Brian Cody was offering John Kiely a few congratulatory words when an elderly gentleman cut in and planted a sizeable kiss on the latter’s cheek.
No sooner had Cody left his side that the Limerick manager was swept away in a sea of green. It was in and around 3.40pm when James McGrath called a halt to this pulsating All-Ireland quarter-final. It was 4.24pm when full-forward Seamus Flanagan, having obliged the last of the hangers-on, finally reached the mouth of the tunnel and disappeared back into the winning dressing-room.
The celebrations which played out in between were reminiscent of what unfolded on this very pitch following the county’s All-Ireland U21 final victories of recent years. And it was the same players who yesterday gave Limerick hurling people further reason to believe. It may be 45 years since Éamonn Grimes climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive Liam MacCarthy, but at least it is no longer 45 years since they beat Kilkenny in a championship fixture.
The next gap which requires bridging is the 11 years since the county’s last All-Ireland final appearance. They may already have held Cork to a draw this summer, a notable result when you consider the Shannonsiders played with a man less for three-quarters of an hour. But that was Páirc Uí Chaoimh in early June. Croke Park in late July is an altogether different challenge and don’t forget the vast majority of this Limerick outfit have never played a championship fixture at GAA HQ.
Eleven of the team put out by Kiely were part of either the 2015 or 2017 U21 selections. Four of the starting six forwards — Kyle Hayes, Tom Morrissey, Aaron Gillane, and Seamus Flanagan — won an All-Ireland U21 medal no less than 10 months ago. Here, they contributed 0-13 between them.
The Limerick attack, in total, managed 0-17 from play. For Kilkenny, the figure was 1-6, a marginal improvement on recent weeks.
Having led 0-15 to 0-12 at the break, Limerick were under the cosh for the opening 20 minutes of the second half. It was as if, for a time, they expected this win to fall into their lap. Kilkenny, mind you, weren’t doing much to dispel this theory, registering seven wides within 11 minutes of the restart.
Successive white flags from Hegarty, Hayes, and Gillane nudged the Treatymen into a 0-18 to 0-13 lead. Gillane’s was a goalbound effort which Eoin Murphy tipped over the crossbar. It was one of four outstanding saves made by the Glenmore custodian. He’d later repel a Seamus Flanagan groundstroke after the full-forward dropped the sliotar at the crucial moment.
By this juncture, Cody’s troops had the margin back to two, 0-20 to 0-18. Richie Leahy, not long on the field, already had 0-2 beside his name.
Replacements on either side were to have significant influence on this contest, watched by 18,596, with Leahy and fellow sub John Donnelly cancelling out a superb Darragh O’Donovan sideline cut and a point from Limerick sub Peter Casey.
Behind by the minimum on 64 minutes, 0-22 to 0-21, Kilkenny struck for home when Donnelly fed Hogan — the 29-year old making just his second start of the season — and the four-time All-Star rifled a shot past Nickie Quaid.
There was to be no panic from Limerick, though, no ruing of those earlier missed goal chances, no outrageous shots from distances were tried. For such a young bunch, they were remarkably composed, displayed remarkable self-belief.
Tom Morrissey, Casey, and Shane Dowling each split the posts and within the blink of an eye, they were back in front. Donnelly fed Leahy for his fourth, the sides level as we headed for three minutes of injury-time.
This was anyone’s game now, both managers cajoling their players to eke out that one last ounce of energy and effort. All notions of sports science and processes had long since been forgotten and abandoned.
Thirty-four seconds into the red, Tom Morrissey received a pass from Mike Casey and set off on a solo run down the Ryan Stand side of the field. For company, briefly, he had James Maher. The Kilkenny midfielder was burnt off before last year’s U21 winning captain sent supporters clad in green into delirium. Gillane, with his second free, booked their train ticket for Dublin on July 29.
Their finish couldn’t have been more removed from their start, Limerick nervous and hesitant in possession as they set out their stall to reach a first semi-final since 2014 in a not so convincing fashion.
Hogan helped himself to three from play as the beaten Leinster finalists were 0-7 to 0-3 clear inside 16 minutes. From there to the break, however, the Cats were outscored by 0-12 to 0-5. Dan Morrissey produced a masterclass in fielding, Graeme Mulcahy led Paul Murphy on a merry dance, while Darragh O’Donovan thundered into proceedings at midfield.
Eoin Murphy kept out a spectacular Gillane kick and a Gearoid Hegarty bullet, but Limerick never stopped coming.
They are not finished yet. Actually, scratch that. They’re only getting started.
Scorers for Limerick: A Gillane (0-5, 0-2 frees); T Morrissey (0-4); G Mulcahy, K Hayes, D O’Donovan (0-1 sc), G Hegarty (0-3 each); P Casey (0-2); S Dowling, S Flanagan, D Byrnes, D Hannon (0-1).
Scorers for Kilkenny: TJ Reid (0-7, 0-5 frees, 0-1 ‘65); R Hogan (1-3); R Leahy (0-4); J Maher (0-3); C Fennelly (0-2); L Blanchfield, C Fogarty, J Donnelly (0-1).
LIMERICK: N Quaid; M Casey, S Finn, R English; D Byrnes, D Hannon, D Morrissey; D O’Donovan, C Lynch; G Hegarty, K Hayes, T Morrissey; A Gillane, S Flanagan, G Mulcahy.
Subs: P Casey for Flanagan, S Dowling for Hegarty (both 59); W O’Donoghue for O’Donovan (63).
KILKENNY: E Murphy; P Murphy, P Walsh, P Deegan; J Holden, C Buckley, R Lennon; C Fogarty, J Maher; M Keoghan, R Hogan, P Lyng; B Ryan, TJ Reid, C Fennelly.
Subs: L Blanchfield for Lyng (34); R Leahy for Keoghan (45); J Donnelly for Fennelly (62); G Aylward for Ryan (71).
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).