Limerick face into this Sunday’s NHL final in good fettle.
They won last year’s All-Ireland final, famously ending a famine of almost half a century without Liam MacCarthy, and by common consent they’ve been the most impressive side in this year’s league, reaching the decider with a minimum of fuss and showing plenty of promise for the coming championship.
There are echoes of the last time Limerick picked up a league title in this year’s campaign, though the resemblances don’t all line up seamlessly.
When the Shannonsiders won the league last it was 1997, and the previous year they’d featured in the All-Ireland final as well — but this time they were on the wrong side of a tight battle, with Wexford edging them out for victory.
It’s a mark of how mentally tough that Limerick side was that they were able to reach the league decider the following year, particularly given the format — that season, the league ran in parallel with the championship itself, culminating in a league final played in October.
“The 1997 league was a good campaign, support-wise, more so than any normal league campaign,” attacker Frankie Carroll recalled for Henry Martin’s book,
“Expectations were high, but things went flat come the championship; maybe we were running on empty. A lot of players had a lot of hurling done and Tipperary beat us convincingly.”
Then-manager Tom Ryan was surprised to exit the championship, given how well the team had prepared and how they’d beaten Waterford in the first round, but “at the same time we were lucky to have the league to fall back on,” he told Martin.
You had no back door that year unless you were in the Munster final, so we were glad of the league. We had great wins.
Just like this year, they had a significant semi-final victory in Nowlan Park along the way.
“Limerick were seriously weakened — “badly depleted”, in Ryan’s words — when they went to Kilkenny to take on the home side:
“We had to go to our reserves to field a team but we had them ready because of the intensity of our preparations. Tony O’Brien, Jack Foley and Dave Hennessy came in and TJ Ryan gave an exhibition at centre-back that night.
“It was one of the best hurling matches Limerick played in the four years I was involved.
“Nicky Brennan finished his managerial career that night; the supporters booed him and the Limerick team were cheered off the field by the Kilkenny players.”
It put Limerick into a league decider against Galway, and they did well to hold out the Connacht men in a tough encounter, 1-12 to 1-9. Mike Galligan got the vital Limerick goal, and Gary Kirby duly collected the trophy.
A national title wasn’t enough to save Tom Ryan as manager, however — the Ballybrown man, who had steered Limerick to two All-Ireland finals in 1994 and 1996, was gone for the 1998 season.
The incumbent, John Kiely, surely doesn’t have to worry about a similar prospect for the 2020 campaign.