The Larry Ryan Interview: Limerick manager John Kiely considers a selection of images from an emotional summer and reflects on the weight of history, the Dolores O’Riordan factor, the war on hype, puckout stats, the influence of Paul Kinnerk, his dislike of sweepers, and why he vowed to make sure his players would never forget the time of their lives.
“We will be judged as we go forward as people. On how we carry this victory. As people. I want to be the same man I was two years ago, a year ago, last September, October, when we were trying to figure out how we were going to make this thing better.
“I don’t want to be thought of as John Kiely who managed the Limerick team to an All-Ireland in 2018. I want to be remembered for who I am, the person I am. Not an ounce different.
“That’s the way it’s got to be. We have got to embrace humility, embrace respect, for ourselves first and foremost, for the group next. We are who we are. We’re ordinary joe soaps, from the four corners of our county, who have broken our backsides to try and achieve what we’ve achieved today.
“But I don’t want it to change me and don’t allow it to change you. We’re ordinary joes who’ve been very privileged, very honoured to be part of this group. And it will be forever a gift to us what we have today. This is the gift. Treasure it, really treasure it lads. And try and treasure every moment that will come your way in the next few days.
“Have your few drinks. I’m not trying to quench any of the enjoyment. I want you to be able to look back on every moment with enjoyment and pride.
“Look after each other, look out for each other, protect each other, you’ll need each other, we will all need each other to make sure we enjoy it as much as we possibly can, in the right way.”
John Kiely’s speech on the bus from Croke Park to Limerick’s reception, filmed for Limerick’s commemorative DVD Dreams - An unforgettable journey.
“Look how happy they are there in that picture,” the Limerick manager says now, in Ballykisteen Hotel, on his lunch break from the day job as principal of Abbey CBS in Tipperary Town.
“I didn’t want to meet them a week later with sullen faces because something had gone wrong.”
Nothing has gone wrong. Unless the county has conspired in an unprecedented campaign of social media omerta, his pleas have been answered throughout the victory lap.
“I think the players have been exemplary in the manner they’ve carried themselves in the last three months. It’s something I’m extremely proud of. How much of an influence that [speech] was, I’d say very little. They’ve always done that. And long may it continue.
“Lads will make mistakes, I’ve no doubt. Somewhere along the line someone will make a mistake. But in the main, in the whole, I don’t have any concerns for them, in that regard.”
Yet, there was a sense of urgency in that moment, on the bus. An awareness it was a short journey until he dropped a bunch of young men off into changed lives. And that they needed to pack accordingly.
“You know that for some people it hasn’t worked out right. For some families in this country, winning an All-Ireland was the worst thing that ever happened their family. Someone drinks too much or has a crash on a night out, or if relationships break up or break down. Or someone ends up in a situation where they are not feeling great after it’s all over.
“It can be the worst thing that happens a family, that their son or their partner could win an All-Ireland. And I didn’t want them to ever end up in a position where they regretted winning an All-Ireland. That’s what my fear was. And I could only tell them on the day of the All-Ireland itself that it starts today. You don’t start thinking about looking after yourself, and looking after everyone else, a week later. It needed to start right there. And I wanted them to just enjoy it. I just wanted the enjoyment to continue.
“I want them to be able to look back in 10 years’ time and be proud and have great memories of it. In 20 and 30 years’ time and that their families will be able to look back on this experience as something positive for them. And I didn’t want them to say, ‘my God, that was the start of an awful time for us’.
“How regretful would that be, to spend your whole life trying to win an All-Ireland as a player. And for that to turn out to be the catalyst for an episode in your life you regret. That’s the point.
“And at the end of the day you care about the players an awful lot, and you don’t want something negative to happen to someone you care about.”
In the early 1990s, when John Kiely landed in Cork from Galbally, a place that didn’t produce too many hurlers, to chase Fitzgibbon Cups with UCC, Dolores O’Riordan was down from Ballybricken — not renowned as a rock music stronghold — playing places like the College Bar and Nancy Spains.
Last summer, John Kiely’s team forever wed Dolores’ music to the aspirations and achievements of her homeplace.
In the dressing room, Zombie blasted the narky defiance of Limerickness. On the terraces, Linger and Dreams poured out its wistful longing. Put chords to the unlimited heartbreak, the 45 years of hurt.
No wonder half the place was in tears. It was the kind of emotional cocktail that could nearly move a Tipperary man on Jones’ Road.
“It’s like everything aligned itself at the one time. Like a summer solstice. It is an incredible thing when all those kind of things align themselves. I’m not sure when the connection with Dolores O’Riordan started, at what moment it became part of the story. Maybe when the music was played before and after the semi-final. Maybe that was the catalyst for it. But it has lasted since.”
He takes the picture of Darragh Moloney from Knockaderry and his two sons at the final whistle. Darragh, 43, had never seen Limerick win an All-Ireland, Cillian and Rian had never seen their father cry.
“It encapsulates well what it meant to fans, to kids. A huge, huge moment for so many people. I’m just relieved that they got to have it. Far too often we were crying for the wrong reasons.
“And those two lads, who knows where they might end up. They might end up out in Croke Park themselves some day and they might think of that day as well. That’s what we’re hoping will happen. That new generations of hurlers will be inspired to commit themselves to playing hurling and become players of the future.”
If he had been a touch wary of the depth of the supporters’ longing, there’s regret at the tone he took after the semi-final, when he waged war on hype.
“It wasn’t actually very deliberate. I was probably on so much of a high coming off the pitch. You’re straight in there and you have to process it all. And I should have been able to do it better.
“But I knew in 2007 there had been a lot of distractions going into the final and I wanted to make sure we didn’t have any, or as few as possible. And that was my way of trying to set out our stall in that regard. Not only to the media but for our own players to understand the priorities for us.”
Immediately after the final, he wasn’t sure how heavily history had leaned on them, when Galway sawed into the eight-point gap in additional-time. Since, he’s settled on more earthly reasons.
“We felt we had a free-in for Peter Casey, that would have put another point between us. We’d have been very comfortable. That ball got flicked away, cleared down the field. Bounced. Conor Whelan’s hand, back of the net. There’s a four-point turnover straight away.
“They got a 21-yard free. We had the goal lined. We should have defended that better. Joe took a brilliant shot, back of the net. That’s a seven-pointer, between the hopping and trotting.
“A stray pass, another point. It wasn’t that we did anything really bad. We weren’t making bad decisions but maybe we weren’t executing things as well as we might have. And they executed very well. They made a couple of substitutions and those players brought an awful lot to the game for Galway.”
Nothing to do with a county’s psyche collapsing in on them.
“We didn’t spend any time reflecting on the past. We were always very focussed on the future and what was coming next, next, next. How many games have we seen where an eight-point lead is nothing? This summer even. It wasn’t the weight of history came down on Tipperary or Waterford. Did the weight of history come down on Cork in the semi-final when they were six up with eight to go? It didn’t, just one side finished the game better than the other. And Galway probably finished the final better than we did. That was all.
“Okay, it was difficult because we knew the consequences and how important it was and we just wanted to get it over and done with and get out the gap. But it wasn’t me thinking, ‘Christ Almighty, there’s some God looking down on me and I’m cursed ‘til the day I die’. Not at all.”
Kyle Hayes did mention he had flashbacks, though, to horrors gone by.
“Maybe they did, everyone is different.”
But then Kyle wasn’t on this earth for most of those nightmares.
“He wasn’t no, exactly…”
“Tom Ryan brought an awful lot of things to it. In many ways, he was the perfect man to handle that team and some wild men, because he didn’t give a f#*k who you were. But no, he wouldn’t be a man for feedback.”
That’s how one of his former players describes the manager who brought Limerick to the 1994 and 1996 All-Ireland finals. John Kiely is more diplomatic.
“I was a fringe player. I was an extended panelist in ‘94 and I was a sub in ‘96. I would have been called in and out of the panel, left go, brought back in, played intermediate.
“And that’s why I’d be very very honest with these guys because I think that’s one thing you need as a player in that position, who’s not making the first 15. Or who’s not making the 26. To know that at least what’s being decided is fair and honest and it’s being communicated directly to you and not by others.
“So I speak to the players. I call out the team. I meet them and explain the rationale behind the decision-making. Even though we make them as a collective, they know exactly where they stand with me at all times. I won’t shirk the message.”
Did he know where he stood with Tom Ryan?
“Not really. I knew I wasn’t involved. But they were different times. There was no stats. Management teams were very small. There was only a few people involved.
“The whole relationship between player and manager has evolved. It’s a much more positive, more all-encompassing relationship. There’s a great understanding between management teams and players of what the player is doing on a daily basis. Their work, their college, their family.
“We know more about them than anybody ever knew about us. And that’s good, that’s healthy. And it’s important.”
Like in every champion dressing room, all the smiles in the photo look genuine. Personal regrets forgotten. One to 36 on the same page.
Away from the platitudes of the podium, achieving that is the toughest part of the job.
“It is hard. A lot of work goes into it. And it has to be genuine. Because if it’s not they’ll see straight through you. If you’re being honest and fair with players I think they’ll accept whatever their lot is.
“We promoted players who were playing well onto the team and onto the panel. And vice versa. It was all down to the performances in training and the match-day. And you obviously were able to back that up with hard facts in terms of what we were looking for from them.
“The figures don’t lie. It’s as simple as that. You’re getting on the ball or you’re not getting on the ball. You’re either making good use of it or you’re not.
“You can’t argue with it. They know the data is extremely accurate because we have a lot of people working very hard to make sure it is accurate.”
They talked a lot too this year about making it fun, about sweetening the savage hunger. The ice-cream van after training, a few pints when the time was right.
“You put so much time and effort into it, sure Jesus, if you’re not enjoying it, it’s not a place you want to be. Our lads are young too. So maybe a more relaxed environment was more appropriate for them. Maybe an older bunch wouldn’t be the same. But we did try to lighten the moments as much as we could. And make it as enjoyable as we could.
“We didn’t spend any great amounts of money on it. An ice cream van to come in for 20 minutes isn’t going to cost the world. And it was a very hot summer so not every summer will be suitable for the van.
“But we did enjoy it, we had great fun. They are good lads, they know how to have a good laugh but we weren’t without our serious moments too, when we were in the zone. It’s about finding the balance between the serious and the fun, but you can’t forget about the fun.”
Phil Neville told us recently how he constantly sends WhatsApp messages to his England women’s soccer team. “It means that every single minute of the day I know what players are doing.”
Kiely isn’t into that. “Kyle Hayes doesn’t want 20 texts a day, he just wants to know where he is to be on a Tuesday and a Friday; ‘that’s it, boss, leave me alone’, so we left him alone,” he said after the All-Ireland final.
“Players need to be left alone. If I ring them, they could spend four or five hours and they’re thinking about what the conversation was about, so that’s a whole load of bloody energy wasted. It doesn’t need to be done.”
Psychologist Caroline Currid is his guide when it does need to be done.
“Caroline will offer advice at various junctures during the year. She would have been a great help in measuring the mood and dipping the temperature of the camp.
“She’s got a handle on how the players are feeling at that time. So if a few lads are feeling more anxious than they normally would you’d be trying to lighten the mood. It’s just staying in tune with the mood of the group and knowing where you want it to be in the first place. If you know where you want it to be, you can influence where it gets to. But if you leave it off to its own devices it could end up anywhere.“
Now that he has drawn a line under it all, will he scan these photos with a different eye? Looking for the man whose smile is too satisfied, who has done enough? Like Fergie used to do after title wins.
“I’ve thought about it. Is there a player within our group who may not come back with the same appetite?
“But I’m also looking at the players who didn’t play a part as much as they’d like to. The players outside the first 15. Or even lads who started and didn’t have the best of games, have they still got an itch to scratch?
“And I’m very much hopeful that quite a few of those players in that picture will have plenty of points to prove going forward, and have ambitions to go on to do greater things. To play a bigger part and a more involved role.”
You can’t argue with the figures, but now it’s John Kiely’s instinct to try. He’s studied those extraordinarily comprehensive stats on the hurling season produced by Brian McDonnell on sixtwofourtwo.com. Limerick fared well on most fronts, coming out on top for the average value of their chances created, for their work-rate and, most dramatically, for the success rate of their puck-outs (72.25%). But he wouldn’t want anyone to think they’d cracked that code.
“I looked at those stats a few weeks ago. There wasn’t that massive a difference between all the other teams and ourselves. There was a bit of a gap, but not that significant.
“Sometimes, it can be down to circumstance. More times it can be down to things not being executed as you’d like them to be. But every team is working on it, I guarantee you every county is working on that. This year we had a good result on that aspect of our game. But not every day, not every game. You keep working on it and you aim high. And the players bought into that side of things as well.”
The picture shows Kiely consulting Paul Kinnerk, fast gaining guru status, having coached Clare and now Limerick to All-Irelands.
It’s become a familiar sideline cameo but he first emphasises the collective: Brian Geary’s way with the players, Alan Cunningham’s knowledge of the Limerick championship, Joe O’Connor’s S&C and the fact he’d worked before with Kinnerk.
“That was great to have in terms of managing the sessions, finding the right balance between the physical and the hurling and the skill-sets.”
And Jimmy Quilty, who moved on after the campaign, having been with Kiely since the U21 days.
“Myself and Jimmy would always have had the same outlook on what’s important in the game. The value of the skills, the value of moving the ball quickly, the value of exploiting space. Jimmy has done a wonderful job over the last two years.”
But Kiely admits Kinnerk, now completing a PhD in UL on teaching methods in sport, has opened his eyes.
“We would have discussed what we wanted from the team before we ever started. The style of play, the skill-sets. Paul would buy into all that, but he comes at it from a different perspective in the way he coaches. He does it all through a game-based scenario. He’s an advocate of the games-based approach to training. He brought it to the next level, a higher level of coaching than I’d been exposed to. So I’ve learned an awful lot from him.
“You have to trust the people around you and learn from them. I didn’t have all the answers, I assure you.”
The answer for many hurling teams looking to bridge a gap, to go up a level, has been a sweeper. Kinnerk had used a sweeper with Clare, with Davy Fitzgerald. But it was not an option on Kiely’s table.
“I was never going to go looking at that side of things. It’s just not something I like. Sometimes you end up in a situation where you have to because the opposition are doing it. Or there’s an extra man. But as a prescribed approach it just wouldn’t be for me, that’s all.
“And it’s down to the experience with the ‘15 and ‘16 U21s. We didn’t use it in that setting so why was I suddenly going to introduce it at senior level? These players had no background in playing in that system. It takes a long time to develop it and become used to that setting. So why go and recreate the wheel, if you have something that works for you, stick with it.”
Enquire about the scale of their improvement from last year to this, benchmark the two championship performances against Kilkenny even, and he’ll argue they weren’t as far away as they looked in 2017.
“We went to Kilkenny in ‘17 and were beaten by what, three points in the finish? We had so many shots we hit wide that night.
“And the first year is very hard. For everyone. We just hadn’t enough time. And we needed to go through that experience, to find out everything. We were able to learn from those experiences in 2017 for 2018 and do something about them. And we got a bit of momentum as well in 2018 that gave us confidence.
“That was one thing missing in 2017, there wasn’t that level of confidence and that had to be worked on. You won’t win anything without a level of confidence in yourself, as an individual and a team.”
This year, the response to Richie Hogan’s goal came from a team sure of its methods.
“There were lots of defining moments. Lots of moments of character and leadership given by the players. That was a significant moment in that game, obviously. If Kilkenny got the next score it was going to be very difficult. And you won’t be able to do it every day. But we did it on the days that mattered this year. There was a great resilience and determination that we’d always hurl to the very end, no matter what.”
John Kiely was uneasy enough about this. You’re asking him to climb a ladder into the attic, bring down that box he’d just taped up and open it again.
“After the medals were presented, I thought, ‘we’re finished, it’s done’. For me, all this stuff is parked. And I probably won’t revisit it now for quite some time.
“All the memorabilia and all the photographs and all that stuff, I’ve put them away. Because now it’s all about recreating those moments again and striving towards those moments again.”
He worries he’s been out there too much, said too much, that people might think he’s opportunistic, chasing fame. That he has changed.
But he made a promise a good while back so he picks up the picture and his face instantly creases into a broad smile.
It’s funny how keeping people away has brought us in closer. They were all grateful to have those moments on the field. Public-private joy. Cian Lynch and his mother Valerie, Seamus Hickey and his wife Ellen and their little twins. Images that filled papers and touched hearts.
“There was a perception when they banned the pitch invasions it was a regressive step in hurling. But I think, for those who have been fortunate enough to go through it, it’s lovely to have that time to share without that crush and madness. And it’s much safer.
“Even for Galway this year and Waterford last year, that they have that little bit of space out on the field for themselves to process the disappointment of it all.”
Colour triggers memories. “Just looking at the streamers on the ground, they were just great moments when the celebration kicked off.
“It’s something you probably think might never happen to you. And when it does happen, those are the people you want to celebrate it with. Obviously, with the players and the management team initially. But your attention quickly turns to your own people as well.
His wife Louise was beside him in Croke Park in 2009, watching Limerick’s semi-final hiding by Tipperary, when he decided, right there, to make a contribution.
That day she told him to snap out of it and hurry on back to the car unless he wanted to spend all night on the M50. But she never resisted the idea.
“She has had a huge influence. When the senior position came up, that was obviously going to be a huge decision for us. The demands are so great.
“And obviously, the track record of managers in Limerick hasn’t been one that ends generally with a smile on your face. I don’t know how many managers there have been since ‘73. But I knew, going into it, that there was a huge risk this could end up being something you could walk away from without a sense of satisfaction.”
They left for the team holiday to Cancun on Thursday. After that the boxes will stay in the attic.
Awards bashes have brought opportunities to meet people like Joe Schmidt and Stephen Kenny, who he found so impressive. Serial winners, a reminder he has won just once.
He’ll be able to walk away from the job with a sense of satisfaction some day. But not yet.
The deepest satisfaction he has found among people who have already walked away. The primary emotion among the class of ‘73 is relief.