Limerick’s emotional All-Ireland final win last year was commemorated in a terrific publication — the book
At Last, by Ciaran Crowe and Joe Lyons, the two men behind The Green And White Magazine.
In the book Crowe and Lyons spoke to players and management at length and in detail about the 2018 season, and it’s a treasure trove of insight at every level. For instance, manager John Kiely and coach Paul Kinnerk have been the subject of huge interest in the hurling world: What do they do, exactly? How did they turn Limerick around? How do they interact with the players? There are plenty of examples to feast upon in this book.
Kiely’s leadership skills, for instance, may have overshadowed his work on the training field when it comes to improving players technically. Diarmaid Byrnes testified to the latter in At Last: “I remember one training session when John Kiely took me aside, he laid down a couple of balls 10 or 15 yards apart in a straight line. He said, ‘Go on along there, pick it, drop it, pick it, drop it, pick it, drop it.‘
“It was like being at U10s training again. You see, I was going to the ball too fast and I was worried about who I was going to give it to before I had the ball in my hand. John reminded me it was one step at a time, ball in hand first, then go. It was a thing of benefit to me.”
Kinnerk has already developed a huge reputation for his technical focus, but Limerick players also welcomed his encouragement away from the practice field. Barry O’Connell found it “a bit demoralising” not to make the matchday 26, but “Paul Kinnerk said to me ‘you’re doing nothing wrong, just keep doing what you’re doing, keep plugging away, your chance will come’”.
Kiely’s man-management skills are in evidence throughout the interviews, particularly in encouraging players and picking out what individuals need to realise their potential.
“He spoke to me around Christmas last year,” said Colin Ryan. “He saw that I was a small bit shy, maybe, and he said, ‘just leave yourself go, don’t hold back.’ That was a big thing for me, especially coming into the senior panel. It helped my confidence. I think I grew from that and training got more enjoyable after that; you weren’t holding back, you just getting stuck in.”
Kiely instilled self-belief in others as well. Aaron Gillane, whose accuracy from dead balls proved so crucial to Limerick all through the year, remembered getting that job: “John has a few quiet words for everybody, one or two small things here and there... from the very start of the year John put a lot of trust in me, especially when he gave me the frees for the first game. After that I had the job for the year. It gave me confidence that he was interested in me and I flourished knowing that somebody wanted me to be playing and wanted me to be on the team.”
The coach worked specifically on Gillane’s technique. “I did a good bit of work with Paul Kinnerk on my free-taking,” said Gillane.
“I even changed my style during the year because, working with Paul, I realised I hadn’t been setting myself meaningful targets to test myself. Thanks to working with him, I’m much more comfortable taking frees now.”
Kiely changed another player’s job description as well. “I was used to playing at half-forward or centre-foward,” said Cian Lynch.
“All around the place. John gave me a call at the start of the year and said, ‘I’m going to play you at midfield and see how you get on. ‘Go out and express yourself and open up and believe in your ability,’ and that comes back to what made the difference for us this year, the belief.”
The season threw up its own challenges. When Tom Condon was red-carded in the Clare game during the Munster championship it was a double blow to Limerick — a defeat and an experienced man facing suspension.
Condon had met Kiely at the start of the year about continuing to play in 2018 (“He didn’t want to hear the word retiring,” said Condon. “He said he felt we all had a part to play in the squad and he wouldn’t be saying it to us or asking us back otherwise.”)
After the Clare game, the two men met again. “We talked about that (the sending-off). We discussed it, nipped it in the bud, put it to bed, and moved on. I just got back to training. I was suspended for two games... it wasn’t just for Tom Condon or for John Kiely. It was for us. As a senior player it was important to show that and to set a good example for the younger fellas, and not throw in the towel...
“Anyway, John and I talked about it, discussed it and put it to bed and he said to me, ‘Look, get back training, get yourself back into the reckoning again for when you’re (free to play).
“Then he said to me, ‘I’ve no doubt we’ll be further down the line, we’ll get over the next two games. Just be ready for it.”
Condon was ready. In the All-Ireland final the game ended with his last-second catch.
Kinnerk helped the forwards to improve both with and without the ball — “After the league we started doing shooting practice with Paul,” said Barry O’Connell.
“My left side in particular came on a lot.”
Limerick’s workrate up front also owes a good deal to Kinnerk’s work. Graeme Mulcahy said: “My tackling has definitely improved since Paul Kinnerk came on board. He spends a lot of time on that and on trying to make us better defensively.
“The backs will tell you they love to see the fellows up front stopping the ball coming out, or slowing it down. We put a massive emphasis on tackling in the forwards, it paid dividends in the end.”
Other attackers echoed Mulcahy’s sentiments. Kevin Downes credited improvements in his hurling to Kinnerk “and everything he brings to the set-up.
“Everyone attacks together and everyone defends together. Defensive skills improved more than anything and there were big improvements in terms of movement in the forward division.
“That came about as a result of the different scenarios Paul created for training, he was great.”
Kyle Hayes’ striking improved in 2018: “Paul, in fairness, used to take me away to do striking sessions with me. If I ever had any questions, he had a good answer for me. He has made a major difference.”
When he wasn’t providing answers, Kinnerk posed questions; Seamus Hickey pointed to the “depth of detail” the coach put into the game plan.
“Paul could have asked at any stage, ‘Seamus, what’s Graeme supposed to be doing in this situation?’ And if we had just turned over the ball, I knew that Graeme would be pressing his man immediately to get a tackle in as early as possible. We all knew that.”
Kilkenny will face plenty of those situations tomorrow evening in Croke Park.