Limerick now a team their people can love unconditionally
It's only two years since TJ Ryan was complaining about 'vultures' undermining them
Limerick warm up before their All-Ireland Munster SHC clash with Cork. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
In the dodgem-derby ending to Limerick’s game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Saturday night, Cian Lynch was a rubber ball bouncing off Cork men until he’d exhausted them all. For the lead-up to Kyle Hayes’s equalising point, Lynch scooped up loose possession around 40m from the Cork goal and made straight for it.
The weight of the 74 minutes-plus was pressing down on his limbs, though, so much so that when he pulled up to try a shot he was shouldered by Damien Cahalane and baulked by Séamus Harnedy. In the end he made a tired swing like a lumberjack at the end of a long day and got hooked by Colm Spillane.
Freeze the frame. As the ball squirts clear, Lynch is surrounded by no fewer than 10 Cork players. His team has played for 50 minutes with 14 men and given up the only goal of the game. And still, against all of it, Lynch is first to the break. Christopher Joyce thinks he has him but Lynch flicks it past him and suddenly the only player between him and Anthony Nash is Mark Coleman sweeping across. Tom Morrissey comes to help and between them, they force Joyce into a poor clearance and Hayes levels the game.
Nobody knows where Limerick’s season will end but when they put together the clips package, this passage will be in it. Lynch got hit, hooked or dunted by five Cork players in a seven-second spell and still kept going, not quite winning the game on his own but single-handedly making sure it wasn’t lost.
Limerick were a point down deep in injury-time and had any of the 10 Cork players around him managed to secure uncontaminated possession, closing the game out would have been fairly simple. That they couldn’t goes to the heart of why Limerick are the feel-good story of an already giddy summer.
The banner screaming across the top of the front page of the Limerick Leader this week said it all. “COME ON LIMERICK – County rallies behind brilliant young hurlers.” Inside, the paper’s editorial spoke of how “these steadfast young hurlers have already sweetened up our summer days . . . ” and how good it was for the soul of Limerick people to see families in green jerseys walking out of Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
This for a team whose only championship win in the two years before 2018 had come against Westmeath. Whose last defiant summer stand had come in the epic All-Ireland semi-final of 2014 against Kilkenny, only for them to fall in round two of the qualifiers the following year. Who had been rolling the rock up the hill in the league for fully eight years before they got out of Division 1B back in March. The very notion of having a team to get behind has felt light years away in Limerick for most of this decade.
It’s only a little over two years since TJ Ryan stood outside the Limerick dressing-room in Parnell Park after a league quarter-final win over Dublin and let loose at the injustices of the world. Or at least the injustices of the small patch of the hurling world in and around Limerick.
Ryan’s tenure never quite recovered from missing out in that 2014 semi-final, when the weather went into full plague-of-locusts mode and Kilkenny rose from the canvas on a count of nine. But by beating Dublin on their own patch that night and making a league semi-final, Ryan felt he had a little licence to shake his fist at the sky. And duly took it.
“This was vital,” he said. “Vital for the squad. Like, if you come down to Limerick and see some of the vultures we have down there and read what’s being said – there’s hidden agendas all over the place. There’s hidden agendas against this squad, against some of the backroom team. From a Limerick point of view, I’d like to thank the supporters who came here tonight.
“Look, this team is working hard. It is very young, right? We go from one extreme to the other. We go from talking about All-Irelands to talking about sacking managers. Let’s get real. We’re in a league semi-final, let’s get real. Let’s talk about winning the league.
“There’s eight lads from Na Piarsigh on our panel. We were missing 25 per cent of our panel for the whole league. Missed them from club championship last year, missed them the previous year. This team in three years in Division 1B has only lost two round robin games, and in both those games we had a man sent off. You know what I mean? Let’s get real about it. Some of the stuff that’s been written – and I’m not blaming ye lads – it’s just been wrong.”
Ground to dust
For all the fighting talk, Limerick were still ground to dust in the league semi-final a fortnight later, Waterford running up a score of 3-23 on them. Ryan was gone by July and Limerick were starting again.
On one level, of course, it’s not such a huge surprise that they’ve fashioned a competitive team this quickly. Nobody doubted that they had the county had the raw materials. Two under-21 All-Irelands won in the past three seasons, a couple of appearance in minor All-Ireland finals dotted in between – there was no dispute that they had hurlers to turn to.
On top of that underage bounty, the Limerick colleges have had a complete dominance of the Fitzgibbon Cup competition over the past four years. Mary Immaculate College and the University of Limerick have been champions twice apiece.
In 2016 UCD were the only non-Limerick college left at the semi-final stage. Go through the pillars of this Limerick side and they were all present at that finals weekend down in Cork Institute of Technology. Lynch, Declan Hannon, Richie English and Darragh O’Donovan all starred for Mary I, Tom Morrissey and Mike Casey turned out for UL, and Diarmaid Byrnes top-scored for LIT from wing-back. The nucleus of a serious side was there, all of them young, all of them coming.
But as they say in the financial ads, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. And no county knows that better than Limerick, where they still refer darkly to the lost promise of the underage sides of the early 2000s any time anyone brings up the current crop’s potential. If John Kiely’s players do nothing else this summer, moving people on from the well-worn Limerick narrative of wasted potential will be an achievement in itself.
They have given themselves a chance at least. In Lynch, they have arguably the player of the championship so far. Still only 22, this is his fourth championship campaign already and the move to midfield looks to have freed him up to affect matches more frequently than when he was an in-and-out presence at wing-forward.
At the other end of the age scale, Graeme Mulcahy turned 28 this week and has had the best start to a championship in his nine-year senior career. His first four shots against Tipperary all split the posts and set the tone for the afternoon, exposing fissures in the Tipp full-back line that still haven’t been closed.
His blocking down and subsequent rutting with Mark Coleman at the start of the second half last week was another indicator of Limerick’s refusal to take a backward step even though they were a man short. It’s not often that your corner-forward can be in the game enough to drive the rest of the team on but Mulcahy has done for two games in a row now. So much so that Waterford will probably have to pay him the ultimate compliment of sending Noel Connors to mark him tomorrow.
All in all, the skills of this Limerick team are only one part of what has made them popular this summer, both within and beyond the county boundary. There’s a thoroughly likeable doggedness about them, personified by corner-back Richie English, who played the second half against Cork with ribs that were bruised so badly, John Kiely brought them up in his post-match interviews.
When Lynch was doing his one-man Light Brigade charge at the death last Saturday, the only reason he had to do it alone was that everyone else was out on their feet. And even then, Morrissey was able to haul himself up to pressure the clearance. They got the equaliser they deserved, not just for Lynch’s endeavour but for the game as a whole.
Limerick in 2018 are a team their public can love unconditionally. And not a vulture to be seen anywhere. Whatever happens from here, that’s a huge step forward.