MIKE O’BRIEN doesn’t normally do interviews, notoriously gun-shy when it comes to facing any kind of microphone, so when you get a call from him saying he wants to talk, you know that this is an upset individual.
“I’m bulling,” said the Glenroe farmer. It’s not a raging anger but it’s deep, has been building for some time, and now it needs ventilating.
Mike was one of the infamous 12 who were cut by Limerick senior hurling manager Justin McCarthy back in October 2009, but that isn’t what has him so exercised now. It isn’t even the fact that after 12 years service with the county he wasn’t given the courtesy of a phone call.
It was an interview given shortly after that cull in which McCarthy made several statements suggesting that ill-discipline and a lack of commitment was behind his decision. It’s all that has happened since then, culminating in the vote at a special county board meeting last Tuesday night in which an overwhelming majority of delegates – including the delegate from O’Brien’s own club, Glenroe – voted their support for the manager.
“Since 1998, when I was called on to the panel by Eamonn Cregan, I’ve travelled into Limerick three or four times a week, 30 miles there, 30 miles back, and to be honest, that’s all I ever wanted to do. Once I got on to that panel, nothing else mattered – farming, my social life, all came behind hurling.
“Glenroe is a small place on the edge of south Limerick, only about 300 people, and I’m the first ever from this club to play senior hurling championship with Limerick; that’s a huge honour for me, and I’ve always felt that, I take great pride in that.
“Often the milking-machine might be going late into the night, to accommodate a match in the afternoon or early evening – that was never a problem, that’s what I wanted to do.
“But, when your time is up, your time is up. I’m 32 years of age and if Justin McCarthy felt I was no longer of any use to him, if he had picked up the phone and told me ‘You’re not in my plans for 2010’, I would have had no problem with that, none whatsoever. It was only a matter of common courtesy; any time I wasn’t able to make training – and that wasn’t very often, I can tell you – I’d pick up the phone and contact Justin.
“To pick up your local paper then and read that you were dropped because of disciplinary problems – I never wanted any kind of praise for anything I did, I did it because I wanted to do it, but I don’t want to read that kind of stuff in the paper either, people who don’t know me getting that impression.
“That I found really hard to take, and still do. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I travel 30 miles into training, 30 miles home again afterwards, often got home at nearly midnight. Many an evening I had to leave my father here to finish the cows for me, a man in his late 70s, so I could rush in to training.
“I prepared for every championship game like it was my last, and even in the league I had the same attitude. There was never any messing, I always prepared to the letter of the law – no-one can tell me that my preparation was ever less than 100%.”
WHAT about everyone else though – did the same apply to them? “I’ve heard the rumours, and it’s bullshit. We never lost a championship match because of drinking, we lost because we weren’t good enough on the day.
“I wouldn’t have tolerated it anyway; I’m travelling in and out from Glenroe, an hour in, an hour out; I don’t drink, I look after myself – wouldn’t I be some fool if I tolerated fellas around me acting the goat? I’d have to look at my own commitment if that was going on, but it wasn’t.
“In fact, during the year, and on many occasions, Justin McCarthy told us we were one of the best teams to train that he ever trained, that we were a pleasure to train – then he comes out and says this. It doesn’t add up. There was no more drinking going on in Limerick than any other county, probably less than a lot of them.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s far too much focus on the players in all of this, and not enough on the manager, nor the county board. Ask yourself this – how many Limerick players went well last year? If three or four students fail their exams from a class of 30, you might blame the students, but if all 30 fail, who do you blame?
“And yet, after losing to Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final by 24 points, Justin was never called in by the board and asked to explain what had gone wrong. Instead, he cuts 12 guys from the panel, without a phone call, with an inference that it was because of a lack of discipline, and again he’s not asked for an explanation.
“Among the players he cuts are some of the best players in the county, with no readymade replacements lined up – how can that be right? Where’s the sense in that? Liam Lenihan is chairman of the county board, the man in charge, the top dog; how could he preside over all this? Why did he never bring in Justin after that defeat against Tipperary? Why wasn’t Justin told – ‘Look, Limerick is a proud hurling county but to be beaten in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final by 24 points, to concede six goals, that’s not good enough.’
“But there was nothing made of it, the chairman of our county board never once challenged the manager to come up with answers – all the blame fell on the players.”
Which brings us to Tuesday night’s board meeting, the vote for McCarthy: “Don’t talk to me,” O’Brien replies. “When the first vote (of confidence) was taken (last December), Glenroe voted against Justin – there are two of us involved from the club, myself and Stephen Walsh, who was one of those who walked away after the way we were cut.
“Four hammerings later in the league, things gone from bad to worse, and the club voted for Justin – I’m still trying to get my head around that. I’m not bitter about it, this is still my club and a lot of very good people in it, but how could they do that to Stephen Walsh and myself? Didn’t they know that by voting for Justin on Tuesday they were saying they agreed with what he had done?
“Then again, I know a few of those who voted for Justin in the club and put it this way – they won’t be on The Sunday Game as hurling analysts any time soon. When your own club won’t support you, though, it’s hard to see why any other club should. I had some great times with the hurlers and the footballers, don’t regret a minute of it, but it’s a pity it ends like this.”
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