Galway v Limerick Allianz Hurling League semi-final: Of the 35 players Limerick hurling manager John Kiely has looked at this spring, nine fall into the U21 bracket.
From this group, Na Piarsaigh’s Peter Casey will be eligible for U21 in 2018, while Kildimo-Pallaskenry forward Kyle Hayes, who started five of the county’s six league fixtures over the past two and a half months, will still be hurling U21 in the summer of 2019.
To put it another way, one-quarter of the players to see game-time for the Limerick seniors this year were born in either 1996, ’97 or ’98. Now, factor in Mike Casey, Richie English, David Dempsey, Pat Ryan and Darragh O’Donovan — all of whom hurled U21 under Kiely last year and have since played senior on his watch — and you have almost half a panel who weren’t even born when Offaly’s Johnny Dooley and Pat O’Connor broke Limerick hearts in the ’94 All-Ireland final.
In sum, this is a young Limerick squad. Very, very young.
Former Limerick hurler, manager and six-time All Star recipient Joe McKenna is encouraged by Kiely’s decision to opt for youth. It tells him the underage academy which he was central to establishing back in 2011 is working.
It was brought to life over a couple of cups of coffee with Éibhear O’Dea, two genuine hurling men who were alarmed at the lack of players progressing from minor level onto bigger stages.
That there was no joined up thinking between management teams from U14 right through to minor worried the pair. The prevailing attitude was that everyone kept to themselves and did their own thing.
Each was driven by results, rather than ensuring players continued down a path which would one day see them pull on the green shirt at the highest level. And yet, results weren’t being achieved. Failure to win a Munster minor title since 1984 stuck out like a sore thumb.
“There was a lot of work being done in coaching and games up to the age of 14 but there was no actual coordination between 14 and 18,” says McKenna, corner-forward on the All-Ireland winning team of 1973.
“I could see that there were absolutely no quality underage players coming through. I could see we were falling further and further behind other counties. Éibhear and I felt the underage scene was going nowhere. Liam Hayes was another who was pivotal in getting the academy off the ground.”
Jerry Wallace was brought in as head coach — a role now held by Anthony Daly — while they were successful in securing residency at UL ahead of the 2012 season, a partnership that continues to exist today. From October to March, the county’s underage teams spend every Saturday morning working at the University, be it with a hurl or a barbell in their hand.
Another masterstroke was getting agreement from Bord na nÓg to keep Saturday morning a fixture-free zone during the early months of the year when the various Limerick teams were inside in UL.
“The time comes when something has to be done and we knew that time had been reached,” McKenna continues.
“We were surprised with how quickly it took off. The players were really willing, as were the parents. The clubs, too, soon realised there were benefits in this for them as the players they were sending into the academy were coming out on the other side a better hurler.
“There is no pressure on anybody. The aim is to try and get the minors to Croke Park every year, but the focus is more on the end product which is getting at least one or two players from every minor team into the senior set-up.”
On both fronts, they’ve enjoyed massive success.
Dan Morrissey, Shane Dowling and Kevin O’Brien — all three can be found on the list of 35 — are survivors from the minor class of 2011. Diarmuid Byrnes, Ronan Lynch, Cian Lynch and Richie English are graduates from the 2012 group. Both teams fell at the semi-final hurdle in Munster, both after extra-time.
Thereafter, the little acorns began to grow.
They’d contest the next four provincial deciders, winning two. They’d also twice reach September (2014 and ’16) and while they came up short on both occasions, eight of the 2014 minor side were present inside the whitewash at Thurles 12 months later as All-Ireland U21 glory was secured in most spectacular fashion.
“We needed to get young blood into the senior set-up and we have that now.
“The average age of our senior team is around 21 or 22. Tipperary didn’t use any U21 players during the league. That’s where we are at and that’s what we’re up against. Galway, Tipperary and Kilkenny are way more advanced than us in terms of experience and physicality, at the moment. We just have to keep plugging away, which we will.
“Going down to Cork and beating them was huge for the younger lads. Cork were on a high having beaten Tipperary the previous Sunday. The belief the younger players would have taken from that is huge. It will make them stronger and stronger and give them the belief they can compete at this level.”
What of Sunday, can the new brigade bridge an 11-year gap to the county’s last league final appearance — McKenna being the man in charge on that occasion?
“I give us a very good chance. We started very well against Galway in the round-robin.
“We lost our way in the second-half because we have a very young side. We learned a lot from it and we brought a lot of that to Cork. If we can bring what we learned in Cork back to Limerick then there won’t be much in it. It is a huge game for us. I wouldn’t be surprised if we win.
“The culture and attitude from a players’ perspective that is there at the moment wouldn’t have been there for many, many years. When you have a camp that is pulling together and want to learn, learn, learn, it augurs very well. We’ll see what happens.
“Hopefully, we get to the top and if we fall short, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.”
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