going to take any nonsense from the cheap seats either. Limerick had cowered for long enough under friendly fire – it was only a matter of months at that stage since TJ Ryan had complained bitterly at “the vultures around Limerick with their hidden agendas against this team”. Kiely made it clear from the start that he wasn’t going to stand for any of that.
"John is a strong guy, he has a great presence" says Matt O'Halloran of Limerick local paper the Weekly Observer. "He has brought fantastic organisation. He is a school principal by day and he has an innate talent for handling people and meeting everybody at their own level. He's the type of guy that people just want to do something for.
“But on top of that, he knows the scene so well and he knows what’s possible. After they won the U-21 All-Ireland in 2015, I think he saw it as his job to make sure nobody was getting carried away. He didn’t want all this talk going around that Limerick were going to win a senior All-Ireland. That’s not his style. He’s just all about a professional approach, things done right, nobody getting carried away or too far ahead of themselves.”
Above all, Kiely was his own man. He made sure he repatriated Paul Kinnerk to bring his particular brand of coaching to his native county instead of Clare. Some older players were moved on and not all the younger replacements were seen as sure things – Séamus Flanagan was an unused sub for the U-21s when they defeated Kilkenny in last year's All-Ireland final but Kiely has made him the fulcrum of the senior team's attack.
By contrast, Aaron Gillane was always going to be a break-out star at some stage – Kiely gave him the responsibility of taking frees early on to make a man out of him, whether he liked it or not.
Notably, he didn’t make a big deal out of missing the Na Piarsaigh players for the league. Neither did he flood them all back into the team at a stroke once they were available. He just got on with life without them.
In the past, Limerick had tried to tread water until the county champions finished their All-Ireland commitments – instead, Kiely moved them beyond that and dared them to catch up. Against Kilkenny, only Mike Casey made the starting line-up, with four of his clubmates on the bench.
In sum, John Kiely has seen all the bad in Limerick hurling over the past decade since he made that phonecall to Liam Lenihan and has quietly and dutifully kept doing his bit to change it. Whether it’s enough in 2018 or not, only the coming weeks will tell us. one way or another, he’ll come back and do that same again next year.
Piece by piece by piece. The only way he knows.