Making an All-Ireland final was a long way down John Kiely’s to-do list when he was appointed Limerick U21 boss last winter.
After all, the county hadn’t won a championship game at this grade since a titanic extra-time final win over Cork back in August, 2011.
From last year’s starting team, there were just five survivors. Neighbours Tipperary, backboned by a handful of players from Eamon O’Shea’s senior squad, provided semi-final opposition and if their four-year losing streak was overcome, the reward was a final showing against either three-in-a-row champions Clare or a star-studded Waterford outfit.
No, an All-Ireland final, much less winning the championship outright, was never thought of.
“I didn’t see this happening, to be honest,” Kiely admits. “From the moment the draw was made and you see Tipperary and you know the calibre of players Tipperary had at underage, (we faced a massive task). We went to Fitzgibbon Cup matches in early springtime and all these guys were playing very well for their colleges. We knew Tipperary was on a bit of a march at senior level too. You get on with the job then of putting a team together and even putting a backroom team together was a bit of a challenge.
“People thought we needed to get this down on paper from the word go and from the very first day. Even in the later spring, there were still elements being put together. I wanted time to think myself. The lads themselves needed time to think. Gradually, piece by piece, it came together.
“With regard to the players, we had never worked with these players and we are not involved in any of their clubs. We had to start from scratch, literally. Even just getting to know the lads and getting to know them on first-name terms, watching their hurling, what colour helmet they wear and what side they hurl from; everything had to be put together from the outset. I never thought we would see where we are this week.”
If the desired destination is reached on Saturday evening and the steps of the Ryan Stand climbed at Wexford’s expense, Limerick’s fifth All-Ireland crown will have been made all the sweeter by the road travelled – Tipperary, Clare and Galway overcome en route to the decider.
“It has been a hard route, but it has been an enjoyable route as well. We played Clare, Waterford and Cork in challenges before we played Tipperary in the championship.
“We started to gather form and momentum during these three games as we hadn’t won many of our challenges up to then. That was important for the confidence. We are still here and we are still standing. It has been really enjoyable to get to know the players.
“It is only when you get into the championship campaign that you get to know each other properly because it is really intense stuff. You are together three times a week. When you are not at training you are talking or emailing or watching videos. I have got to know a lot of people I didn’t know 12-months ago.”
Having had no involvement with either the successful minor teams of 2013 and 2014 or the county’s underage academy, Kiely, senior selector to John Allen in 2011 and 2012, was able to approach the U21 set-up with a fresh outlook and cast an eye outside the box to see if players had been overlooked, forgotten or lost. In his search, he located Limerick footballer Gearoid Hegarty.
“We saw him in the trials. He had something to offer. He did that playing at centre and full-forward in the trials. We brought him in for a challenge game against Sixmilebridge at Na Piarsaigh. If anyone had been there that night and I know a few were, they wouldn’t have left with any inclination that the Limerick U21 team were going to be successful. We played particularly badly.
“Gearoid was at half-forward and it didn’t happen for him. When he came back a few weeks later, we said let’s try something different. Playing in the forwards, you have to be really sharp and your touch has to be really crisp.
“Wing-back is always viewed by people involved in the game as one of the easier positions to slot into. Given his strength and height, we said maybe he could do a job for us in the air. So far, so good.”
Kiely added: “It is a great privilege to be involved in a final. I have been involved in some finals and not come out the right side of them, it is not an enjoyable place to be. We have to have ourselves right on the day.”
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