JACK ANDERSON: Ah’boy da kids — this time Limerick believe

Pat Ryan celebrates his extra time goal in Limerick's semi-final win over Cork.

When first asked to write a column for this paper, the esteemed sports editor gave me three guidelines: Write clearly; be informative; and stay impartial, writes Jack Anderson 

Having failed miserably with the first two, I am now going to break the third. This is because I am from Limerick, or more specifically from its hurling heartland on (the right side of) the county’s border with Tipp.

It is difficult to describe what it means to have Limerick in a hurling All-Ireland. Of course, it has happened before in my lifetime; most recently in 2007 but also in defeat in 1996, 1994, 1980 and in the year I was born, 1974.

This means that in my mid-40s, I have yet to see a Limerick captain raise the Liam MacCarthy. In fact, my father has only seen it once, in 1973, which of itself stands alone in an incredible 78-year stretch back to the end of Mackey’s era in 1940.

At work here in Melbourne, it is obviously a struggle, even to those interested in sport, to explain what it means for me to see Limerick march to Croke Park.

(As an aside, if my boss is reading this, please take this article as a sick note for work on Monday — if Limerick win, it may be extended).

The best analogy I have for my Australian colleagues is to compare it to Richmond appearing in last year’s AFL Grand final.

While historically the AFL has been dominated by the big three (Essendon, Carlton and Collingwood), Richmond (like Limerick in hurling) have always been to the fore of the chasing pack in terms of titles won. And yet until last year, they hadn’t won a title since 1980. Last year, Richmond steadily built momentum using a high-intensity, possession-based style of play, broadly similar to Limerick this season.

As 2017 progressed, Richmond’s traditionally large support base — give us a team and we’ll follow — returned in droves. In last year’s AFL final, Richmond faced the Adelaide Crows, a slick, experienced, high-scoring team who were favourites.

The Crows started well. Richmond looked nervous but then they got their first goal.

I have been lucky enough to get to lots of sporting events around the world, but I have heard nothing like the roar that greeted Richmond’s goal. It was guttural and desperate and joyful all at the same time. The Crows were spooked, and Richmond won.

I remember Eddie Brennan, Kilkenny’s star forward, now pundit, saying something similar about the roar that greeted Limerick’s entrance in the 2007 final.

In 2007, after a typically tumultuous year in Limerick hurling both on and off the field, the team under Richie Bennis did well to get to the final. Those of us there that day, and tickets were relatively easy to get in 2007, didn’t honestly expect to beat what looks now like the greatest hurling team ever assembled.

And so, even though we roared loudly when Limerick ran onto Croke Park 11 years ago, deep down we didn’t really believe. This year it is different. The demand for tickets is feverish.

Ah’boy da kids — this time Limerick believe

Mentally, this team — the Morrisseys, Cian Lynch and Graeme Mulcahy — seem incredibly resilient. Expectations are higher. The roar that will greet Limerick on Sunday will be deafening.

One thing about that 2007 final was the way Kilkenny, right from the start (and in Eddie Brennan and Jackie Tyrell’s case slightly before the first whistle) physically dominated Limerick. That remains a lesson for Sunday against a powerful Galway team who are experienced in and will be unfazed by all the distractions that surround a build up to an All-Ireland.

Analysis of the game can be found elsewhere in today’s paper. This is a personal recollection and my first real memory of Limerick was in 1981, the year after losing to Galway in the All-Ireland, when Joe McKenna scored three goals in an unlikely comeback against Tipp.

A year later I was nearly squashed to death outside the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a sudden crowd surge when, separated from my Dad,

I was rescued and placed on the shoulders of a man called Bernie Clifford.

He has a shop in Limerick and every time I am home, I tell my kids that only for that man you would not be here.

Once inside the Park in 1982, I got to see Eamonn Cregan, irascible and skilful as ever, make his final appearance for Limerick.

Cregan, McKenna, and the others from 1973 remain our reference point of success.

Limerick players and supporters celebrate theitr All-Ireland win in 1973
Limerick players and supporters celebrate theitr All-Ireland win in 1973

Since the early 1980s, the history of Limerick hurling has been, to use Henry Martin’s phrase, one of heartbreak. Endless replays of John Fenton’s wonder goal against Limerick in 1987 being a reminder of a lost decade. Ray Sampson’s point to win a league final in the rain in the Gaelic Grounds against Tipperary was an isolated highlight in 1992 until, out of nowhere, came Tom Ryan’s team of the mid-1990s.

Skipping over 1994 against Offaly, a bereavement not spoken about, Limerick returned in 1996. Walloping Cork, managed by my hurling hero JBM, was followed by the magical defiance of Ciaran Carey’s point against Clare. And then a Munster final against Tipp. Ten points down the first day out, we managed to force, and go on to win, the replay.

Oh joy. Limerick city people think our biggest hurling rivalry is with Clare; it’s not, it’s with Tipp.

But 1996 ended in defeat, again, in the final by 14-man Wexford, inspired by Liam Griffin with his hurling as the “Riverdance of sport” schtick.

Tom Ryan is then bewilderingly removed, and a decade follows of managers in, managers out, talented U21 All-Ireland-winning teams squandered, rows in the camp every April and even, the nadir, a strike in 2010.

And yet behind the scenes, a patient investment in our underage structures. Good coaches, endless hours, and often in the colours of JP McManus.

We only have seven All-Irelands. We are not part of the hurling Gods’ holy trinity of Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary and yet our love for hurling is a deep and enduring as any county.

The first hurling captain to receive the Liam MacCarthy was Limerick’s Bob McConkey in 1923 and maybe in the year that we have beaten Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork, Liam might, at last, be coming home.

Like Mayo’s quest for Sam, we know that deserving an All-Ireland has nothing got to do with it; it must be earned. And similar to what might happen if Mayo ever win Sam, I hope that if on Sunday Limerick do win, the Croke Park stewards have ‘Plan B’ at the ready. It might be easier for everyone to just let us shams enjoy it.

Back at home, the desperate search for tickets does not distract from our pride in this team and John Kiely’s management. Of particular pride for me is the involvement of so many from my home club, Doon.

Waiting at a stopover on the way back to Australia last month, I managed to tune into the semi-final against Cork. As the action moved to extra-time, Richie English emerged with the ball and sent a long diagonal pass to fellow Doon man Pat Simon (Pat Ryan to you outsiders). Pat rounded his man and lobbed Anthony Nash as coolly as if he was back in the yard at Doon CBS.

Along with thousands of Limerick fans in Croke Park and around the world, I jumped up (I had my tackies on) and let out a roar of delight. It was roar that came from me but also echoed where I am from and proud to be from — Limerick.

- Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.

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