Conor Hayes questions if this is the Limerick hurlers’ last chance at All Ireland hurling glory, as their window of opportunity begins to close.
In football, the undisputed kings of heartbreak and despair are Mayo. To make seven All-Ireland in twenty- five years is an extraordinary achievement in itself, to lose them all is pretty astonishing too. The dubious honour in hurling though, is a more tricky one to dispense. It should be said that first of all the champions must be, like Mayo, good but agonisingly not good enough.
It’s what we can call the ‘it’s not the despair but the hope that kills’ rule. The county too must also have a long running All-Ireland drought, again like Mayo.
Waterford seem to fit the bill in the ancient game, they haven’t brought home the Liam McCarthy since 1959 while producing at least one great team and some excellent hurlers over the decades. It is tempting to go for the Deise, but the title probably belongs to Limerick.
While the Treatymen’s drought is actually fourteen years less than Waterford standing at a measly 41 years they have been to five finals since their last triumph in comparison to Waterford’s two. Indeed, two of those final losses in 1994 and 1996 to Offaly and Wexford respectively were quite possibly two of the most inexplicable All-Ireland defeats suffered by any team, in any code, ever.
In 1994 as favourites, they led Offaly with five minutes left by five points but conceded two goals in a minute and ended up losing by six. Two years later, again as favourites, they lost to a Wexford side who played most of the game with fourteen men.
There’s the fact too that even Alistair Campbell would suffer a nervous breakdown if he had to deal with the politics on the Limerick County Board. I can picture him after a day cowering in the corner of the office muttering over and over again that he’d rather deal with a hundred Gordon Brown’s than spend another day here. Divisions within the county which rear their ugly head after a painful defeat or a managerial appointment are par for the course.
Last year as Munster champions they went to Croke Park in the All-Ireland semi final and froze. In the most open All-Ireland of this century Limerick beat themselves before Clare had the chance to. John Allen’s resignation soon followed and a farcical joint-managership began under Donal O’Grady and T.J.Ryan.
That, though, didn’t last long and O’Grady left only weeks before the championship after a spat with the board following a poor league campaign. It appeared Limerick’s opportunity had gone, mediocrity hindered by more mismanagement beckoned.
And yet, here Limerick are. Days away from another All-Ireland semi final that scarcely seemed achievable back in May. Ryan’s inexperience has shown at times but his team has proven themselves more than one hit wonders in Munster by beating Tipperary in Thurles for the first time since that All-Ireland winning year of 1973. The challenge is to prove they can do it in Croke Park after last year’s no show.
Counties like Limerick seem to have fleeting windows of opportunity to win the championship, maybe as little as once in a decade. In the 90’s they had a generous window and blew it. They made one final in the first decade of this century but came up against the greatest team there ever was. Now after it seemed liked they had frittered away a real opening in 2013, they have a second chance. They may not get another one.
When the ages of the Limerick players are examined that seems an outlandish statement, only the captain O’Grady is nearing retirement. But so often in sport, teams and individuals miss their moment and talk of a next time only to find it never came. In hurling, the Waterford team of John Mullane, Dan Shanahan and Tony Browne come to mind.
Colin Montgomerie never got to win his major. Newcastle in 1995/96 had their chance for a title while ending a long trophy drought. At one stage, twelve points ahead, they finished second and have never got that close again. In the NFL during the early 1990’s the Buffalo Bills contrived to lose four Super Bowls in a row, they haven’t been back to the big show since.
Any Limerick supporter reading the interview at the weekend in The Sunday Times with Andrew O’Shaughnessy will understand how ultimately fragile opportunities in life and sport are. The corner forward had to retire from inter-county at twenty-six after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He described how after 2007 people said ‘there’s always next year.’ In 2008 they exited the championship to Offaly with the boos and jeers of their own supporters ringing in their ears.
It’s not just fatalism which points to a closing window for Limerick. Having watched Clare’s Under 21s last week against Cork one still gets the impression, despite this year’s debacle, that they are the team of the future. Cork too are knocking on the door with the potential for growth, Tipperary will always produce some of the country’s most skillful hurlers and Kilkenny are Kilkenny.
Seeing as three teams listed there are still in this year’s All-Ireland series can this be considered a realistic shot for Limerick at all? The short answer is yes, they have beaten Tipp in both 2013 and 2014 and they were closer to Cork than many pundits seem to acknowledge in the Munster final this year while besting them last year. They have no such recent comfort against Kilkenny but they face a team who are long in the tooth, we may find out on Sunday if they are too long.
Unlike last year, Limerick to end the famine will have to beat two of hurling’s superpowers but also unlike twelve months ago the fact that they are even here at all playing for the big prize is a cause for comfort. Falling to this Kilkenny team, who are ageing, but still the greatest there ever was would be no shame. As long as Limerick don’t get stage fright and perform near to the level they are capable of, there will be little recrimination. That brings a comfort to a team with a reputation for being susceptible to the horrid GAA disease of ‘hype’.
Then comes the question of what will happen if Limerick do come to the party? Kilkenny have beaten Offaly, Galway and Dublin to get here, a relatively uninspiring list given how each side limply slid out of the championship. It can be said with some certainty that if Limerick perform to their potential then the black and amber will have to produce a level of performance they haven’t shown in either the 2014 or the 2013 editions of the competition. They might well be capable of it but perhaps for the first time in what seems like forever Kilkenny too have something to prove entering an All-Ireland semi final.
After last year’s upheaval it feels perverse for the counter-revolution to have already begun with a traditional Kilkenny vs. Cork/Tipperary final in a month’s time. If any county were to ‘deserve’ a Liam McCarthy than Limerick are worthy candidates, neither of these things, of course, will be of any concern to Kilkenny.
It might be Shefflin and Cody’s last chance. It may or may not be this Limerick’s team last opportunity. We can never know. But one universal sporting truth we can all accept is the best time to win it all, is always, right now.
Conor Hayes, Pundit Arena.