Good people have powered the rise of Limerick football 

Limerick football is now in an entirely different place. Why and how has this happened, and what can others learn from it?
Good people have powered the rise of Limerick football 

30 April 2022; Brian Donovan of Limerick, 11, celebrates with teammates after their victory in the penalty shoot-out of the Munster GAA Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final match between Clare and Limerick at Cusack Park in Ennis, Clare. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

When Limerick travelled to Thurles to face Tipperary in the 2019 Munster Championship, they did so off the back of a league campaign which had seen them finish seventh in Division 4, having won just two games (against London and Waterford). 

There are well documented issues with players not wanting to commit and a near calamity before the 2018 clash with Clare when manager Billy Lee threatened to forfeit after a player had not been included on the matchday panel registered with Croke Park. They hadn’t won a championship game since victory over Antrim in the qualifiers in 2016, and so it seemed unlikely that the record would change on that day.

However, change it did, and though they progressed no further in the championship, that seven-point victory seems to mark a key point in the development of this Limerick team. It stopped a losing run and by the time the same sides met in the following year’s championship, Limerick had topped Division 4 and comprehensively beaten Waterford in championship. They looked to be on course for another victory until Conor Sweeney’s incredible free from the sideline rescued Tipp, who prevailed in extra time and went on to win the Munster Championship. 

Fast forward another two years and Limerick have secured another league promotion. They were only denied last year after losing out to Derry by four points (and we have all seen what Derry have done since) but completed the job this spring. So, facing for Thurles this weekend, it’s fair to say that Limerick football is in an entirely different place to last time. Why and how has this happened, and what can others learn from it?

I spoke to people close to Limerick football this week, and each of them suggested that the physical development of the players is one of the primary reasons for their improvement. They certainly appeared well matched against Clare, and we have been fortunate to have Rob Mulcahy in the county for a few years now whose work in that area is second to none. Rob helped me make physical improvements, particularly in speed and power, that I didn’t think were possible. 

The ability of each of Limerick’s backs to repeat high-speed efforts in carrying out the ball was particularly noticeable. Barry Fitzpatrick and Paudie Kissane laid the foundations of that physical development when Lee first became manager but the appointment of Adrian O’Brien built the walls. By all accounts he is very well liked by the players and having experienced his coaching myself with Ballyea last year, I can understand why. 

Adrian is the type of coach who will ask how you are and be genuinely interested in the answer. He listens and connects. He has an incredible understanding of the human body but he’s no sets and reps man. He dedicated significant time with us to explaining the reasoning behind his methods through the analogy of building a car from scratch – exercises that might otherwise have seemed pointless were suddenly an important part of the assembly process. As Simon Sinek describes in his book Start with Why, people buy why you do something, not what you do - they are far more likely to buy in when they understand and can relate to the ‘why’ before looking at how and what to do. Any programme is only as good as the investment it gets from players and Adrian has gotten these Limerick players to do the work required to develop physically, and has guided them expertly. Their off-seasons haven’t been spent with feet up.

I think Adrian himself would be the first to say that such investment from players is unlikely to happen without the right culture and this appears to be another area where Limerick have developed. For starters, it seems these Limerick footballers are treated as people first, footballers second. Those I spoke to this week suggested that Billy Lee is not necessarily a manager who will be very active on the training ground, but he will have his arm around a guy’s shoulder, a quiet word in the ear. He will know how they’re getting on in their personal lives. This has sometimes meant that players have stepped away, but the result is that you only have players who really want to be there – there are no energy drainers. 

Even at the beginning of this year, Lee announced that Brian Fanning would not be committing due to work commitments, and yet he returned, and did so impressively. Lee often references the need to enjoy what they are doing. Many managers say that, but Limerick appear to be achieving it. 

When former player Séanie Buckley spoke to John Fogarty of this parish before Limerick’s league final this year, he referenced how enjoyable he found the year he played under Billy and how noticeable the buzz was around Limerick’s training this year, even in the weeks after defeat. 

On top of this, there now seems to be a real focus on constant improvement. This was something Colm Collins developed really well with us in Clare and Limerick seem to be doing likewise. The job is never done. You can enjoy the journey but there is always something which can be improved. When the culture is strong, people will challenge each other to keep getting better.

And so, the root of the tree – the people involved. Adrian O’ Brien and Billy Lee are two key figures, but the addition of Maurice Horan as coach this year has surely added to the work of Brian Begley before him. He must have a feeling of unfinished business with Limerick, considering how close he came to leading them to a Munster title as manager and coming off his experience with Mike Quirke in Laois, Horan has a wealth of experience to draw on which can only be of benefit. The impression in Limerick is that he has certainly added to their attacking play. 

Garrett Noonan, who is only recently retired from playing, acts as a good link between players and management. Noonan is a secondary-school deputy principal and must have good leadership skills to offer. The core group of players – Seán O’ Dea, Paul Maher, Iain Corbett, Darragh Treacy, Cillian Fahy, Josh Ryan, Peter Nash and captain Donal O’ Sullivan - have several years’ experience under their belts now and always seemed (when I played against them) like solid characters, coachable guys, and they likely set the tone. Add to that the likes of Hugh and Robbie Bourke returning in recent years and Brian Donovan making his mark, and you now find that Limerick have their healthiest looking panel in years, even with the likes of Danny Neville and Tommie Childs departing this year. They used their substitutes very well against Clare and didn’t appear weaker for it. They are filling the bus with good people and better people make better players.

The final point that I would make regarding this Limerick development is that they were given time. It wasn’t an overnight success. Billy Lee was originally part of the committee supposed to select a manager but ended up taking the job himself. One former Limerick player remarked to me this week that he was the perfect manager at the time because nobody else would have stuck around during his early years, such were the difficulties. Things didn’t change instantly, but Lee and his team had time to work things out, figure out what worked best for them, develop physically, farm that culture and get the right people on board. In inter-county football, sometimes time is all that’s needed, but it’s rare nowadays that people have the patience to give it.

And so, things look good for Limerick football. But here comes the test. Now people are talking about them. Now there’s expectation. Now their own standards have gone up. And all that brings its own challenges. Can they keep improving? Is there a supply line coming to replace these players? Their academy, under the stewardship of Paul Kinnerk, hasn’t supplied this current crop but may do so in the coming years. Everything looks rosy when you’re winning, but what will happen if they meet a sticky patch? If the people involved are so critical to their current success, what will happen if they decide to move on? 

These are the bigger questions facing Limerick football but for Billy Lee and his group, only Tipperary this weekend will be on their minds. Limerick looked powerful when Clare conceded the kickout, but less so when forced longer. I expect Tipp to force that issue more and how Limerick adapt to that will likely determine the result. Naturally, only a win will count as success for them this weekend but whatever happens, Limerick football is on the rise.

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