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Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE Cian Sheehan of Newcastle West pictured ahead of the AIB Munster Club SFC final.
# High hopes
New county boss in from Mayo, cruciate setback in USA, and shedding the soft townies tag
It will be a tough but exciting start to life in Division 2 of the National Football League for Limerick with games against All-Ireland semi-finalists Derry and Dublin first up under new manager Ray Dempsey.

LIMERICK ALL-STAR NOMINEE Cian Sheehan says the impressive backroom team new county manager Ray Dempsey has assembled gives him huge hope for their 2023 campaign.

It will be a tough but exciting start to life in Division 2 of the National Football League with games against All-Ireland semi-finalists Derry (away) and Dublin (at home in the Gaelic Grounds) first up in the provisional schedule.

Dempsey, who was in the shake-up for the role of Mayo manager before signing up for the Limerick cause, will be assisted by Kerry All-Ireland winner Anthony Maher, who has coached Adare in recent years. Maher will be joined by former Limerick player Eoin Joy and fellow Kerry native Mark Fitzgerald, who has been with Kingdom minor sides.

There is another Mayo influence in the management team with Kiltane’s Martin Barrett a selector while John Chawke (Kildimo-Pallaskenry) is goalkeeping coach and Michael Downey (Feohanagh-Castlemahon) joins as a selector.

“I had great first impressions,” says Sheehan, who lines out for Newcastle West against Fitzgerald’s home club Kerins O’Rahillys in Saturday’s Munster senior club final.

“We had a meeting with the new management team and he’s put together a great team. It’d give you a lot of hope for next year.

“I’ve gone and watched a couple of trainings and they look great, standards look high, there’s a huge intensity to it, and we’ll need it coming into Division 2. I know we’ve had a good season last season but I think we really need to up our game to make a mark on Division 2.”

Sheehan described how he fell out of love with football following a cruciate injury sustained when living in America. He moved back to get surgery on his knee and just as he was coming back into Limerick contention, Covid hit; time he used to further built his fitness.

“I took a break from football for a while but I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back and play inter-county one more time.

“I fell out of love with the game for a small bit but following the cruciate, to be honest, I’ve just become obsessed with football. It wasn’t like that when I was younger, being on county panels.

“I’ve applied myself a lot better, more mature, more tactically aware, physically I’ve built on that, so I’m in a place now where I haven’t enjoyed football as much before.

“I can come on a lot from last year. I still feel there’s massive scope physically and technically so I’m looking forward to pushing on in that regard as well. Hopefully, next year will be another improvement.”

He credits outgoing Limerick manager and fellow Newcastle West clubman Billy Lee, brother of current club manager Jimmy, with helping him find that lost love of football.

“Billy has had a huge impact on my career. When I came back to Ireland and got surgery for my cruciate, a couple of months later Billy rang me and asked would I come back into the squad and just be a part of it, get involved, chat to the lads, do your rehab in conjunction with the lads doing training. That definitely helped.

“Billy will go down in history as having a huge impact on Limerick football. He’s trained so many teams and you’ll find it very hard to get a bad word about him. Billy’s a great lad and it shows what he’s done over the last couple of years with Limerick.”

Sheehan’s switch to half-back with the county was credited with helping him to land an All-Star nomination this year. Funny then that he says he started off the 2022 club campaign in the half-back line but after some indifferent performances, he was pushed back up to the half-forwards.

“I kind of play my own game. I’ve a freedom to be able to do so. The whole thing is to try and get involved with as much of the ball as possible, and try and dictate the play, and try and become a little bit creative.

“Inter-county wise, I really enjoy playing half-back but I suppose it all depends on the game plan, how the team is playing, what way they set up.”

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Newcastle West are unique in Limerick, Sheehan says, for being managed and coached by a backroom team entirely from within the club, including former Limerick footballer Stephen Kelly. They’ve had a “culture shift” and he credits Kelly with helping them shed the tag of ‘soft townies’, exemplified by their extra-time victories over Adare and Clonmel Commercials in their last two outings.

“It’s something we wouldn’t be known for in the past. We’d have been very guilty of… I suppose we’d be known as a townie team. ‘If you pin them to their collar or keep it close coming into the last stretch, they’ll probably fold.’ The last number of years, we’ve changed that and this year, it’s definitely proven.

“It’s something that Stephen Kelly would work on in training. He’d give us a scenario and tell us: ‘Last play of the game down a point’, or ‘Two minutes to play, we’re down four points. What are we gonna do as an attacking team?’ Then we’ll try and work through it. It’s improved our decision making and we’re just getting more and more used to it.”

They’re up against a team in Kerins O’Rahillys that manager William Harmon has described as “a country club in the town”. Having fallen to their crosstown rivals Austin Stacks in last year’s Munster campaign, Sheehan has learned some “tough lessons”.

“Physically, they were much bigger, much stronger, much fitter than us. That was something we definitely called out afterwards that we needed to improve on and it’s up to every individual to do that in the off-season and in-season. It took us the whole first half to realise that we can actually run and try and play our own game instead of just kind of hide back and leave them run at us.”

There was a “weight on our shoulders”, Sheehan says, coming into the game against 2015 Munster champions Clonmel, who Newcastle West had all but beaten in their quarter-final that year before a late comeback. This year’s game wasn’t revenge so much as relief.

“We know we have the ability to win these Munster championship games but knowing that and actually doing it are two different things. There’s no real weight of expectation going onto us from the outside coming into the final on Saturday. Internally, we’ll have a weight of expectation and hopefully, we show up and we actually show what we can actually do on the day.”

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