He knew he wasn’t right even as the season started to wind down, so Declan Hannon scheduled his operation for the dead days of the year when there’d be no games to miss.
His recuperation didn’t go too well, though.
“Before Christmas I had an operation on my ankle, there was floating bone there that had to be cleared out,” he says.
“It was straightforward enough as a procedure, but when I got back on the field I tore my groin in a training match, which set me back again.
“I’m fine now, everything’s fine but obviously missing games didn’t help me getting back into it this year.”
It didn’t help Limerick either as they tried to escape Division 1B. Hannon breathed a little league air but made it back for the championship at least. He and his team-mates weren’t fancied against Tipp, you may recall...
“Obviously you’d like a few league games, I got to play against Cork in a challenge, a few minutes against Laois, that was about it, but I got two rounds of club championship before the Tipp game, so I suppose it worked out okay time-wise.
“I suppose people were going by league form, and Tipp had a great game against Kilkenny in the league final while we hadn’t got out of 1B. From that point of view you could understand people saying, ‘Tipp will walk this’.
“Everyone knows the championship is a different kettle of fish, though. A lot of people forgot that we won Munster last year, they were ready to say it’d be Tipp and Clare in the Munster final. Lo and behold it’s Cork and Limerick again, though.”
Limerick circled the wagons and focused on themselves. Donal O’Grady’s departure as joint manager could have been a fatal distraction, but they managed to part that as well.
“We worked hard, we didn’t read too much into people writing us off – and there were plenty of people giving out in Limerick, too, though in fairness 20,000 of them came to Thurles to support us against Tipperary.
“I suppose Donal leaving did unify us a bit. In fairness, he was great for the few months he was there, and we learned a lot. Whatever happened in the background, it wouldn’t affect the players.
“The work and effort has to come from the players at the end of the day, you can’t rely on management to drive you on that extra 10 or 20%. There’s a strong bond between us anyway but yeah, it probably did unify us that little bit more.”
They were unified against Tipp, overhauling the Premier in a racing finish. That calmness in the storm is no accident.
“There’s no panic in the team,” says Hannon.
“The last few years we’ve made the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland at least every season, and last year we went a stage further, making the semi-final. Losing that game hurt us a lot and we didn’t want to feel that again.
“Going to Thurles, we didn’t fear Tipp. We’d come from four or five down last year as well to win by three, so when we were losing to them in the semi-final this year we always felt we’d get a chance – and when we did, Shane [Dowling] buried that goal and we tacked on the couple of points to make sure.
“We weren’t surprised. We expect to win every match. We think we’re good enough to win those games.”
Having been through the mill in big games last year helped with the run-in to this season’s semi-final.
“You’ll always have well-wishers — maybe there are too many at times — but they want you to do well, obviously. We’re focused on training, the talk outside of that won’t help us get ready for the Munster final.
“We didn’t feed off the crowd last year’s Munster final really, we knew there was a massive support but in the middle of the game the crowd is irrelevant.
“You wouldn’t make out the noise from them – it’s funny, but you’d hear what the management team are saying from the sideline a lot easier, despite the thousands of people roaring.
“You’ve a lot to concentrate on, making the right decisions, hearing your teammates, so the crowd noise isn’t really a factor.”
Another factor’s been removed from his equations this year. Shane Dowling has taken over the free-taking duties from Hannon.
“Shane’s an unbelievable free-taker, everyone saw that the last day against Tipperary – he didn’t have a single wide for the whole game.
“For me, everyone knows what happened last year in Croke Park. That definitely hurt my confidence a bit, and when I missed the league Shane took over the frees.
“We’re all delighted he’s going so well, I certainly am – he’s unreal. At training he hits them from all angles and distances, right over the bar. Same for Patrick Horgan, getting 2-11 against Clare. If you have a guy who’ll hit nearly everything over the bar for you it’s a huge asset, and it’s something your opponents are going to be aware of.”
That reference to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final is telling. Everything seemed to go against Limerick, including a cruciate injury for Seamus Hickey — and Hannon had an unhappy afternoon with the frees.
“It was definitely the most disheartening thing to ever happen us as a group, or to me. We didn’t get over it for weeks.
“I was kind of embarrassed even going back training with the club, because you feel you left all the lads in the club down, your family, all of that.
“But the likes of Donal O’Grady and Gavin O’Mahony would be good that way, strong characters – they’d ring or text to pick you back up ‘there’s always next year’ or whatever. But it was a bad few weeks, no doubt.
“I can’t even remember the scoreline, it was like it all just happened in front of us. We’ll learn from that as well. If we got back there this year, which hopefully we will, we’d be better for it.
“It’s different being in Croke Park, no doubt about it. Even the drive in to the stadium is a different experience to what you’re used to. Now that’s not an excuse — we didn’t lose to Clare because we weren’t used to the bus journey — but you’ve got to get used to everything that surrounds those big games, All-Ireland semi-finals and so on.
“You’d be determined not to let it slip past you so easily. You’d learn — not taking shots from the corner flag when there’s a ball to pop off to another lad, or making a run of 80 yards just to put a fella off, to pull a defender.
“Learning that, to work for each other as a team, that’s another thing you’ve to take on board.”
As he says, it’s a replay of the 2013 Munster final. Green versus red. With a summer job working for Kerry Group in Charleville Hannon is at the midpoint between the two cities. He knows the anticipation is building.
“Cork seem to have steadied up the defence since the All-Ireland final last year, Mark Ellis and Damien Cahalane were very good against Clare, Aidan Walsh and Daniel Kearney ran the show in midfield...
“Obviously we’ll look at Cork but we’ll also be looking to improve since Tipp and focusing on ourselves as well.
“Cork will go in as favourites, rightly, having beaten the All-Ireland champions, but the buzz is building up nicely, here in Charleville and at home. Looking forward to it now."
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