Limerick are well familiar with this fork in the road.
Come Sunday evening, John Kiely’s troops will either be looking at a ninth consecutive campaign in the league’s second tier or a return to the top table for the first time since 2010.
In 2012, ‘13, ‘14’, ‘15 and ‘16, the Limerick hurlers placed second in the race for promotion. They’re fed up spending each spring off-broadway. Patience has worn thin on the ground.
A second All-Ireland U21 title in three years, allied to the roles played by Gearoid Hegarty, Sean Finn, Tom Morrissey, and Barry Murphy in UL’s Fitzgibbon Cup final win last weekend, has heightened expectation ahead of their visit to Pearse Stadium for Sunday’s promotion decider.
“It is time to translate U21 success to senior, to try to win something,” half-back Diarmuid Byrnes said this week.
Former Kilkenny hurler Richie Power, writing in his RTÉ Sport column, sees it as imperative that Limerick’s emerging talents are exposed to Division 1A fare.
“When you look at their U21 success over the past couple of years, it’s crazy that they’re still down there.”
Crazy, indeed, considering how many times they’ve put themselves within touching distance of Division 1A status. Each time, however, they’ve tripped or been tripped up.
Then manager Justin McCarthy entered the league with a massively depleted panel.
His decision to drop 12 players in October of 2009 prompted 12 more to quit the panel. A board meeting before Christmas opted to leave McCarthy in charge, but the 70-54 vote showed the extent to which the county was split down the middle. He’d also survive a vote of no confidence halfway through the league.
By that juncture, the Treaty men were well on their way to being relegated from Division 1. Seven games, seven defeats. Their average losing margin was 12 points.
The polar opposite of the spring previous. Seven Division 2 round-robin games, seven wins.
Under the watch of new manager Donal O’Grady, Limerick subsequently overcame Clare at Cusack Park, Ennis in the Division 2 final. A swift promotion back to the top tier, or so they presumed.
In August of that year, Central Council green-lighted a restructuring of the league. Division 1, rebranded Division 1A, was downsized from eight to six teams, meaning Limerick were stuck below in Division 1B.
Said then Treaty chairman Liam Lenihan: “We won Division two this year, earned promotion and now we’re playing for the same cup. We earned the right to be in Division One and it’s in Division One where we should be.”
The first of back-to-back Division 1B final defeats.
In front of a crowd of 9,897 at the Gaelic Grounds, the hosts were well on their way to returning to the top-tier when leading Clare by 1-14 to 0-9 ten minutes into the second-half. And then, inexplicably, their challenge fell apart. The Banner notched twelve of the next 14 scores to prevail on a scoreline of 0-21 to 1-16.
Unbeaten in the round-robin phase, but then pipped at the post by Dublin in the 1B decider.
Limerick failed to convert either of their first-half goal chances and returned to the dressing-room at half-time having hit eight wides to their opponents’ none.
They still led by three entering the final quarter but were unable to hold on.
“You get what you deserve from this game and we didn’t deserve anything more,” said Limerick’s Paudie O’Brien.
The stalemate with Cork in the opening round was viewed positively. The round four draw with Offaly, not so much.
Having trailed by four points with three minutes to play, resilient Offaly hit 1-1 in the closing stages to earn a share of the spoils at O’Connor Park, Tullamore. It was the second successive spring where promotion passed Limerick by despite them going unbeaten through the round-robin phase.
Offaly, again. Having drawn with Waterford and overcome Wexford by the minimum at Wexford Park, TJ Ryan’s charges were looking good to reclaim a seat at the top table. And then Offaly came to visit. Shane Dowling was red-carded in the second minute for an off-the-ball incident, with Offaly’s run of eight points without reply midway through the second-half the decisive burst.
Come the end of spring, Limerick found themselves cast in the familiar role of Division 1B bridesmaid.
Similar to this weekend, promotion was not decided until the fifth round. As in 2012, it was Clare who scuppered their neighbours’ Division 1A bid.
At convention later in the year, Limerick chairman Oliver Mann suggested too much emphasis was being placed on shedding their Division 1B tag, with treasurer Donal Morrissey informing delegates the county’s absence from Division 1A is depriving their coffers of roughly €100k per annum.
“Our hurlers were once again pipped at the post for promotion to Division 1A. This defeat seemed to leave its mark on the team for the remainder of the year,” Mann said.
“Did we place too much emphasis on promotion and never really recover from the disappointment of the league defeat to Clare in Ennis.”
It was expected the meeting of Galway and Limerick, on the concluding weekend of round-robin games, would be the promotion decider. Instead, Limerick found themselves pretty much out of the running after week one, losing away to Wexford.
The concession of an unanswered 1-7 between the 49th and 63rd minute, which saw the hosts come from five down to lead by five approaching the finish, condemned Limerick to a first league defeat to the Model County since 2005. Manager John Kiely, though, felt the visitors had been let down by the referee Diarmuid Kirwan. Of significant frustration was Kirwan’s decision not to award David Dempsey a second-half penalty.
“David Dempsey was clean through on goal [for a second time]. The goalkeeper hacks him down so hard that he injures himself. And nothing. He should have been sent off at that stage,” Kiely remarked.
“It wasn’t just one or two decisions, it was far more than that. We attacked their 21-yard line and we were hacked down repeatedly. We got lots of frees outside their ’65, we didn’t get the ones we were looking for inside the opposition 21. It is very disappointing and not what you expect at this level.
“It was there all afternoon. It was just a disaster. It is hard to hurl with a fella on your back. It is hard enough to carry yourself without carrying someone else.”
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