Not so the players themselves, however, and as they head into Sunday’s Munster SHC final against Cork, star defender Seamus Hickey maintains the squad never lost belief and were determined to regroup under two former Cork managers and become a serious force again.
Articulate, able and assured, Hickey outlined his own baptism of fire, breaking onto the Limerick senior hurling team in 2006 as a teenager, reaching a National League, Munster and All-Ireland final over his first two years but losing all three.
It was when it came to the repercussions from those losses and the players’ strike that followed (demanding greater professionalism in their preparation), that Hickey really hit his stride.
A stark division developed in Limerick hurling and as with all civil wars, bitter things were said. Some of the vitriol directed at the players, however, went well beyond what was acceptable, claims Hickey, the accusation of a drinking culture especially.
“I felt we were misrepresented in a couple of ways but I took massive umbrage with that. I don’t drink and I don’t mind people knowing it. I am very happy and comfortable with myself with that. But to be out on a Friday night and to be told after that ‘Seamus was out, langers’ — that sort of stuff annoys me.
“People saw you and it’s a lazy attachment that people make between you and someone else in your company. My frustration is borne by many other people who only wanted to go out and enjoy being young and enjoy being a sociable person — especially some of the Limerick lads back then, they really suffered from just being fun people.
“Some of my best friends suffered from lazy stereotyping. All they were doing was enjoying themselves. I don’t think it was ever inappropriate they were out; they were young and unfortunately they suffered like that from the outside looking in.”
They did deserve criticism, that he accepts, but not criticism of that sort, personal and inaccurate.
“Did we do everything right? No; I fully put up my hand and say that, as Limerick fellas and Limerick hurlers. Were there times when we — and I say ‘we’ because I was part of it and you have to take the collective — could have kept our heads down better? Yeah, definitely. But it’s just one of those things that definitely annoyed me, the attention that we got, the tone of the attention we got.
“What drove me on and why it didn’t swallow me up was the knowledge that we weren’t like that, the knowledge that there was something good in Limerick the whole time. I fully believed that all the way through and I still believe.”
In Limerick hurling, there is massive potential, a new generation of players just like himself — strong, speedy, skilful, utterly dedicated and determined to succeed.
That Cork now bar their way to a Munster title is slightly ironic, given that Seamus credits a pair of Corkmen, Donal O’Grady and now John Allen, with bringing the level of professionalism to their game that they so craved when they went on strike.
“We just happened to have two of the best coaches in the game. Would I credit them solely with it? No. Could we have done it without them as fast? No, I don’t think so. Our house was put in order rapidly in 2011 (O’Grady’s only year in charge).
“We were given a structure and an awareness of the work involved and the attitude and commitment expected of us by a top class inter-county manager. There was no catch-up. It was now-or-never — ‘you’re not going to be around long enough to impress me if you don’t impress me now.’
“The progression of the team in 2011 was staggering because we had a number of young lads mixed with a few experienced lads; it was the blend of the two and how it was managed so well. Donal was perfect for us at the time. We needed direction, I felt, we needed structure and we needed discipline, without it coming across as a dictatorship. A foundation of behaviour, work-rate and intelligent hurling.
“That’s what he encouraged, intelligent hurling. Ball in your hand, look up, as opposed to ball in your hand, take your steps immediately. John has completely taken what Donal has done and ran with it, 100%.
“He obviously knows from previous experience (Allen had also followed O’Grady as Cork manager, a few years earlier) what we’ve been coached and how we’ve been trained to think and to approach things.
“He took that and gave us more of a say in the way it went, because we were now a bit more knowledgeable — John gave us the reins. It’s ironic, but I’ve never been more excited at the end of a year than I was last year.
“Disappointed at the two moral victories (championship losses to Tipperary and Kilkenny) that we’re already harping on about that we don’t want, and we don’t — they’re useless.
“But talking to a number of lads after the Kilkenny game, I just wanted to train, I just wanted to get back into the saddle for this year. I was nothing but positive and I could see nothing but good things on the horizon.”
He had every reason to feel excited after that Kilkenny loss. They had the All-Ireland champions on the ropes in an outstanding first-half display and were it not for two against-the-tide goals by Henry Shefflin, might well have won that game.
Forty years since Limerick’s last All-Ireland title, could it be that their time is coming?
“Time is cyclical and these things come around. The worries and the cries for change when things weren’t going right, I understand them but you give things time to work themselves out. No team is immortal, no team stays at the top forever. And no team will stay at the bottom forever.”