Stephen McDonagh grew up in one of the few houses in Limerick where an All-Ireland minor medal sat proudly on the mantelpiece.
Moreover, McDonagh grew up in one of the few houses in Limerick where an All-Ireland minor medal had been secured at Croke Park.
The county’s underage roll of honour is far from littered with tales of September glory, four U21 crowns added to three minor titles the sum total of their endeavours.
A Limerick shirt last stood over the Irish Press Cup in 1984, but, given the decider was played in Semple Stadium to mark the GAA’s centenary celebrations, one has to trawl back to 1958 to locate the last Limerick team to achieve All-Ireland minor glory at Jones Road.
Galway provided the opposition that afternoon with Limerick emerging winners by 5-8 to 3-10. Claughaun’s Pat Murphy and Sean Hayes of Cappamore were the scoring heroes, pilfering 2-1 apiece.
At right corner-back was St Patrick’s John McDonagh, Stephen’s late father. And so when Brian Ryan put in the phone call last October to enquire if the former Limerick hurler was interested in throwing his lot in with the minor set-up for 2014, sentiment played a strong role in McDonagh’s decision.
“When the Irish Press Cup was last given out to a Limerick young lad in Croke Park dad was corner-back. He enjoyed it sure. It is a pity he is not around but that is life,” reflects McDonagh, the holder of two Munster senior medals.
“Dad was never one to boast about his All-Ireland medal. He went about his work in a quiet way. When the opportunity did come up to get involved perhaps there was a small bit of sentiment in it. Did I think last October that we would end up in Croke Park on the first Sunday in September? I didn’t to be honest. September looked so far away at the time, my concern was Tipperary in the first round.”
The former Limerick defender wasn’t sure what to expect when joining Ryan’s backroom team, any preconceptions he may have held were fairly blown out of the water when presented with the team’s winter schedule.
“The level of preparation and professionalism involved in preparing minor teams now is something I hadn’t bargained for. It is a really professional set-up, but that is the way you have to go. Other counties are at it so we have to move with it all the time. There is no point taking the foot off the gas. We started in October with trials, training then almost immediately. We are not far off being 12 months on the go. The goal after what happened last year… there was no need to motivate them. They were self-motivated.
“We are so fortunate that we have UL. We have fantastic all-weather facilities so we were outside all the time. The lads had their gym work on top of that. Basically, these lads have been together for three nights a week since October, give or take two or three weeks. They have had colleges’ games in between. It was difficult at times to manage and balance all that, but the lads are hurling away all the time. So look, a lot of effort has been put in with the management, backroom staff and the county board. There has been excellent support from the academy too.”
McDonagh has most been impressed by the work undertaken by the underage academy in moulding the next generation of Treaty hurlers. The correct individuals have been placed at the helm, the rewards slowly being reaped, he adds.
“The same work is going on in the other counties and was going on before our academy was up and running. You’ve to take it up another level. You can always improve.”
Limerick’s journey to the final has been a testing one, the last three counties to lift the trophy – Tipperary, Galway and Waterford – slain en route to tomorrow’s decider.
Reigning champions Waterford proved most stubborn. Limerick should have overcome the Déise in the drawn Munster final encounter. They didn’t, and Waterford were poised to strike for victory in the replay when leading 0-17 to 0-15 entering the final quarter.
Stephen takes up the story.
“A couple of switches were made and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. The lads outscored Waterford 0-9 to 0-1 in the final quarter. They really, really hurled well.
“I wouldn’t like to tell you too much about what was said at half-time. There was a lot of hard words spoken. Brian and Jerry laid down the law in no uncertain terms. If they wanted to retain this they went out and performed or it was gone from them. Had we lost we would have been facing Dublin five days later and we didn’t want to go that route. They put the shoulder to the wheel in the final quarter and they hurled superbly.
“We are where we want to be, but there is no margin for error here. You have to win this. No one ever remembers the runners-up. This is a results driven business.”
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