KIERAN SHANNON: How Limerick’s leaders created legends

When Limerick trailed Cork by six points with almost as many minutes of normal time to go in the All-Ireland semi-final, John Kiely would have been forgiven if he started to think like most Limerick supporters undoubtedly and understandably were at the time.

His young side had made huge strides in 2018. They’d managed to get the county finally out of Div 1B, emerged with distinction from the piranha pit that was the Munster round-robin championship, dug out a massive win in Thurles by becoming the first Limerick team to beat Kilkenny in championship in 45 years and had now acquainted and acquitted themselves well in the new environs of Croke Park.

Only now the gap in experience and that extra year or two of development seemed to be telling between themselves and a more seasoned side, Cork, Munster champions for a second straight year. It was as if his team, to use a saying of the legendary NFL player Ray Lewis, had done what they were supposed to do for that season.

A bit like reality dawned for the Galway footballers — league finalists in their first year back at the top level in seven years, Connacht champions, landmark win over Kerry in Croke Park at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage – when the Dubs started pulling away. Or the Waterford hurlers of 2015 — league champions, Munster finalists — against Kilkenny in that year’s semi-final. 

Or Cork themselves last year when, as surprising Munster champions, they ran into a Waterford side playing a third straight year into August. A lot of road travelled, but still too soon on the road to go all the way.

Yet Kiely refused to succumb to such negative, natural thoughts and doubts. Instead, wheeling his arms and shouting into the field, he defiantly motioned his players to keep going, keep fighting, to stay in the moment, because 2018 could still be their moment.

So, they did as manager and players fed off the other’s latest C’mon! fist pump, leaving Cork the ones that had to tie the game to bring it into extra time. By half-time in extra-time, Cork appeared to have weathered the storm, being outscored by only a point in that first period, but when both sets of players broke from their respective huddles, Anthony Daly of this parish could observe: “There was no way you could see Cork winning with the body language of the players.

“Especially when compared to the energy oozing out of the Limerick fellas everywhere.”

 

Again, much of that energy had been generated by Kiely. While his opposite number John Meyler left the half-time huddle mostly to selector Kieran Murphy and the side’s veterans, Kiely was at the centre of the Limerick circle, along with team coach Paul Kinnerk.

No doubt there was a sound rationale behind Meyler’s hands-off approach, probably as a measure of the player-centred, player-driven approach the setup has embraced since Gary Keegan came on board two years ago, but it had echoes of Brian Clough famously shooting the breeze with a policeman at a similar juncture in the 1991 FA Cup final when Spurs ultimately outlasted Clough’s Forest: with Big Mo firmly in the favour of the opponent, the team in red needed their leader of leaders to regroup and reassure the troops.

In the green corner, Kiely and Kinnerk, firm believers themselves in the player-centred approach, obviously felt that the situation demanded that those players, especially given their age, still needed a little push to drive the bus further on.

And now that bus has gone all the way, negotiating not just stubborn defending champions in Galway, but also having navigated the green-streamed streets of Limerick city, parading the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

When the leader of that stubborn if stunned group of champions, Micheál Donoghue, graciously stated last Monday that what “John [Kiely] and Paul [Kinnerk] have done there is an incredible job”, he could not have been more right.

The quantum leap Limerick made this season, going from a side that won no championship game last year to outright champions this year, is virtually unprecedented in modern Gaelic Games, and certainly in the backdoor era.

There’s been mention of Cork’s mushrooms of ’99, but contrary to popular myth that Cork team didn’t come overnight: They won the league in ’98. The Tyrone footballers of 2003 had won an Ulster in 2001, a league in 2002 before winning both honours again early on in 2003. Donegal in 2012 had won Ulster in 2011. Tipp in 2010 had won Munster in 2008 and 2009.

About the only recent GAA champs to deviate from Pat Riley’s law of the painful incremental progression were the Clare hurlers of 2013 and even they were more a side that caught both a break and a wave midway through that summer, a John Daly getting hot at Crooked Stick in ’91; in contrast Limerick’s march to the summit was at a much steadier, sustained rhythm and pace all year, more Brook Koepka, 2017, and Erin Hills. But still it came without winning anything big before, like a league or a provincial title or even contesting a provincial final.

The conventional rate and route of progression has been utterly defied.

To compensate for such a shortage of senior silverware and experience, multiple people and systems have to be credited. Not even bolters like Limerick 2018 come overnight or over one season. Many people on the ground helped prepare this rocket to some day land on the moon.

Good habits were obviously embedded in the academy system and county minor and U21 setups. Likewise the Limerick colleges — both second-level and third-level — and crucially, the club scene: Five of the last seven Munster club championship titles have been claimed by Limerick sides.

The powers-that-be that brought in the new championship system also unwittingly played a part in 2018 being Limerick’s year: By virtue of playing four games in Munster, this side gained at least two if not three years’ experience in one.

However, for all that to translate into green-and-white ribbons on the Liam MacCarthy Cup, it needed someone like Kiely at the helm and the inspired management crew that he assembled.

Theirs has been no one-season turnaround or miracle job on their part. Crucially, they were all there in 2017 where and when for all their previous titles they had won they came to further appreciate just how true the line is that success is rarely linear.

Two championship games they played, two championship games they lost, with a devastated Kiely saying upon the latter of them, a qualifier defeat to Nowlan Park, “It’s just very, very difficult to accept that we’ve come out of the championship without a win. We’ve so much work put into this, it’s off the charts.”

Clearly it wasn’t a wasted year, or even a ‘failure’; much of the groundwork for 2018 was put in place in 2017.

Pádraig Harrington once described sport psychology as the science of cheating experience and for Caroline Currid to again guide such a young group of players to the pinnacle is testament to her prowess in that discipline. Just as with Tipp in 2010 and the Dublin footballers in 2011, Limerick’s All Ireland came in her second year working in the camp. No championship games might have been won in 2017 but the trust the players have in her would have been won in that first year.

Currid will know though that a sports psych can only help a team or player’s confidence so much unless they have faith in the coaching setup and gameplan as well.

Whenever Limerick trained this year their players would have left the field believing no other team in the country could have had a better session than them that night. The S&C-field coach tandem of Joe O’Connor and Paul Kinnerk is now one of the most successful and enduring in recent Gaelic Games history, with Kinnerk now surely rivalling Eamon O’Shea and even Cody himself as the most influential hurling coach of the past 10 years, between helping Clare minors, U21s and seniors to multiple honours and now this triumph with his native county, but more so than his achievements it’s his methods — his process, not his outcomes — that are particularly far-reaching.

As much as Newtownshandrum and Cork in the previous decade had first championed the possession game, Kinnerk – a former county footballer – brought it to the next level with Clare, a county that traditionally favoured a decent good un over a small very good un’ like Podge Collins and Shane O’Donnell.

More than that, he has employed and championed the games-based, constraint-led, player-centred approach. One where games take precedent over drills, where you ask rather than tell your players what happens next. In developing better decision-makers, he’s developed champions.

Again, that is not a linear process. In January 2017, the same month the Limerick project would have started in earnest for him, he was a keynote speaker at the GAA’s annual coaching conference in Croke Park in which he implored coaches to remain patient when something the team was working on kept breaking down. That was part of learning, coaching, winning.

“If players see your enthusiasm, they’ll keep at it. Even if takes three sessions to get it, they’ll keep with it if you will.” With some things it took a second season for Limerick to get it, but they kept at it and at it. Which is why, with Kiely on the line and Kinnerk by his side, they kept at it and at it above in Croke Park.


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