Every county will be out to knock Limerick off their perch, writes Anthony Daly
A few weeks back, I was in the Woodlands House Hotel in Adare for a ‘Night of Champions Season Finale’. The gala night was a gathering of current Limerick players and management, former Limerick players and, to quote the promotional poster ‘a panel of experts’. So Tomás Mulcahy, Tommy Walsh, and myself started telling the Limerick people how to go about winning more than one All-Ireland.
I was getting it in the neck about my Clare connections so I fired back. “It had been 41 years since Limerick had won an All-Ireland when Mike O’Riordan (secretary) rang me about getting involved with the Limerick Underage Academy,” I told the audience. “I said, ‘Sure look Mike, I’ll go in and give it three years and see if I can bring up the standard and help ye win something. Funnily enough, Arlene Foster, rang me last week...”
The night was great craic. It was a great evening of hurling talk. There was a real sense of celebration and happiness in the air but you also knew by John Kiely’s tone when he spoke that the good times are coming to an end for the panel.
He more or less said that the medal presentation was the finishing point of 2018 and the starting point for 2019. John even spoke about the squad doing some training on the team holiday.
John knows how difficult it will to even come out of Munster next year. It’s going to be such a bearpit that when I asked the question, ‘Will Limerick even come in that top three next year’ it was greeted by jeers and boos from around the room.
I’ve no doubt that this Limerick group will win more All-Irelands but it’s doubtful if it will be in 2019. Limerick know that every other team will be keen to do them down, to topple them off their lofty perch.
Cork won Munster this year but they’re still stinging with hurt after the All-Ireland semi-final defeat. Clare are still sick after their replay loss to Galway, especially when it would have granted them a shot at Limerick in the final.
Tipperary and Waterford have been stewing since early June but they’re already stirring up a new brew, spiced with hunger and a raw desire for retribution. And with new managers – Liam Sheedy and Paraic Fanning – stirring the pot with a big and brand new spoon.
Teams are back at it hard already. Tipp have been clocking up the training miles. A lot of people say you should never go back but Liam has thrown his hat into the ring because he knows how much talent and potential is in this squad. Tipp have attacking talent that most teams would kill for. They also have loads of young players coming off that successful U21 squad, hungry and mad for road.
It’s been almost 10 years now since Liam last managed Tipperary. The game has radically changed since then, especially in terms of preparation, but Liam has built up huge contacts in the meantime in his
different role as chairman of Sport Ireland’s High Performance Unit, and a member of the Irish Sports Council. It would be foolish to think that Liam won’t use many of his contacts to make Tipperary a serious force again. He certainly started on a positive note by recruiting Tommy Dunne as his coach. Having worked with Tommy with Dublin, I can personally vouch for how smart a move that was.
Paraic Fanning and Mattie Kenny will also be looking to put their own spin on Waterford and Dublin.
Three weeks ago, the sides played out a high scoring challenge game. Dublin hadn’t played since June 3 so those three teams — Dublin, Tipp and Waterford — which have been sitting on their hands for six months will bring a ravenous hunger and ferocity to the 2019 championship.
Limerick will have to match that savagery but Kiely will know the pitfalls before he even begins to fear that Limerick might fall into them. Apart from Kilkenny, no other team since Cork in 2005 has retained an All-Ireland. Galway looked tired all year after 2017. Tipp never kicked on after 2016. It took Clare four years to get over the hangover after 2013. It’s no wonder John has probably drawn up some training plans for Cancun already. It’s only natural that Kiely and his squad will think they can buck that trend. In an interview with Michael Moynihan recently, John said that while 2018 was something else, he believed that 2019 could be even more special. The monkey is certainly off their backs now. Limerick could be totally liberated next season. You could even feel that sense of freedom that night in Adare.
It’s funny though, how fine the line is. Cork must still be wondering how they coughed up a six-point lead late on in the All-Ireland semi-final. If they hadn’t, where would Limerick be now? How would their season have been interpreted? The win against Kilkenny was a huge breakthrough but a collapse against Clare and not making the Munster final when they seemed set to do so would have put a lot of pressure on Kiely and his management team in year 3 of the project.
I’m sure John Meyler and his management team have pored over that semi-final video numerous times to see where it all went wrong. More worrying for the Cork public though, was how a star-studded U21 team failed to win an All-Ireland U21 final that seemed destined for Cork.
It was another failure to step up to the mark when Cork were expected to get the job done.
Meyler knew he had to strengthen his panel and that has clearly been a priority in recent months. The return of Stephen McDonnell, Cormac Murphy, and Aidan Walsh will give the squad more experience while some of the younger crew from the minor side of 2017 will be given more game-time during the league.
Despite the disappointment of 2018 – even though they won Munster senior and U21 titles – it’s an exciting time for Cork. They have an extremely talented crop of young players coming on stream but it will be interesting to see how many of them can develop into senior players in the coming seasons. You’d also expect some of their marquee U21s to drive it on even more now too. Darragh Fitzgibbon showed in the Munster Club IHC final for Charleville against Feakle that he may be about to hit that level in 2019.
Every team will be looking for those marginal gains because they will need them. Clare, who will have just as many regrets as Cork after Aaron Shanagher’s late missed chance in the Galway replay, will also be looking everywhere to find those extra percentages.
Having Shanagher fully fit will be a big plus. Some of the other younger players who impressed this season will be better in 2019. Peter Duggan’s well-deserved All-Star will surely give Duggy the confidence to take it to another level next season. Jack Browne turned a huge corner in 2018 with his outstanding form.
Browne and Tony Kelly were instrumental in leading Ballyea to another county title in October. TK showed many flashes of brilliance during that club campaign that Clare will hope to see more consistently next year. Tony himself would reportedly train seven days a week but I think he should be given a break over the coming weeks to have him fresh and ready again when Clare need him most.
I always remember Eamonn Coghlan saying about Sonia O’Sullivan that he felt that she was sometimes too obsessive with her training, that she never took enough time off to put on a few pounds and come back hungry. I know the management were anxious to win every game they played last year but there is a balance to be found between having a settled team and a fresh team. And particularly now with this new championship structure.
Tipperary were nearly at the opposite end of that spectrum to Clare last year in how they approached the league. Mick Ryan used the campaign to make his panel as deep as possible but the team looked totally unsettled for their opening championship game against Limerick.
Mick wasn’t helped by having to play four games in 21 days, and having to deal with an intense club championship in April, but everyone knows now what is involved in the Round Robin format, an experience nobody had prior to this year’s championship.
We all spoke beforehand about the importance of winning your first match but Clare came up short against Cork in their opening game and went on to win four of their next five games before drawing with Galway and narrowly losing the replay.
If anything, the structure underlined the importance of winning your home games, which Clare did. It was no surprise that the four All-Ireland semi-finalists — Clare, Limerick, Cork, and Galway — were unbeaten in their home games, even if Cork drew with Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Once you get those four points from those home matches, a draw in the other two games should always be enough to secure a top-three spot in the province.
The season was a learning curve for everybody; management, players, supporters. And pundits. We struggled to predict what might happen next because there were so many intangibles; fatigue, recovery, mental tiredness. It was no wonder the season was defined by so many sensational comebacks. A nine-point lead early in the second half nearly became as dangerous as a two-point lead late on.
When you look across at Leinster, I expect Kilkenny to improve again. They won Leinster club titles at senior, intermediate, and junior and Brian Cody will be looking to unearth one or two more players from that pool. I’m sure he already has a role in mind for young Adrian Mullen, who was brilliant for Ballyhale Shamrocks.
There may not be the same level of high-wire drama there is down south but there will still be plenty of games loaded with intrigue. Wexford-Kilkenny in Wexford Park will be helter-skelter stuff. Dublin-Galway in Parnell Park will be another game loaded with venom. Those two groups have no great love for each other but there will be additional spice with Mattie Kenny managing against some of the players he coached with Galway earlier in the decade.
To be honest, I might have been in that position. I met the Dublin County Board in October to discuss going back to manage Dublin for a second term. I knew there were no guarantees with Mattie and Anthony Cunningham also in the running but I found it a very difficult three or four weeks. I was heavily tempted but I ended up almost torturing myself. ‘Should I go for it? Will I leave it off? Is now the right time?’ The turmoil was exacerbated by Kilmacud Crokes being in a county final, and a final replay, around the same time.
I did my best to put it to one side. I don’t think it affected Crokes because there are enough hours in the day to be considering everything. Maybe I wouldn’t have got the job anyway but for a finish, I made a hard call, deciding to step back from the contest, and let the board select either Mattie or Anthony.
It is even difficult at times now when I think of what could have been but I’m lucky that I’m still heavily involved in the whole scene. As well as still managing Crokes, I’m in the privileged position of being able to write about the game for the Irish Examiner, and talk about it with RTÉ.
The self-introspection has passed at this stage and I’m refreshed and mad keen to go again now in January. By the middle of next month, we’ll be tearing into it all again with Crokes to get ready for the April matches. By the end of the month, the National League will have started and we’ll all be back on the train again, wondering where the season will take us. And, ultimately, all the hurling community cannot wait until the train arrives in May and the great carnival begins all over again.