As he emerged from a home dressing room, reinforced by the glow of the more joyous half of a Limerick double on Saturday evening, Billy Lee ducked away from the awaiting reporters for just a moment.
At the other end of the tunnel, as his own side warmed-up, John Kiely was rushing down to offer his congratulations.
He seemed to revel in Lee’s McGrath Cup shock — their first in 15 years — more than his hurlers’ victory in the following game.
It was a statement of what this means for Limerick football; a public moment from the steps of the Mackey Stand to thank those behind the scenes and pay tribute to those who have passed away.
Sure, no team sets out to win the McGrath Cup, as captain Iain Corbett remarked at full-time, but it’s another hugely encouraging marker to reward years of toil invested into the cause. Especially so after last summer’s hammering by Cork.
“It was important for the players to perform. If there was no-one here, and it’s great that the supporters were here and they brought them on a wave of emotion, but this is all about the boys inside in that dressing room for me,” said Lee, who was wearing a Limerick-shaped pin badge inscribed with a heart.
“The McGrath Cup hasn’t been the whole agenda for the year but it’s been really important for giving the lads a bit of belief and understanding what it is to win games against teams that have been historically and currently are better than us.
A large crowd, not quite the full 5,295 that passed through the turnstiles by the second throw-in but multiples of the 187 that watched their last game, cheered them on and in Danny Neville they found a footballing hero in Limerick green.
The Ballysteen clubman opted out last year to finish his masters in primary teaching but only 11 days into January, he’s already made an impact on his return.
Cork found him too fast, too tricky, as he scored seven points, including four of Limerick’s final six, two of which came from quickfire attacking marks.
He kicked off left and right in both halves, assisted three more scores, and laid on Limerick’s best goal chance for Gerard Stack – denied only by one of two excellent saves by Anthony Casey.
His work wasn’t done there, though. When a black card for Paul Maher saw Limerick reduced to 14 men for the first 10 minutes of the second half, the pacy Neville found himself plugging the gaps in defence.
Upon Maher’s return, Limerick had broken even, 0-2 each, and their four-point lead maintained.
When Iain Corbett was black-carded for the final six minutes, Neville kicked the only two points of that period to clinch the victory.
“Anyone who knows football in Munster will know Danny Neville is a top-level player,” said Lee. “He had the flu playing against Clare and Waterford but Danny Neville is capable of that any day.”
It wasn’t all about Neville, even if he was the dominant force in the game.
Limerick had nine different scorers by half-time, including both midfielders and three defenders. The most satisfying of all must’ve been Michael Donovan punishing Damien Gore for his bright start with a run upfield which ended in a point for the corner-back.
They were efficient in attack — their first wide from an attempted shot came after 57 minutes— while Corbett, Brian Fanning, and Robert Childs were superb in defence once they’d slowed Cork’s quick transition into attack after five minutes of early dividends.
Limerick led from the 12th minute on, with Cork’s best period coming between the 48th and 56 minutes when they scored four points in a row, three from substitutes, Brian Hurley (0-2) and Killian O’Hanlon. Sean White also registered late on, emphasising the depth of talent Cork still have in reserve.
Almost a year to the day since the publication of the Five-Year Plan for Cork Football, there had been talk of a confidence and swagger brought into the camp by the U20s, a real strength and depth, a feelgood factor. Those virtues won’t be invalidated by this defeat but they won’t be enriched by it either.
Ronan McCarthy said beforehand he hoped to take some semblance of a settled team into their League opener and Páirc Uí Chaoimh re-opener against Offaly.
He can take positives from his midfield, while Gore showed he could hurt Limerick if only the supply was quicker.
“Our pre-season has gone very well. The thing is not to get too despondent about one match. We played seven games and they’ve gone generally well,” said McCarthy.
“I’m blue in the face from saying this: there seems to be some notion that we’re going to rock up to Division 3 and people are going to say, ‘off you go, lads.’ If tonight does anything, it says to people you must perform every day you go out and win the game on its own merits, and not because we think we’re Cork and we’ve some divine right to do something.”
On Saturday, Limerick had run onto the field in darkness, with the floodlights not switched on until 15 minutes before throw-in. They left it firmly in the spotlight.
Scorers for Limerick: D Neville (0-7, 2 marks); J Lee (frees), S O’Carroll (0-3 each); I Corbett (0-2); M Donovan, R Childs, T Griffin, A Enright, C Fahy (0-1 each).
Scorers for Cork: C O’Mahony (0-4, 3 frees); D Gore (0-3); C Sheehan, T Clancy (0-2 each); C Kiely, T Corkery, S White, K O’Hanlon, B Hurley (0-1 each).
LIMERICK: D O’Sullivan; P Maher, B Fanning, M Donovan; T McCarthy, I Corbett, R Childs; T Griffin, A Enright; P de Brún, C Fahy, S O’Carroll; J Lee, D Neville, P Begley.
Subs: G Stack for Begley (50), T Childs for Griffin (53), J Naughton for De Brún (56), P Scanlon for Lee (66), D Lyons for Enright (68).
Sin bin: P Maher (35+2 - 45), I Corbett (69 - ft).
CORK: A Casey; S Ryan, A Browne, P Ring; K Crowley, S Meehan, C Kiely; I Maguire, T Clancy (Clonakilty); T Corkery, C Sheehan, M Taylor; D Gore, C O’Mahony, M Hurley.
Subs: S White for Hurley (ht), B Hurley for Sheehan (49), K O’Hanlon for Clancy (51), S Forde for Corkery (55), J O’Rourke for Gore (55).
Referee: B Griffin (Kerry).