Houlihan: Sunday could hurt so much

THESE are trying times for former Limerick hurling great Mike Houlihan.

For the first few months of this year there was the senior hurling panel controversy that convulsed the county and leaves Limerick with a virtually new side for tomorrow’s Munster SHC semi-final with Cork.

Then this week Richard Bruton decides it’s time for a leadership challenge against Enda Kenny and as a sitting Fine Gael councillor in Limerick, this was another fine mess Mike could have done without.

At his popular bar in his native Kilmallock this week, the latter was off the agenda – you get enough politics in sport, he reckoned, without this leaking into the sports pages.

The former, however, was very much open to discussion.

“I haven’t met any of those directly involved so I’m not sure exactly what happened, but what I do know – it should all have been put to bed much earlier.

“There should have been dialogue from the very start; if you’re dropping fellas you have to let them know, but then neither can you have ultimatums – ‘if he’s the trainer, I’m gone,’ and that sort of thing.

“Cork showed over the years with their three strikes what can be achieved with dialogue, but there was probably better leadership there. On all those occasions Cork managed to put their best team on the field for the championship – Limerick haven’t, and that’s what’s most disappointing about this.”

It started, reckons Houlihan, with the walloping by Tipperary in last year’s All-Ireland final.

“I suppose people felt they had to take action after that (manager Justin McCarthy cut 12 players, notifying just one) but why couldn’t they just have waited? Wouldn’t they let people get over the winter, then see what options they had? If they weren’t happy with what they had, couldn’t they just have ‘rested’ people, brought in the new lads for the league and see how it worked, as Davy Fitzgerald did in Waterford? Tony Browne had a five-star game against Clare after being rested for the league, Ken McGrath did well, so did the Prendergasts. Why couldn’t Limerick have done something like that, see if there was better out there before making permanent cuts?

“If we had the pool of players you’d understand it, but we haven’t.”

Whatever, the upshot is that a young and inexperienced Limerick side go into this game against Cork tomorrow as complete outsiders, without even a hint of the fuss or fanfare one would normally associate with a Limerick team in a Munster semi-final.

“I’ll be going to it,” he admitted. “But I have two young kids, Micheál and Conor, and they haven’t even started to talk about it yet. If this was a normal year they’d be asking me if I had the tickets, if everything was sorted out, but not yet this week.

“You have to capture the youth, championship is the big opportunity, but there’s absolutely no hype about this game in Limerick, which is most unusual for a Munster semi-final.”

Very little hope either, he says. “Look, Limerick are not waiting in the long grass, there’s no question that we’re going to catch Cork. First of all, who could name the Limerick team? Are fellas in their best positions? You have three players who were in the forwards against Tipperary last year, they’re backs this year, and you have to ask – have we found better forwards?

“We don’t have the players to replace those who are gone, nor do we have the leaders. I don’t think they’re going to come from this group, and it’s not their fault – it’s just not there. I can’t see us winning, and the genuine Limerick supporter, if you meet him on Sunday evening he’ll be a different person, it could hurt that much.

“If you’re beaten by only a few points you’ll be thinking of what might have happened if we’d had a full team; if it’s a hammering, you’re wondering what we’re at. People will be hoping, but there isn’t a hope in the wide earthly world.”

Pragmatic. Still, Mike has been on Limerick teams that came to Cork and won – even facing Hades, what advice does he have for this team?

“Start well, that’s critical. Contest the first ball with everything you have, be completely focused. It’s a 70-minute game but I’d be trying right through that first half to stay in the game. Fast fellas get slower, and I know big fellas don’t get smaller but the bigger they come the harder they fall. Stay with them for 35 minutes and you never know what will happen.

“We’ve had big surprises down the years, I’m sure we’ll have big surprises again before this championship is over, but honestly, and even though we wish these lads the very best of luck, I can’t see it happening here.”

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