One evening in 2017, all the Limerick hurling coaches and managers from U14 up to senior sat down for an internal conference in Castletroy.
It wasn’t so much a meet-and-greet because it was much more about business than pleasure, with the key goal being to pool as much information together as possible, all for the benefit of Limerick hurling’s communal cause.
Everyone threw their ideas on the table. I remember John Mulqueen, who was minor manager that season, speaking about addressing the weaknesses after a particular night’s session, and how you could implement those learnings into the next session, with that process beginning immediately.
The U16 coaches had another solid idea in how you might maintain a strong momentum during training blocks. It was basically a kind of holistic form of disciplining young players if they weren’t up to speed on their hurling homework, or if they hadn’t met certain targets set by the management.
Young players weren’t being put in the bold corner but it was a subtle means of explaining to them how things should be done right. That may have meant excluding them from the game that night. It worked because everyone always wants to play the game.
As more and more of those ideas were circulated, discussed and digested, I remember Paul Kinnerk saying at one stage: “I’ll definitely be using some of these concepts from next week on.”
Kinnerk was never going to share too many secrets, mainly because he guards his training methods very tightly. He was probably conscious too that sharing those methods amongst 30 people, many he wouldn’t have known, was risking his philosophies being circulated outside the county bounds.
Kinnerk was still always very influential within the Academy. When he was football director, he would still do the odd hurling session with some of the underage teams. I often brought him in to coach the minors the odd evening I could get him.
I remember Kinnerk doing a session one Saturday morning on swarm tackling. I had almost ten years of inter-county management behind me at that stage but Kinnerk really opened my eyes on a trend that was beginning to sweep the game at senior level. It’s no surprise now that Limerick are masters of the swarm tackle.
Kinnerk wanted the best for Limerick and John Kiely’s grasp of the bigger picture was also evident too on that evening all the coaches met. If Kiely could help out any of the underage coaches who, in essence, were doing the groundwork for him by nurturing young players Kiely may ultimately end up managing, it was in his interests to help them to till that ground. If Kiely could pick up some nuggets of information from some of those underage coaches, and implement them into his senior set-up, better again.
The evening followed a basic enough format but I still couldn’t imagine that kind of a think-tank happening in too many counties. It certainly never happened in my time as Clare or Dublin manager, where I would have sat down with coaches right across the spectrum.
When I was with Dublin, we doubled up as the U21 management for a couple of seasons. I took the minors for the odd session but there was never the kind of joined-up thinking that I saw in Limerick that evening. After having spent nine years as an inter-county manager, I was still blown away by the wealth of knowledge in the room that evening. It was absolutely powerful.
When Joe McKenna first asked me to be hurling director of the Academy at the end of 2014, it was an all-encompassing role, where along with having some input into all underage squads, I would also oversee the coaching practises with those squads. I would also be the Limerick minor coach.
In many ways, an Academy is a souped-up term for a raft of Development squads but there was certainly an Academy feel to what Limerick were doing, and were trying to achieve. And having the University of Limerick – one of the primary centres of sports excellence in the country – as a base really made the project feel like an Academy.
Joe was my boss and I had a great relationship with him. Of course, we’d often have the odd row, where we’d go at each other, but it never got bitter or rancorous because we were both chasing the same goal, which was the best for the Academy, and Limerick hurling.
One time, the U16 manager was giving out to Joe that he hadn’t seen me in three weeks. Joe rang with all guns blazing, enquiring if I’d high-tailed off to Lanzarote to work on my tan. “Hi Joe,” I bellowed back, “you told me to get the U14s up and running. We’re here in UL, the U16s are over in Staker-Wallace (on the Cork border). Unless you can get me a loan of JP’s helicopter or private plane, I won’t make U16 training.”
You’d often find yourself stretched in trying to cover every angle but we still did a lot right. We got to Munster minor finals in 2015 and 2016, reaching the All-Ireland final in 2016. The 2015 outfit though, was a brilliant team, loaded with future stars - Peter Casey, Kyle Hayes, Seamus Flanagan, Paddy O’Loughlin, Brian Ryan, Conor Boylan, Barry Murphy.
We beat a crack Cork side in the semi-final before narrowly losing the Munster final to Tipperary, and then exiting the championship after losing to Galway in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Jeff Lynskey had his side very well set up with a sweeper and, while Galway have gone on to dominate the minor grade ever since, they haven’t brought through nearly as many of those young players as Limerick have. Maybe having those lads playing to systems at such a young age has held Galway back, whereas the Academy’s focus was more on developing those young lads into more rounded and skilful players.
I had my own ways of doing things but I’d like to think that I used my experience from a decade of inter-county management, and that I brought people along with me, as opposed to telling them what to do.
I tried to facilitate everyone as much I could but, if I had one criticism, I always felt that there was too much emphasis on winning. That just stemmed from decades of hurt and longing but it was often difficult to get people involved in the Academy to focus on that bigger picture of producing young players to develop and someday, hopefully play senior, which is what should be the aim of any Academy.
The U16s were at the Arrabawn tournament one year where we had a savage battle with a serious Kilkenny side. Kilkenny beat us by four points but we finished second in the group, which put us into the shield, and guaranteed us two more games. We beat Waterford in the final. Getting four massive matches was massive in the development of some of those young players, a handful of which are now on the Limerick training panel. But a lot of people couldn’t see that at the time. The general attitude amongst some of them afterwards was, “Ah, ‘twas only the shield competition, they couldn’t get out of the group.”
That used to really get to me, because I could see the bigger picture, and the quality of young talent which was going to paint that future. I could also see how wide that canvas was stretching. Cathal O’Neill from Crecora was Munster Minor Player-of-the-Year in 2019. He may not hail from a big club but if Limerick can keep producing that level of talent, and if they can keep adding young players like O’Neill to the senior panel in the coming years, they’re consistently onto a winner.
Limerick are lucky now to have Pat Donnelly as director of the hurling academy because he’s a great reader of character. Pat managed the minors in 2016 before guiding the U21s to the 2017 All-Ireland U21 title. The fact that he’s now overseeing young guys on the ground at a much lower level underlines the absence of ego that always made Pat such a good manager. When I worked alongside Pat in 2016, his governing principle always was: ‘What can I do to help’.
You’d have to say something pretty similar about Kiely. That was evident on that coaches night in 2017, and John has continued to always look ahead. After Limerick lost last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny, he wasn’t whingeing or crying in his subsequent post-match TV interview about the late ’65 Limerick should have been awarded. There was no giving out either about the slow start which put Limerick behind the 8-ball early on. John was clearly sickened but he concealed that disappointment and was gracious in defeat.
You can see a lot of Brian Cody in Kiely, because Limerick have become very Kilkenny-orientated; they don’t do off league performances; the guy in possession holds on to the jersey until someone takes it off him; poor performances are not tolerated.
That’s why the no-show in the first 20 minutes last July will have disappointed Kiely and Kinnerk so much. Despite all the progress made, it was a harsh reminder in how counties like Limerick can slip back, and how difficult it is for those counties to sustain that place at the top table.
Every county is always looking ahead but, more than anyone else, Limerick are the one county that desperately want this year’s championship to go ahead. It was obvious during the league that Limerick looked like a wounded animal, and one which was getting stronger and meaner all the time in that hunt for redemption and retribution.
Limerick have the class and the age profile to build something special. Getting a sniff of that success in 2018 has only whetted that desire for even more now, especially when so many of these players are in the spring on their careers. Just as importantly, the Limerick public know that those players are capable of giving them sustained glorious days that the majority of those people never thought was possible.
There is clearly a different kind of want in Limerick now. That desire to constantly win underage challenge matches used to drive me crazy when I was with the Academy but, looking back on it now, it was probably more a craving for acceptance, and to desperately prove to themselves that Limerick were good enough.
Legacy plays a huge role in the development of any successful team in sport but that legacy always has to begin somewhere. And the underage Academy will always be regarded as a key starting point.
When the Academy teams would train every Saturday morning in UL, you’d always see platoons of young rugby and soccer players doing their own sessions on the bottom Astroturf pitches on the north campus. As they’d file back to the dressingroom afterwards, passing the GAA pitch as they went, they’d invariably be some interaction or banter with the different teams, especially if the young Limerick lads were pucking around before their session began.
I often found myself asking them questions about those other lads from other codes. “How do you know that huge fella in the Munster jersey?” The replies were nearly always the same. “He’s from our club.”
It’s easy for all of us to forget how big rugby is in Limerick. When I was involved with the minors in 2015, we tried to get Conor Fitzgerald to play with us, but his heart was in rugby. It’s no surprise now that he’s involved with Connacht.
For decades, rugby often won those battles for young hearts and minds around the county. But hurling is winning most of those battles in Limerick now.
That’s real legacy.
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