He hasn’t discovered any short cuts. The familiar signposts — Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville — still mark the winding road from Cork to Limerick and John Allen has seen a lot of them in recent months.
“It’s given me an appreciation of what it was like for Ben and Jerry O’Connor and Cathal Naughton, travelling up to Cork from Newtown,” says the Limerick hurling manager.
“It’s two hours, you’re hitting traffic on the way up, but I’m finished teaching so it’s not a huge issue for me.”
A fair point, but his reference points immediately raise a question: Allen’s CV includes All-Ireland titles and final appearances with Cork, but how does he manage his backstory in Limerick? Is he conscious of not overdoing the references to his time in Cork?
“Everything you do in life you retain in your subconscious somewhere, so situations you’ve come upon before will help you to deal with situations that arise now.
“I’ve often said that the Cork players we had between 2003-6 were exceptional in every respect. The Limerick players I’m dealing with have a lot of similarities to them – decent, honest guys with a good work ethic. You have to be true to yourself, and people are people. I find if you treat people with decency you’ll find that’s reciprocated most of the time.
“Some of the players I have, for instance, are 19 or 20, and wouldn’t be aware of what’s needed in training, first, and what happens in senior games, second. They may not have encountered the cynicism or the tactics you find at senior level – I’m not saying they’re one and the same – and you only have to look at Cork v Limerick in last year’s U21 Munster final to see that.
“In the senior championship there’s cynicism, there are tactics, though that may be more of an issue in football — and you have players who are well experienced in knowing what to do in certain situations, like wearing down an opponent mentally before the ball is even thrown in. That takes time to get used to for players but I try to take things as they come.”
Cynicism is a highly evolved synonym for fouling, and there’s a lot of white noise at present about how hurling is refereed. Allen has sympathy for officials in that context.
“Referees become referees for their own reasons, and the work they have to put in to reach the standard takes a lot of time and effort.
“Fortunately or unfortunately they’re assessed on every occasion and if they don’t follow the rule book to the letter of the law they’ll get more X’s than ticks of approval. I’ve said that common sense isn’t included in the rule book, and the usual example used here is Dickie Murphy, who refereed games with a smile and overlooked things that deserved to be overlooked — things that might be blown by others.
“Maybe referees weren’t assessed as acutely then, I don’t know. But certainly the game should be allowed to flow at times. If Kilkenny’s physicality is allowed, then it’s up to the rest of us to match it and to get up there.”
He first met the men he’s trying to get up there in a session of physical tests in the University of Limerick, but he first donned the green and white top of another county one morning in Adare.
“Putting it on . . . it’s like anything in life. Once you’ve weighed up the pros and cons and made up your mind, you just go ahead. I don’t think twice about it; initially it probably felt strange but now it’s just part of my workwear, going to training and matches. Once your mind’s made up, the body follows.”
It helps that the body’s in Cork rather than Limerick. He’s made a conscious effort to distance himself from all sorts of coverage of the team.
“I find that people will speak to me in Cork more about Cork than Limerick — which is great. It helps not to discuss it with everyone you meet because I’m living in Cork, not Limerick.
“Since taking over Limerick I don’t read message boards and so on; some of them are absolutely scurrilous, and everyone gets it from them. I feel a huge lack of pressure because I don’t read what anonymous, faceless people are writing about me. I don’t read the local press either.”
The funny thing is that it’s not as if Allen didn’t have history with Limerick. In 2006 Cork ground out a narrow win over the Shannonsiders in Thurles in the All-Ireland series. Allen was Cork manager and can recall the evening well.
“There was a terrible atmosphere that night,” he says. “I don’t know if we were prepared for Limerick’s intensity that night, on and off the field. At one point I called Jerry O’Connor over to me and Donie Ryan came with him, and stood so close that I put my hand on him to push him away and he fell over. I thought ‘I’m in trouble here’ but nobody saw it.
“I presumed that night they’d decided to get into Cork’s faces, and they did. Did I consider that night before taking over in Limerick? Not really. It’s water under the bridge now. I see a group of guys in Limerick who are great to train, have a good work ethic and are as honest, decent and hardworking as any other team.
“I wouldn’t be judging Limerick hurling just on that night in Thurles, certainly not that I’m on the line with them.”
For all that, it’s temporary rather than permanent. He’s quietly confident of their chances against Tipperary but he’s also aware that it’s a longer-term project than that.
“I meet people who are involved in Limerick hurling, who are very interested in developing hurling in Limerick, Because the last three managers have been from outside the county — from Cork, as it happens — maybe they’ve felt they needed someone from outside to bring a new perspective to what’s being done.
“There’s a great willingness to do well, but I wouldn’t see much of a difference between Limerick and Cork in wanting to do well. I was at a meeting of managers in Limerick recently and it was clear there was a huge level of organisation and co-operation — managers moving from grade to grade for consistency, trying to get a common purpose to what they’re doing — and that’s feeding through to senior level, where you have John Kiely as a selector. That’s going in the right direction.
“Off the field Limerick are in a good place and if they can keep their players, there’s a good future there.”
They just need to know there are no short cuts. John Allen can tell them that.
— Michael Moynihan
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