Savouring every moment of a journey 45 years in the making

The colour starts south of the border.

Savouring every moment of a journey 45 years in the making

Roll through Charleville and the car dealer on the outer edge has Cork colours on one side, and Limerick on the other side. (“Very clever,” said a daughter on an earlier trip, hopefully showing the entrepeneurial spark that will keep her father in his old age.)

Cross into the territory of the 2018 All-Ireland champions and the law of unintended consequences is immediately manifest.

For a blissful recreation of what driving in rural Ireland was like circa 1947, visit a county a couple of days after it collects Liam MacCarthy for the first time in four and a half decades.

At times as I rolled around south Limerick the roads and lanes were so empty I thought I was in the kind of movie which begins by telling you the virus was first spotted in rural China. Only occasionally did a vehicle darken the horizon, and a couple of hamlets were unruffled by even a pensioner strolling to the corner shop.

Athlacca, with the green-and-white teddy bear sitting in Riordan’s Square. Bruff and its poster wishing Sean (Finn) the very best. Elton and its winning double of green-and-white teddy bear and car in matching colours.

(To my eternal regret I didn’t make it to Kyledimo, renamed temporarily in honour of star forward Kyle Hayes.) Eeventually I got to Galbally, home of Limerick manager John Kiely.

The broad square was almost empty, though the statue erected to the men who died “on scaffold, field and from hardships endured in the struggle for Irish Independence” was in green and white, as was the Ford Granada directly across from it.

The man responsible said it had been memorable, to say the least.

Ah, it was a great night,” says John Kiely.

“We were thinking maybe to wait until the weekend, but once it was decided everyone rowed in and they put on a great show given how short notice they got. The secretary (of Galbally) put out a call for stewards and within an hour he had 150 volunteers. That shows the community spirit here, people put a huge amount of work in to get the whole thing right.”

When the formalities were over they kept on working. And celebrating.

Some of the Galbally hostelries were so full that one internationally-renowned jockey was turned away unrecognised: no room at the inn.

“Yes, I think three of the pubs ran out of beer,” says Kiely.

“But it was much more than that. It was just a great night for Galbally, for the families and the people who live here, who make the place what it is - and the Galbally people who don’t live here anymore, who came back for the night and who made memories what will stay with them forever.

“That’s what you’re in this for, after all.”

Memories. Brian Geary had some unrewarding visits to Croke Park. That changed last Sunday after the final whistle, when he was able to take it all in.

After the game itself, we had a few minutes waiting for Declan (Hannon, captain) to go up the steps of the Hogan Stand for the cup, we were able to stand around and chat.

“I began to realise then how many Limerick people were there. “We knew they were travelling in numbers obviously, but to see that . . . it sank in then. We knew that we had something special going, that something was happening, we knew that there was a buzz in the county, but we didn’t realise the extent of what was going on. But you could see it all there.

"Actually, what happened a bit in the last week before the game was people saying ‘good luck in the final and sure ye’ve done us proud regardless of the result’. I know the young fellas weren’t happy with that, they wouldn’t have been satisfied with the year ending up like that. They really wanted to finish the season properly.”

The man he watched going up those steps wouldn’t have been happy with that, certainly.

Declan Hannon didn’t feel too much pressure in the run-up to the weekend. His focus was always on the throw-in.

“It wasn’t too bad. I worked away until the Friday, and we were busy enough (Unijobs, at the University of Limerick) so I was able to focus on that. We didn’t change anything, either - we were still going to the shop, getting your coffee or whatever you did normally.

“There were lots of well-wishers, obviously, but I didn’t feel that huge pressure, to be honest. All we were concentrating on was what was going to happen between the four lines of the field - anything that happened outside of that was irrelevant.

“Caroline (Currid, performance coach) was excellent, but she was excellent as well last year, she’s been fantastic in keeping us focused on a few points to do with the match itself rather than what’s going on outside. We learned that the sideshows are irrelevant.

Other people can enjoy the festivities going on around the match, talking about it, looking forward to it - they’re meaningless to us, we have jobs to do on the field. Caroline reiterated that point over and over, and she was always available to talk to us, always.

Geary was confident ahead of the game. Young and inexperienced as the players were, he felt they had progressed even since 2017: “They’re very receptive to information being passed on, they’re keen to learn - but also, they brought a huge amount to it themselves as well.

“They played a huge, huge role. It wasn’t just down to management at all, and the confidence some of the younger lads is frightening at that age.

“Now, we worked hard last year as well, and we probably got some good foundations down, but the change in a year in some of them has been frightening. Going from the age of twenty to twenty-one, it might be only a year but at that stage it can be huge in terms of development.

“And they took their chances when they got them, too. There’s no point in ‘look, that was great this year, we’ll do better next year’ if you got beaten in the final. That was their attitude.” The chances and lessons alike were epitomised in Hannon’s bravery during the first half. A clearance from the Galway defence was destined for Joe Canning’s hand but the Portumna man was waiting for it, and waiting - Hannon intervened, winning the ball and pointing.

“We did go for it, I suppose, that’d be an example, but in the Cork game we felt that we sat back a bit as a defence, that we didn’t push up as much as we should,” says Hannon.

After that we felt in the back of our minds that if we saw the opportunity in the final that we’d go for it.

“I think in general terms we did go for it, and we might have been further ahead if we’d taken some of the opportunities we had in the first ten minutes in particular, but over the 70 minutes I thought we were well on top.

“Obviously the last ten minutes were . . . well, there was carnage for a while, but we got there.”

Carnage as a description of the closing stages, when Galway hit two goals and Canning stood over the free that could have drawn the game, is pretty fair.

“I thought he’d point it,” says Hannon of that late free. “The calibre of player he is, the quality of his striking, it wouldn’t have been any surprise to anyone if it had sailed over the bar.

“But that’s sport. That’s how it goes. If it had gone over the bar, or if they’d gotten a goal with that last free, though, I think it would have been a bit of an injustice.”

Geary exhales noisily.

“Look, at that stage it was heart in mouth stuff, pure and simple. I was thinking back to the Offaly match in 1994, I remember being up there at 15 or 16 , and going from an absolute high to the lowest of the lows.

“There was definitely a handful in the stadium - maybe more than a handful - thinking back to that game, and it was just so important we got Graeme (Mulcahy)’s point.

“I thought the ref might give us a handy point to ease us back into it, but Galway are a good team, they stuck in there like champions. I’d have thought on the balance of play that we deserved to win but they came back and kept going. Just getting over the line was so important.”

A recurring theme since the game finished has been emotion. The response of the Limerick supporters to The Cranberries being played in the stadium. The power of the homecoming in the Gaelic Grounds. The photographs being shared of tearful supporters at the final whistle.

“There’s been huge emotion since then, absolutely,” says Kiely. “You’d have to notice it. People crying, hugging you. Holding up their kids to see the cup.

To tell you the God’s honest truth, that never came into our heads. The fact that that’s such a surprise to the players and management now is a testament to the focus we had.

“Nobody gave anything like that a thought, they were just so focused on whatever job they had to do on the day of the game.”

Geary concurs: “I suppose it has surprised me, the extent of the reaction. We knew there’d be great celebrations - there’s a big sporting tradition in Limerick and everyone’s delighted with what’s transpired.

“What I noticed first, though, the crowd in City West the night of the game was fantastic. There was nobody getting carried away, they were just delighted. Walking around with smiles on their faces, not going nuts.

“That started it. We were away from it until we got back and landed to the train station in Limerick. Sure what greeted us there was only unbelievable, and that’s when we realised that what had happened was really, really special. I haven’t seen too many homecomings like it.

“Obviously with the famine, we were all crying out for the title, but the game, the homecoming, the organisation of the homecoming and the events around it - that’s fed into the unbelievable few days since. Lads are probably a bit tired now but there’s plenty left to do.

“And there’s the way they did it too, the young lads digging in when things went against them in the game. “Add in how they’ve carried themselves since then, they’ve been a credit to themselves and their families. That’s added to it, the goodwill towards them has only increased as a result.

There are schools to be visited, Cul Camps, and that’s all part of it, too. It’s all new to the lads. There was a buzz after the lads won the U21, there were civic receptions and so on, but this is on an absolutely different level.

For Hannon, the Tuesday night back in Adare brought it home.

“That was emotional, yeah. You’re up on the bus going through the village and you’re seeing lads on the street that you were in school with, maybe that you haven’t seen in a long time because everyone goes on a different path, but there they are, back for the match.

“And you’d see all the people who’ve helped you and who’ve been involved in the club all their lives - and your life - and you see how happy they are, how much it means to them.

“See, all year we’ve been trying to distance ourselves from that, the emotions that surround big games, because you can get caught up in it. So at the final whistle, then there was an emotional outpouring from the players as well, because of holding that back all the year, and then you’re meeting all the people who’ve been looking forward for years to Limerick winning an All-Ireland, and they all have stories about games that were lost, and that’s emotional too.

“There’s a lady in Adare, Mrs Kennedy, and she’s a stalwart GAA supporter, she’d be at every game. She’s not able to go anymore, but I met her during the week and she’s delighted. And sure there’s someone like her in every village and town in Limerick.”

The dividend hasn’t been slow in coming. Geary points out the link between the team and its youngest supporters being strengthened already.

“The lad are taken aback a bit, but they’ve taken it in their stride.

“They’re enjoying it, but you don’t know how they’ll take it until they go through it. It’s great to see them now chatting to kids around the area, they’re the heroes.

We were up in Monaleen Thursday morning with Andrew La Touche Cosgrave and Lorcan Lyons, and there were 352 kids there for the Cul Camp, the biggest one in Munster given the week that was in it.

“We had the cup there and the kids were delighted. Delighted with the cup, delighted to meet the players. New territory.”

Kiely, mindful of the future, underlines that aspect of the victory: “Sending the cup out to the Cul Camps, sending it around the schools, that’s very important.

“We’d hope to get a dividend from that from the kids in the county for years to come, that some of the kids who see the cup in the next few months will be playing for Limerick when their time comes.

“Normal life has to resume as well. I might go into the office today just to get the feet under the desk again.

“They’ve been very supportive all along, in fairness. Something else I have to do is have a proper look at the match - since Sunday I’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.”

It’s surprising that a manager wouldn’t look back at his greatest hour.

“In fairness, I’ve been fairly busy since Sunday.”

Neither has his captain, mind you.

“I haven’t really had a chance to look at the photos and videos yet,” says Hannon.

“Or to chat with friends and family about the weekend, or even to watch the match back on video.”

Hannon can’t let the occasion pass without paying tribute to the manager.

“He’s just a very fair man - he’s picked people based on what they’ve been doing in training, he’s given players opportunities, and there’s a huge trust between the players and management.

“It just clicked.

You could sense there was something different going on, and John was the man who got the very best out of us. Galbally the other night was great, and it was lovely for him, his parents were there, it was a great occasion and I was delighted for him, because he’s put a lot into Limerick GAA over the years, as all of those guys have.

That doesn’t answer the burning question about the Galbally homecoming, however.

Did the manager sing Piano Man again?

“He did,” says Hannon. “I think he’s looking for a Christmas Number One out of it.”

Play me a memory is the line from that Billy Joel song.

Kiely and company certainly did.

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