As Stephen Lavin looked around at his teammates before last Saturday’s All-Ireland qualifier against Waterford in the Gaelic Grounds, only Tommy Stack, Johnny McCarthy and Stephen Kelly had been with him for those Munster deciders in 2003 and 2004.
The face of football in the county has changed. Yet those newcomers, like the Fr Casey’s duo John Riordan and Mike Sheehan, have helped propel Limerick forward and their displays have not gone unnoticed by Lavin.
“They’ve one quality that I’d take over any skilful player,” he said.
“That’s their honesty. They want to play, they want to give it their best. They want to do the county proud and show that football is alive and well. People can write us off all they want but we don’t care. We’ve got a bunch of lads in there who are working away honestly and it’s really great to be playing them.”
The positive vibes engulfing the squad are in sharp contrast to the mood that pervaded in the football pockets in the county at the start of last month. Limerick have prided themselves on running Kerry close in recent years but they crashed to a heavy defeat in this season’s semi-final. It has been a difficult campaign with the squad’s resources placed under serious strain as players switched allegiances to the county hurlers.
“Everyone was writing us off after the match against Kerry saying ‘we were no good at all’,” reflected Lavin. “I don’t know do people realise how many players that we’re actually missing. We’re training with a panel of at the most 21 or 22, if we’re lucky. We’ve so many lads with niggles and knocks, so we don’t get a whole pile of game situations in training.
“But what’s the point in worrying about that? It’s like worrying if you’re sitting on a rocket. It’s going to get you nowhere.
“I’ve said it before, we’re not going to use all the player losses as an excuse. All we want to do is just keep on doing our job. Now we’re in the exact same position that we were last year, in round four of the qualifiers and with just half of that team. It’s real bonus territory for us.”
Their latest success over Waterford last Saturday arrived on a difficult night for football, yet still represented an important step in Limerick’s development.
“It was a completely different game weather wise and the way we were coming into it,” outlined Lavin.
“We were coming from the long grass against Offaly the week before when no one gave us a shout after they’d beaten Monaghan. Whereas last Saturday, everyone had us down as the favourites against Waterford.
“We started off like a train but they figured out our tactics and we seem to be struggling at the moment when teams figure out our tactics. But we pulled it out of the fire in the end.”
Limerick’s nerves were frayed towards the end as Waterford pounded their rearguard. The Déise defence also managed to nullify the threat of Limerick’s danger men Ger Collins and Ian Ryan. Yet they displayed the key composure at the finish even if Lavin felt that was one ingredient missing from his own game. “Well I can’t say I showed composure,” he laughed.
“I was getting the ball 40 yards out and ballooning it wide. But when we had the extra man after they had a man sent-off, we started building it better.
“When the chips were down, we started claiming breaks again and winning breaking ball before using it well.
“The two O’Gormans inside were brilliant for Waterford, they’d make any team in the country. But look it was just great to win.
“We’re looking forward to facing Wexford now, we played them earlier on in the year in the league but they’re playing absolutely brilliant at the moment in fairness to them. But we’re just going to try to do ourselves proud, do Limerick proud and go out to enjoy it.”
TOMORROW’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals draw live on RTÉ will comprise two bowls, one with the four provincial champions, the other featuring four Round 4 qualifier winners.
As provincial champions cannot meet the teams they beat in the respective finals, Kerry cannot face Cork. Likewise, Dublin cannot face Wexford. Teams who have met earlier in the provincial championships other than the final can meet again. Venues and dates will be decided Monday.
All games are likely to take place in Croke Park, three next weekend and the one featuring Roscommon being played as the curtain-raiser to Kilkenny’s SHC semi-final.
The semi-finals are predetermined. Mayo or the qualifier who beats them will face either Kerry or their quarter-final opponents on August 21. Dublin or the qualifier team who beat them will face Donegal or their quarter-final pairing.