Not long after the final whistle had sounded on the 2015 All-Ireland U21 final, victorious Limerick manager John Kiely - the schoolteacher coming out in him - prescribed a fairly strong dose of reality.
“People need to get real,” said the Limerick boss, stressing their 16-point mauling of Wexford was no guarantee of senior success in the coming years.
“There is a long way between an U21 All-Ireland and a senior All-Ireland,” he claimed, “people need to give these guys and the people who will be over them time to manage them, develop them, allow them to get into the gym for three to four years to put on the necessary conditioning you require to take on Kilkenny and Galway.”
TJ Ryan handed senior debuts to several of these players the following year, but a rather uninspiring championship campaign chiseled away at the belief that U21 success would propel Limerick closer to hurling’s summit.
Ryan stepped down last July, Kiely stepping up. Their Liam MacCarthy fortunes, though, improved not an iota this summer. Expectation further dampened.
And then arrived the Munster U21 championship. Its timing couldn’t have been better. The ideal pick-me-up for a county craving silverware. Tipperary trimmed by 11 points, Clare swatted aside with 13 to spare little over a week after the seniors had exited stage left. Just what the doctor ordered.
The downside to a second Munster U21 title in three years is that expectation has again soared. Understandable, mind, in a county which hasn’t been visited by Liam MacCarthy in 44 years. Patience, as you can imagine (well, not if you’re from Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork) is thin on the ground. And similar to the U21 class of 2015, Pat Donnelly’s charges are being looked upon as a group of players who could play a significant part in ending the county’s All-Ireland famine.
“There is a huge appetite for success in Limerick. You can see the emotion in Wexford when they are going well. Limerick are very similar,” says U21 manager Pat Donnelly.
“1973 is a long time and that is what we are looking back at in Limerick. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, we can break the hoodoo that’s there. That is what Limerick people are craving. U21 is a stepping stone towards that. People in Limerick would like this to be the start of something. The same as two years ago. Everyone wants us to continue on an upward graph.”
In recent times, the graphs of both Limerick and Waterford, at underage level, anyway, have moved in tandem. Both counties contested the 2013 and 2014 Munster minor finals. Limerick edged both. Waterford won the 2013 minor All-Ireland, Limerick contesting the decider, unsuccessfully at that, the following September. The Treaty County, as noted above, took ownership of the All-Ireland U21 crown in 2015, with Waterford succeeding them in 2016.
Pat Donnelly sees no reason why Limerick can’t follow in their path at senior level. “Over the last four years at minor level, it has been touch and go between Waterford and Limerick. During that period, Waterford have won an All-Ireland minor and U21. Now, they are in the senior decider too. Why should Limerick be any different? Why can’t they go on and do it? They are probably the county Limerick are looking at, thinking, ‘we’ve been as good as them, if not better, over the last few years so why can’t we do the same thing’.
“That is the dream for Limerick, to do what Waterford are after doing in the last five years. Hopefully, Limerick can go on and do that in the next year or two. It is just about taking every step as it comes. I keep saying the upward curve is there. Our lads have Fitzgibbon Cups, Munster minor, and U21 medals. When you are looking at the match program on All-Ireland senior final day, you see the player profiles and a lot of the players involved have this collection of medals. Our Limerick lads are going that way. Within a couple of years, I think they could add the big one.”
Short-term focus involves dispensing with Galway this evening and Donnelly is confident their preparation has mitigated against a repeat of 2011; Limerick won a storming Munster U21 final after extra-time, got slightly carried away in the weeks subsequent to the win over Cork and fell to 14-man Galway in the semi-final.
“I was a selector in that management so I have to hold my hand up too. Maybe, we didn’t handle it as well as we could. That was a huge lesson for me. The period between the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final is crucial and I don’t think we handled it that well back then.”
And again, their opponents are coming in cold and without a competitive fixture under their belts. “I don’t think the system is right. That they come straight into an All-Ireland semi-final is not their fault. But it is not good for hurling that a team can win an All-Ireland having played just two games, whereas we need to win three to reach a semi-final. I would rather be going in with three games behind us than going in cold. We have three games behind us. We should have no fears.”
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