THOSE Limerick footballers in whom hope still survives and whose hearts have remained unwarped after a decade of tilting at the windmills are a redoubtable bunch.
I imagine that the veterans of the early to mid noughties have had days when they were enmeshed in regret, tallying all the spurned chances and lamenting wasted July moments in the Gaelic Grounds, in Fitzgerald Stadium and most recently, in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
When the ball is thrown in tomorrow for their Munster football final against Kerry in Killarney however, their thoughts will be as light and unburdened as the day they first pulled on the emerald green jersey with the legendary John Quane for company. Gaelic footballers are a resilient bunch and Limerick footballers this past decade, it seems, are that bit more resilient than most.
This 122nd Munster final is fraught with danger for Kerry. Having beaten Cork in such dramatic circumstances three weeks ago, it would only be natural for a group of “been there, done that” footballers to assume that the early summer Everest has been scaled and that the next challenge to be addressed and conquered wouldn’t come until August. Dangerous, dangerous thinking – the kind that can have you sitting on your arse at half-time, five points down and facing a squad of frenzied green jersies in the second half with raw memories after last year’s Munster final collapse and an even rawer hunger after 114 years of famine.
Jack O’Connor spoke during the week about the importance of timing and of controlling blocks of training during the championship season but tomorrow’s game is more likely to draw on all his ability to convince his players of the danger posed by Limerick and on how he can impress upon his troops the absolute need to heed that danger. O’Connor and his selectors have proven intellectually and tactically agile enough in recent weeks to play the game as they see it but no team wants to be drawn to the well too often too early, least of all this Kerry team. In the absence of anybody with anything close to Paul Galvin’s combative edge, it’s not in Kerry’s interest to be drawn into a dogfight this time.
Logic and rational analysis propose no reason that Kerry should be beaten tomorrow. They have the better players (who on the Limerick team would make the Kerry team? Johnny McCarthy? Ian Ryan?), they have the better pedigree, they have home advantage and crucially perhaps, they’ve had three games of a higher intensity than we saw in Limerick’s match against Waterford a month ago in Dungarvan. Fortunately for all the romantics out there, Louth, Sligo and Monaghan have been proving in the other three provinces in recent weeks that football in 2010 is a game of passion as much as logic and whatever Limerick bring to the table in this regard will have to be matched by Kerry.
We can of course, expect the Limerick team selected on paper to bear little resemblance to that lining up before throw-in. Is Johnny McCarthy, one of the tightest marking but poorest aerial full-backs in the game, going to square up to Kieran Donaghy?
Maybe Stephen Lucey, who did a good job on Pearse O’Neill in last year’s Munster final, will be asked to do the horsing again this time with the more mobile Stephen Lavin policing Declan O’Sullivan and McCarthy living inside Gooch’s shirt.
Up front, would Ian Ryan get more change out of Mike McCarthy than he would on the inside line? And, while Paul Kerrigan’s pace caused some trouble last month, Stephen Kelly is a different type of forward whose strength and pace is usually better deployed further out the field when facing toward the Kerry goal. Likewise, we can expect Pádraig Browne to drift back into his preferred habitat in defence but he needs to actually serve a purpose back there rather than merely occupying space in front of his full back line as he has done before.
When the game takes shape, I expect to see Ian Ryan and Ger Collins inside, Stephen Kelly and Seanie Buckley 40 yards away and Pádraig Browne and James Ryan further back behind midfield.
Given that they began the process of revitalising the bench early last year, Mickey Ned and Buckley should have more options than they did against Cork this time 12 months ago when a genuine lack of depth proved their undoing with the finish line in sight.
Conor Fitzgerald and Conor Mullane are two vastly experienced players unavailable to them last year. Shane Gallagher is another strong defensive option and Cormac Joyce Power, Eoghan O’Connor and John Mullane are a year older and likely to be wiser too. What these extra options amount to in a practical sense is that substitutions are now made to strengthen and bolster the Limerick team rather than to firefight as might have been the case before.
One of the most surprising aspects of Kerry’s win against Cork was the dividend they got from tactical changes of their own. Paul Galvin, Darran O’Sullivan, Daniel Bohane, Mícheál Quirke and Barry John Keane all made significant contributions and even if two of these options (Galvin and O’Sullivan) aren’t available from the bench tomorrow, the form of Bohane, Quirke, Keane and in recent weeks, Kieran O’Leary, is encouraging.
Aidan O’Mahony is also a player most counties would accommodate and he could have a role to play in the type of game that’s expected tomorrow.
Conventional wisdom and all deconstruction of games so far suggest that the Kerry midfield will struggle once again. Only for Paul Galvin’s arrival and Aidan Walsh’s departure a few minutes earlier, Kerry would’ve struggled to get any sort of a foothold against Cork. Oddly enough, I believe that both Seamus Scanlon and Anthony Maher will ensure Kerry get their share of ball this time out. Scanlon is starting to show form at county championship level and Maher will have benefited from further championship training in the stadium.
It has become strangely axiomatic in recent years that John Galvin is a hugely under-rated midfielder. While this may have been true to some extent six years ago, Galvin has got as much recognition as his talent deserves at this stage and he’s now falling into an entirely different category – that of the dogged veteran who plays on, uncriticised and uncriticisable.
Tomorrow’s game represents another opportunity for Galvin to grab the elusive Munster medal but one senses that he was better equipped to influence games back in the days when he was the junior partner for John Quane in a seriously impressive midfield.
Bob Dylan, that other great institution playing Limerick this weekend, spoke in 1973 of “knocking on heaven’s door”. GAA people in Limerick have fond memories of 1973 but the mindscape of both the football and hurling public in the county has changed an awful lot since. Heaven’s door has slammed in their faces in recent years and some of the defeats in both codes have left even the most loyal supporters bereft. While their footballers have come a hell of a long way in a decade of progress, tomorrow will probably inform them once again that it’s been a long way to come for nothing.
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