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'He makes it look so easy' - Limerick's brightest hurling star and his road to greatness

In a year of Limerick dominance, Cian Lynch stood out as the best hurler in the country.

ON ALL-IRELAND final day last August, Gary Kirby sat in Croke Park with his daughter Jane, watching as Limerick’s display of hurling majesty unfolded.

cian lynch Limerick's hurling star Cian Lynch. Source: The42

They could have taken their pick of aspects of Limerick’s play that impressed them or individuals that rose to prominence on the biggest day.

By half-time there was 3-18 posted on the board, by full-time Limerick had careered away from Cork by 16 points and emphasised how superior they were to everyone else in 2021.

And yet Kirby found himself drawn to one player, his Patrickswell club-mate Cian Lynch a magnet for close attention.

“He was right in front of me in the first half. He was exceptional. The things he done, the way he laid the ball on and just passed the ball to the boys. The amazing thing about Cian is when he plays in the half-forward line, next you suddenly see him back in the half-back line with the ball. He gets around the pitch at ease, which is a great sign of a player.

“I was with my daughter at the match and I was just saying, ‘Look, that’s Cian again. That’s Cian again. Cian’s involved in that again.’

“He was just awesome.”

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On an afternoon of Limerick stars, Lynch shone the brightest. In the scoring stakes he contributed 0-6. In the creativity department he provided the assists for 2-5.

It was a solo showing of perfection, a display that underlined why he would later be voted by his peers as Hurler of the Year in mid-December.

And this modern great could have been lost to hurling.

Another sporting path beckoned in his teens, two years spent being ferried on the road between Limerick and Dublin as he lined out for St Kevin’s Boys, a soccer club with a
reputation for cultivating promising youngsters and reaping a rich crop for the professional game.

Lynch’s team-mates included Jack Byrne, back anchoring the Shamrock Rovers challenge now, and Aaron Byrne, who is in the Dublin football ranks. There was also Eoghan Stokes, who moved to Leeds, and Alex O’Hanlon, who joined Liverpool. It was a team bursting at the seams with talent.

StKevinsBoys Cian Lynch (front, second right) with Jack Byrne alongside him. Source: St Kevins Boys

“He was big into soccer,” recalls Niall Crowe, a teacher in Ardscoil Rís and a hurling coach of Lynch at schools level.

“I think it was the week before the White Cup final (Munster U15 hurling) in 2011, we were playing the Limerick U15s in a hurling challenge. He rather sheepishly came to me and said, ‘Listen I’ve a big soccer match up in Dublin.’

“Sure I said if he was committed to that, no problem. I think especially with kids at that age, it’s very important that they get a flavour for all sports.

“Ultimately the nature of all sports is you’ll have to make a call at some stage in terms of priorities, when you hit 16 or 17.”

“From the day we saw him up in the field in Patrickswell, you could see that he was always going to make it,” says Kirby.

“He had that talent. I suppose the big question mark was, was he going to stay with hurling or was he going to go to soccer at the time.

“He was involved in Dublin and the question mark was what way was he going to go?

“Thankfully he went the hurling side of it.”

That gratitude will be shared by all connections in the Limerick hurling community.

Look at him now. This year Lynch collected his fifth All-Ireland medal in Limerick colours, three senior to go with a pair from U21 days. He was an automatic selection for his third All-Star award.

The Hurler of the Year honour was his second after the 2018 exploits and elevates him alongside Henry Shefflin as the only players to have won that more than once, since the GAA launched the scheme in 1995. Factor in the Texaco award for the best hurler in the land before it, and only Brian Whelehan and Brian Corcoran were two-time winners.

That is the company Lynch now comfortably rests alongside.

pwc-all-stars-2021 2021 Hurler of the Year Cian Lynch. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

***

They knew about him in Ardscoil Rís before he first stepped inside the doors as a student in the autumn of 2009.

Being Ciarán Carey’s nephew afforded Cian Lynch a certain status; if that resulted in a spike in the expectations surrounding his output on a hurling pitch, he quickly went about meeting them.

“At the time we had Natal O’Grady from Patrickswell helping out with teams in the school,” says Derek Larkin, a Tullamore native and Ardscoil Rís teacher with a long-running involvement in the school’s hurling operations.

“He knew Cian and would have known this guy was a really good talent coming up.

“We have a primary school blitz that we run in the school because we have Clare and Limerick schools feeding in. We set it up maybe 13, 14 years ago, Our GAA Future Leaders in 5th year run it at the moment for us.

“So we would have come across Cian playing for Patrickswell National School in 6th class. They won it that year and he was player of the tournament by a long shot. An exceptional talent.”

hurling blitz 190 (1) Seamus Hickey presents Cian Lynch with the trophy at the Ardscoil Rís 6th class hurling blitz. Source: Derek Larkin - Ardscoil Rís

Lynch ticked every hurling box at second level in Munster – a champion in the Rice Cup in 2010, the White Cup in 2011 and culminating in the Dr Harty Cup, his second success, as captain in 2014, with Mike Casey the vice-captain.

Crowe, a native of Ennistymon in Clare, was on the sideline steering those teams through the years, and different moments jump out in capturing Lynch’s hurling genius

“There was a number of us involved in those teams and he just had that x-factor that people like in any sport.

“He played in a lot of different positions. That 2010 Rice Cup final, we played Dungarvan CBS and Patrick Curran was centre-forward for them. I remember talking to his mother Valerie afterwards, we’d played him centre-back, and she was saying it was great to see him playing a different position, that he’d never really played in the backs.”

A year later Ardscoil faced into a White Cup final and decided to stick Lynch in the full-forward line alongside Aaron Gillane, with De La Salle stationing their dangermen Dessie Hutchinson and Peter Hogan close to goal.

“We beat Blackwater in the semi-final and Cian played midfield,” recalls Crowe.

“I just remember saying to the lad that was over the team with me, Pat Tobin from Waterford, on the way home on the bus that we’d throw Cian in full-forward in the final.

“He got six points from play in the first half and was absolutely majestic.

“I remember doing a bleep test for that U15 team. His feet were so good, he’d actually hit the line as the bleep was going. Just the balance he had in terms of his movement, it’s one of the qualities that makes him a very special player.”

Cian Lynch 1 (1) Cian Lynch rises high in action for Ardscoil Rís.

By that stage he was getting set for his Junior Cert exams but his talent compelled the coaches to test him at the highest level where their team was spearheaded by Declan Hannon and Shane Dowling.

“We brought Cian on to that Harty Cup panel as a third year student,” outlines Larkin.

“They were very few guys in third year that are able to play Harty Cup, from a physical point of view apart from anything else. You could just see it with him. No different than how he plays now, he’s always on the ball, always does the right thing with it.

“Brilliant feet, brilliant vision, you name it, he had it and still has. Just these outrageous skills as well. The way he played back then is the way he plays now, with a smile on his face. People say he plays like he’s on the playground, but he just has an enjoyment for it and it’s just a joy to watch him play.”

harty team pic 2011 007

He was still juggling soccer responsibilities at the time and Larkin was conscious not to overload Lynch’s schedule.

“When we brought him onto the Harty panel first in 2011, he was travelling up and down to Dublin at that stage.

“So from our point of view, we just made allowances, not going to over-train this guy. He is travelling, he is tired and all the rest. We brought him on as part of the panel and trained him whenever we could just to keep him a part of it.

“But you could see after a while that hurling was going to be number one. I would have no doubt he could have made it as a serious soccer player. He’s the type of fella who could try any sport and he’s going to excel at it.”

***

They don’t lack homegrown hurling heroes in Patrickswell.

Reel off the names of their All-Star winners – Bennis, Foley, Enright, Kirby, Carey and Murray – before the modern trio of heavyweights came along to eclipse them all with their string of All-Ireland successes.

Diarmaid Byrnes, Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane are the pillars of their club team, impacting in alternate sectors of the pitch. They have been fixed components of Limerick’s three Liam MacCarthy Cup wins and now have seven All-Stars between them.

Lynch has nudged ahead of his two compatriots with three of those personal awards, bringing him level in the club’s standing with Leonard Enright and his uncle Ciarán, just one shy of the mark set by Gary Kirby.

“They’re three massive players for us,” says Kirby of the current Patrickswell crew.

cian-lynch-celebrates-with-his-team Cian Lynch celebrates with the Patrickswell team after the 2019 Limerick senior final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’ve seen it above, watching them in training, it’s the younger guys the boys would go and talk to. If they see something, they’ll explain it, they’ll go through things with them.

“When they’re doing their warm-ups, they don’t do their warm-up together, they do it with someone else in the squad, which is great to see.”

When Patrickswell won the Limerick county final in 2016 after a 13-year wait, a notable barren spell for a club of their stature, Kirby was the manager.

gary-kirby Gary Kirby. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He’s since watched them claim that title again in 2019 and reach this year’s final in October where they lost out to Kilmallock.

His sons Patrick and John are now flying the family hurling flag. Last December, Patrick was part of the Limerick U20 panel and John started in midfield in a Munster minor final victory.

“Both Patrick and John would say the boys would come over to them, they’d be encouraging them. They’ll take the heat off them, Cian and Aaron would throw the ball out to the two boys. Diarmaid is very good to them as well.

“You see their commitment and that commitment comes to the club as well. They drive on from there.”

Lynch exploded into view on the inter-county senior stage in 2015, slinging over a trio of points from play as Limerick overcame Clare.

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He was fresh out of the minor ranks but there were a couple of seasons where he needed to find his feet.

After a 2016 loss to Tipperary, former Limerick goalkeeper Joe Quaid spoke of seeing Lynch ‘visibly upset’ after receiving verbal abuse from a spectator after the game.

Quaid made the point in that same interview that Lynch’s running game wasn’t being properly utilised by Limerick as he lacked support runners.

It was an aspect of play Kirby also noticed.

“When he started out with the Limerick seniors first, he was probably doing things too fast for people around him. But I think everyone else now has adapted to the way Cian plays.

“There’s a great understanding, people make runs now knowing that Cian knows where to find them. His vision is just exceptional. He’s looking to try things. Whether it’s high or low, it doesn’t make a difference to Cian what way the ball comes.

“He’s the ball in his hand before anyone even knows what he’s done. He’s just so natural,  he makes it look so easy.”

That staggering level of skill was best encapsulated in that All-Ireland final performance against Cork.

He popped over a point after 11 seconds, then spent the rest of the half prising apart the Cork defence for colleagues, like the two passes that set Gearoid Hegarty off on runs that yielded goals.

Then in the second half Lynch floated around the attack to devastating effect as he clipped over five points.

cian-lynch-celebrates-scoring-a-point Cian Lynch celebrates scoring a point for Limerick against Cork Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Where are the flaws really with him?” wonders Larkin.

“He has this skill, everything from sublime to ridiculous. Brilliant vision, not show off, not cocky about it. Just this is the way he plays.

“I’d say there isn’t a kid in the country that doesn’t try to emulate him at some stage with the pick ups that he can do with the ball.”

***

Off the pitch, Lynch makes as big an impression.

At his alma mater on the North Circular Road in Limerick, he’s returned for a different role recently.

“He was in with us before Christmas doing his teaching practice and he’s coming back into us. He’s in second year in Galway doing his PME, teaching Religion and Geography,” says Larkin.

“You couldn’t get a better role model for kids. A great positive fella around the school. This kind of infectious personality, endearing to everyone from staff to students. I wouldn’t say there’s a student or a staff member would ever would have a bad word to say about Cian. 

“Same as those Limerick lads now that are very successful, never aloof, no airs or graces about them, really grounded fella. What you see now is what you get. Just good-natured, good family values, good person.”

DSC_1732 Past students of Ardscoil Rís, who were part of Limerick's 2018 success.

“In 2014, I taught him History for his Leaving Cert,” remembers Crowe.

“You get to know him that little bit better. Anytime I’ve asked him to come in to talk to first years, it’s no problem whatsoever. It’s just the sincerity and the poise that he has. People are always very impressed when they see him being interviewed on television and that’s just the way he is. There’s no great show or palaver with him, that’s who he is.

“What I like about him is the way that he speaks, that’s the way he would speak to you if you were having a conversation with him inside in the staff room. I always just found a great sense of modesty about everything that he has achieved. He’s almost like that little boy that you coached before in first or second year. He’s just modest, he’s almost kind of embarrassed that people are gushing in their praise of him.

“He comes from a great family and he’s just a credit to everyone.”

In Patrickswell they witness that mix of good character and sublime hurling skill as well.

“Without a doubt, he’s very down to earth,” says Kirby.

“He’s very good around the village, he’s very good with the kids in the club. It’s not always about Cian, he knows it’s a team game and that’s what makes him what it is. He’s come along with a great crop of players, which is a huge help for him.

“I suppose we’re spoiled here to be honest with you. We see Cian playing every year with the club, even above in training sessions, we see the stuff he does in training. People nearly pay to go to see what he does. He’s just an exceptional talent but he’s down to earth with that talent. He’s not in your face, he’s not above everybody else, he’s only one of the lads, which makes him that extra special.”

Lynch turns 26 next Monday, a new hurling season is about to swing into view and his influence shows no sign of waning.

How much further can he go?

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