Some day we’re going to have to stand up

STEPHEN LAVIN has a confession to make.

Amid the giddy delirium that settled over the Limerick camp after their NFL Division 4 triumph back in April, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan pointed to Lavin’s ingenuity as a key factor.

A dislocated shoulder suffered in hurling club action with Adare in March had left Lavin sidelined for their glamour Croke Park clash and restricted him to a maor uisce role. But with the game delicately poised at 1-14 apiece, Lavin felt compelled to intervene.

With Limerick awarded a ‘45 into Hill 16, Lavin raced up the Hogan Stand sideline where he implored his manager to summon young Gerald Griffins goalkeeper Brian Scanlon upfield to strike the placed ball. O’Sullivan acceded to the request and the audacious gamble was rewarded with Scanlon sweeping over a point critical to Limerick’s success. Post-match, O’Sullivan revealed there was no pre-ordained strategy on Scanlon’s outfield kicking duties and lauded Lavin’s improvisation. However, the defender wants to come clean: “It wasn’t really my idea,” he laughs. “Micheal Reidy, who I used to play with for many years, was involved with the U21s this year as a selector. He told me one night that if they ever got a ‘45, the keeper would take them. I just remembered that and said it to Mickey Ned. He agreed, off they went bringing Brian up and he hit some kick. So Reidy has to take the real credit, I just listened to him.”

After years as an impoverished football force, that Division 4 win saw Limerick football get its hands on some silverware.

“I picked up the injury in the middle of March and was hoping to get back for the league final. But it came too early. It was a killer to miss out, not so much the Croke Park factor, but to play in a league final and win some silverware would have been great. That was hard going that day. It was great for us to win a league title for the football in the county. We had our injury problems during the year, were lucky in a few games and were really poxed against Longford when they’d a goal wrongly disallowed.

“It was a pity to miss out, but you get over it. When you’ve been around the block long enough, you know it’s all about championship. If I played in the league final and didn’t play in the Munster final, I don’t know could I handle that. Then I’d be really killing myself.”

In Fraher Field three weeks ago, Lavin was restored to the starting line-up for the provincial semi-final against Waterford and offered a timely reminder of his abilities as he capped a dynamic wing-back display with two fine points. After devoting the guts of a decade to the Limerick football cause, he’s not going to pretend his faith hasn’t been tested during that time.

Lavin enrolled for senior duty in 2001, missing out by a year on the U21 team that had come up short in an All-Ireland final against Tyrone and which kick-started the revival in Limerick football. In the early years there was a novelty, expectations were low and any achievements were gratefully received. In Lavin’s debut season, Limerick exited the Munster championship satisfied that they had ran Kerry to eight points but went out the next day in the qualifiers and got hammered by Westmeath.

The following year saw them embark on a wonderful qualifier run, claiming the scalps of Cavan and Offaly before they were pipped by a point against Mayo. They entered 2003 pleased with their progress, confident they were on the cusp of something big. However they ran into Kerry for the following two years in Munster finals and were left crushed by the disappointments.

“That was big for us at the time to be involved in Munster finals,” recalls Lavin. “I think what started it was in 2003 we had a great run in the league and Liam Kearns really instilled great belief in us. We trained our backsides off, and it was savage hard. We put in such a big effort but just couldn’t get past Kerry.”

Then the cast changed. Kearns moved on and a good number of the squad bowed out of the inter-county game. There was an inevitable hiatus and Lavin grimaces at the memories of bad beatings against Kerry in 2005 and Cork in 2006. The tweaking applied by the Munster Council to their senior football championship structure for a couple of seasons was not a help either. The bountiful optimism that an open draw can engender was killed stone dead by the return of the ghastly seeded system.

“That was rubbish,” blasts Lavin. “It was absolutely ridiculous. That was plainly singling out the weaker teams and not giving them any chance.

“At least now you’ve something to play for, this draw gives everyone a chance. It was ridiculous and I’m just glad they changed it back.”

For the past two Octobers the draw drum has been kind. The Old Firm stationed on one side and Limerick the other. Doubtless, it’s helped them advance to Munster finals but the anguish has remained with last July in Páirc Ui Chaoimh the nadir. One hundred and 14 years of wait prolonged.

Lavin has remained upbeat though and has fervently continued to search for success. He has always hurled with Adare and has picked up three county senior medals since 2007, but that run was tainted when they let a Munster club title slip away against De La Salle in December 2008.

“We just threw that away. Fair play to De La Salle, they did well to come back. But we just handed it to them on a platter. You get over it after a while, it’s galling and you’re devastated straight after. But you move on. You have to.”

That’s the principle he lives by as a Limerick footballer. He dabbled with the county hurlers in 2008 but by his own admission the pace and standards of intercounty level got the better of him, and reckoned he was better served with the footballers.

Next Sunday in Killarney offers the prize that Lavin and Limerick crave and the prospect of colliding with the pre-eminent football force excites him. Limerick have been choking on moral victories over the past decade and Lavin is steadfast in his belief that they need to shred that reputation.

“We get clapped on the back a lot but that’s our own fault. People do appreciate the effort you put in and clap you on the back. But some day we’re going to have to stand up. Be it in a qualifier game or a Munster final against Kerry. Maybe afterwards they won’t be clapping us on the back, they’ll be applauding us. That’s up to us. Kerry are the best team in Ireland by a mile. Sure they showed that against Cork, a team who had hammered everybody in the league and were All-Ireland favourites. Kerry can lose any amount of players and they’ll always have the replacements there.

“It’s the biggest challenge ever. We’re minnows, there’s no tradition in Limerick football. We’ve around 1,000 loyal followers and we’re heading down to Killarney to play the All-Ireland champions. We’ve had all our defeats and our bad days, but you keep coming back because you love playing the game and love being involved. For a few years we didn’t think we’d get back to a Munster final, so I appreciate it all the more now. I can’t wait for it. We’re going to give it everything and let the chips fall where they may.”

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