ANTHONY DALY: The hurling academy: A Limerick legend’s legacy

Joe McKenna who played a big role in setting up the hurling academy in the county.

The Limerick academy I was involved with for three years was about fostering a culture of doing things the right way — and not necessarily all about winning. Some people in the county had issues with me over that but I never had anyone say a single negative thing to my face, writes Anthony Daly

I was in my mother’s house in Clarecastle in October 2014 when I got a phone call from Joe McKenna. I had Joe’s number in my phone but I didn’t know why he was calling. He asked me if I was around. Drive to the Inn at Dromoland, he said, which was just down the road from me. So I did.

I had finished up with Dublin only a few weeks earlier. After six years on that long road, I wasn’t even thinking about a move but Joe immediately dangled one in front of me. He told me about the Limerick underage academy, its history, and aims. Joe had been involved in establishing it with Liam Hayes and Eibhear O’Dea and now, three years after its set-up, Joe wanted to try and evolve it into something more.

Jerry Wallis had been the hurling director for the first three years but he had moved on and Joe offered me the position. 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. And I would also be the Limerick minor coach.

After being an inter-county senior manager for nine of the previous 11 seasons, it was certainly a different prospect. It was working at a much different level but I saw that as an exciting challenge. So I went for it.

The hurling academy: A Limerick legend’s legacy

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, trying to achieve. The board handed over every Saturday to the academy, which was a fair undertaking considering the amount of underage games played in the county during the year.

And having UL — one of the primary centres of sports excellence in the country — as a base really made the project feel like an academy.

UL certainly suited parents and guardians too. While the squads would be training, they could go for a walk around the campus or head off for a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup in one of the many cafes and restaurants nearby. They could even watch training from the balcony on the café overlooking the main astroturf pitch on the north campus.

I really enjoyed my time involved with the academy. I’ve often had this debate with Michael Duignan about academies and development squads. Michael is completely against them but he isn’t the only one.

Michael and many people believe that the elite element is unhealthy at such a young age, in that players who get a county U14 jersey almost feel entitled to the same jersey at U21.

There is a balance to be found but this isn’t Manchester City either, whereby they’re scouting young players from all over the world and those players are often pampered in the professional world many will soon expect to enter.

Cairbre Ó Cairealláin was with us in 2015 as the S&C coach for the Limerick minors before moving on to the Arsenal youth academy. He said to me one time shortly after moving, ‘Dalo, we thought we had an academy in Limerick, you should see this place.’

The Limerick Academy was just trying to foster a culture of doing things the right way because the wrong things had been done in the county too often, and for too long.

If anything, I think the whole concept was borne out of the players strike in 2010 when Justin McCarthy culled a raft of players and a host more left in support of their team-mates.

Justin McCarthy
Justin McCarthy

The Limerick seniors bottomed out that summer and guys like Joe, and JP, and Gerry McManus more or less said, ‘Hi, we’re not taking this crap anymore, things will be done right from now on.’

I think they were in the academy. I’m sure people had issues with me over the three years I was there but I never had anyone say a single negative thing to my face. 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 certainly worked with some great people; There are so many to mention so I’d be afraid to mention them all, but I got a great kick out of working with them and had such a great connection with those guys that they will always be friends.

We all found our level during those three years.

Some coaches may have wanted to do their own thing whereas other coaches may have been overdependent on me when I was there. I tried to facilitate everyone as much I could but, if I had one criticism, I always felt that there was too much of an emphasis on winning.

I remember playing an U15 semi-final against Cork in Riverstown. We lost a great game by five points to a side which had won the Tony Forristal (U14) the previous year. We missed a penalty while Cork stuck a penalty, which effectively was the difference.

I wasn’t that disappointed because I knew that team had massive potential but some people involved with the team and some parents were so down afterwards you’d think we were after losing by 30 points. 

We came up against the Kilkenny team that are in Sunday’s All-Ireland minor final in last year’s U16 Arrabawn and had a right battle with them. That was a really good team. They proved as much by reaching this year’s Munster minor final.

There are fellas on that team that will make great Limerick seniors but, while there was only a puck of the ball between us and Kilkenny in that U16 game, some people went away disgusted afterwards.

I know much of that stems from a longing and a hunger for success but I always felt that an academy should be more about developing the young man as much as improving his skills and strengthening his physique.

If you’re miles off the pace, and you’re getting routinely hammered, fair enough, then the alarm bells need to start ringing about the quality of player you’re producing, about the kind of coaching they’re being exposed to. But I always felt the young players in Limerick were as good as in any other county.

And I didn’t need to see trophies on the sideboard to confirm it.

An Arrabawn U16 medal isn’t going to mean a whole lot in the wider context of a senior career and it should be always about nurturing the talent at your disposal.

We saw that in Clare with the minor team in 1997, which won the county’s only All-Ireland in that grade. Yet we effectively got nothing from that group.

Although we reached an All-Ireland final in 2016, we didn’t win anything with the three minor teams I coached.

Yet Limerick reaped a rich harvest from that crop — Kyle Hayes, Peter Casey, Barry Murphy, Seamus Flanagan, Paddy O’Loughlin. A handful more are on the senior training panel while guys like Eoghan McNamara and Brian Ryan — who aren’t involved at the moment — will probably be huge players for Limerick in the future.

Kyle Hayes has come throug the academy and become a senior star
Kyle Hayes has come throug the academy and become a senior star

Both of those guys lost All-Ireland minor finals in 2014 and 2016 but learning from those experiences will be as beneficial in the coming years as looking at the medal they might have won. It may sound like a contradiction but not having that medal is often nearly more advantageous because you’ll do nearly anything then to get a senior medal.

I would have always felt that man-management was a strong part of my coaching and management style and I always saw that approach as being nearly more critical at underage level. Fellas at that age often need the arm around the shoulder, or they need that feedback that senior players often don’t want to hear, or entertain.

You always knew that the mandate was driven by results but teaching guys about values was more important than telling them that they absolutely had to beat Cork and Tipp and everyone else.

When Tipperary hammered us in the 2016 Munster minor final, Brian Ryan broke his hurley across his knee when he was being taken off late on. It was pure frustration but I just said to him, ‘God, Ryano, that’s a huge help to everyone now.’

The next night back at training, as the lads were pucking around, I picked up three of Ryano’s hurleys and mockingly, put them across my knee. ‘I wonder what this one is like,’ I said to him with a little smile. 

Without giving out, I was just subtly getting the message across to Ryano that he needed to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is more often than not the only picture.

When Duignan and I often had our debates about academies and development squads, and how making an U14 team was almost a passport to an U21 team, I always felt I could argue strongly against Michael’s core point because the approach in Limerick was very open. Because passports weren’t stamped that freely as guys progressed through the age-groups.

Eoin Sheehan, who was part of last year’s minor panel, had never made a Limerick underage squad beforehand. When word came back to us that he was shooting the lights out for Garyspillane, we brought him in and gave him his chance. 

He was this big, raw young fella but you could see he had potential. We brought him on against Waterford and he was due to start against Clare in the Munster semi-final until he was rushed into the Limerick Regional to have his appendix removed that morning.

That open policy largely worked. If some fella in a club felt that they had a guy worth looking at, they might get on to Joe, who in turn would get on to me. And invariably, we’d bring him in for four or five weeks, where he’d probably get a match or two, and an opportunity to find his feet.

That policy has definitely spread the net wider and the overall catch is getting bigger. 

Brian Nix, who was on this year’s minor team, is from Newcastlewest. They’ve had fellas from that club on Limerick teams in the past but young Nix picked the minor hurlers over the minor footballers this year. 

In the past, I’m sure that decision would have been a lot easier to make for a young fella from Newcastlewest. And the choice would probably have been football.

A coach is there to do his best for the player, to try and help him or her get the most out of themselves. That should always be the priority but there is great satisfaction in seeing guys you coached make the grade at senior level. Peter Casey was always a special player. He never left the hurley out of his hand. He had a laidback attitude too but that was what made him such a brilliant player.

I first met Kyle Hayes at U16 and I take massive pleasure in seeing him develop into the man he has become. In the last year or two, I have done the odd session for Padraig Daly with Kildimo-Pallaskenry, and I have seen what Kyle means to that club.

It’s a privilege to have worked with some of those guys, but I was just one of so many people who helped them arrive where they now are — on the cusp of something magnificent.

When we won the 2013 Leinster title, I said to the Dublin players in the dressing room afterwards that an awful lot of this began with their parents, siblings, guardians, teachers, the first guy who showed them how to rise a ball in Lucan Sarsfields, O’Toole’s, Cuala, Kilmacud, or Ballyboden. ‘Remember all those people in the next few hours,’ I said.

It’s important to remember the people who make that difference and, for an Offaly man, Joe McKenna has left some legacy in Limerick. If Limerick win Sunday, the one person I’d love to be sitting near would be big Joe. I can only imagine how emotional and thrilled he’d be. Joe was a great player. He won his All-Ireland in 1973 but 45 years on, one of Joe’s greatest legacies may yet be how his role in establishing the Limerick Academy played such a key role in finally stitching two great strands of history together.

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