Had Pat Donnelly not been on the bench the last time a Limerick minor hurler lifted the Irish Press Cup, he probably wouldn’t be standing on the sideline tomorrow.
Donnelly was a sub in 1984 when Anthony O’Riordan captained the Treaty County to their first All-Ireland minor win in 26 years.
Kilkenny and themselves finished the level the first day, with Limerick edging a low-scoring replay – 2-5 to 2-4 it finished - in Thurles. The present Limerick boss saw game-time during their semi-final win, but was unused in either of the Kilkenny games.
“I didn’t appreciate the medal,” admits Donnelly ahead of the county’s latest bid for minor glory.
“I felt back then it was a 15-man game more so than a squad game. Everything, I felt, was based on 15. It was a small squad, there was only 24 of us. When you are young, you don’t appreciate being a sub. You always want to be playing. I got a minute or two in the semi-final against the Ulster champions. That was it.”
Gary Kirby, Anthony Carmody, Pa Carey and Ger Hegarty were the mainstays of Phil Bennis’ team. Leo O’Connor was another in and out of that side and he approached Pat early in 2009 after being appointed county U21 manager. Donnelly came in as a selector, served three years and when that management went their separate ways at the end of 2011, Donnelly joined the newly formed underage academy. First the U14’s, then the U15’s, 16’s and 17’s. And now he heads up the minors.
“I didn’t feel as connected to that minor group back then, but the passing of time changes that. You come to appreciate the medal and the friendships after all the years of remembering it. You just have a connection and that is what winning does. You are connected to fellas, regardless. I met Brian Stapleton last year in UL and I wouldn’t have seen him for 20 years. Leo [O’Connor] knew me from ’84 and that’s how I got involved with a Limerick team. Pat Davoren was involved with the U15’s a couple of years back. He was there too in ’84.”
It is now 32 years since young Anthony O’Riordan lifted the Irish Press Cup in Semple Stadium. They’re not far off bridging that gap, mind.
A Limerick team has contested each of the last four Munster finals, while Donnelly’s crop are the second Limerick side in three years to reach September. The underage academy spearheaded by Joe McKenna five years ago is working. The players who will emerge from underneath the Cusack Stand not long after 1pm tomorrow are evidence of this.
The class of 2016 wasn’t earmarked for greatness. They weren’t even fancied to come out of Munster. They had no Cian Lynch, no Ronan Lynch, no Tom Morrissey.
All the same, there aren’t too many surprised that the Treaty County are back in the decider. Above all else, this academy has fostered a change of attitude amongst its students and a change in how other counties now view Limerick.
“It is almost expected that Limerick will feature in the minor shake-up and that can only be a good thing,” continues Donnelly.
“I imagine the other counties, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, the respect is there with regard to Limerick. Before, they were thinking, ‘ah, easy enough’. They have to think twice now. Limerick is competitive every year. That is the whole ethos of the academy that you are competitive and are always pushing for a place in finals.
“Getting to Croke Park is always the ultimate goal. The structures that are in place are very professional. Tony McCoy made a point in his book that all he had to do was sit on most of Martin Pipe’s horses and they’d win. If the structures are there, it is a matter of guiding the players over each hurdle. That’s what we are trying to do here.”
There are other benefits to the academy. There was that well told story early in the year of the Cork football management having to make umpteen phone calls most Tuesday mornings to secure a pitch for training that evening. They put an end to that nonsense five years ago in Limerick.
“Not having to go look for a pitch or making phone calls when the weather is bad early in the year takes the pressure off. UL is there for us every Saturday morning and that provides peace of mind. The people involved in the team know this is in place and so, they can focus their energy on other issues.”
Tomorrow. Tipperary. That Munster final. 1-24 to 0-10 the final scoreline. Redemption? Revenge? Atonement?
“There is no revenge. Tipperary didn’t do anything to us. We did it to ourselves. We have five matches played this year; four wins and one no-show. It is an awful thing to say that it was a no-show. It was a Munster final and we didn’t show. We want to atone for not performing. Our goal is to perform on All-Ireland final day.”
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