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'He was incredible' - The teenager that hit 1-13 in a Munster semi-final to Limerick's winning captain

It’s a decade since Declan Hannon made his senior debut for Limerick, how he is captain in a golden age for the county’s hurlers.

Declan Hannon after this year's Munster final.
Declan Hannon after this year's Munster final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IN NOVEMBER 2009, the Adare senior hurlers headed to Páirc Uí Chaoimh to square off with Newtownshandrum.

In Munster club hurling at the time, it was a heavyweight fight between two contestants that had forged formidable reputations.

Adare were fresh from completing three-in-a-row in Limerick, their fifth local senior hurling crown in nine seasons, while also having featured in the previous year’s Munster final.

Newtownshandrum had triumphed in Cork for the fourth time that decade, while also pushed on to win two Munster finals and celebrated All-Ireland glory in 2006.

The team-sheets reflected the stature of the hurling names involved – Pat Mulcahy, Ben and Jerry O’Connor, and Cathal Naughton on one side; Mark Foley, Stephen Lavin, Conor Fitzgerald, Wayne McNamara and Timmy Houlihan on the other.

In a fierce battle for supremacy, Newtownshandrum won by three points.

And for all the figures of Cork and Limerick inter-county experience, it was a teenager ten days out from his 17th birthday who eclipsed everyone else on the field.

Adare collectively scored 1-14. Their 16-year-old wing-forward Declan Hannon shot 1-13. His placed ball striking was flawless as that source yielded nine points, he swung over four from play and fired a 20-yard free to the net just before half-time.

wayne-mcnamara-and-declan-hannon-tackle-pat-mulcahy Declan Hannon (right) in action against Newtownshandrum in 2009. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He was incredible, gave an exhibition that day,” recalls Conor Fitzgerald, the former Limerick footballer and hurler, who joined Hannon in that Adare attack.

“We would have played Newtownshandrum a lot in challenge matches over the years as well, so we knew each other fairly inside out.

“Declan was next level, it was just a case of give him the ball. He was nailing everything that came into him. At that age, in a match like that, there were a lot of experienced bodies around the place, but he just held his own so well.

“You were conscious of him as a young lad. He was always tall, has filled out a lot more since, but he was a gangly enough lad then. 

“It was ridiculous when you see someone performing at that level. We always knew he was a serious operator but that really was blowing it out of the water. He was the steadiest young lad, a solid guy you want on your team all day long.”

*****

Another Limerick-Cork meeting beckons for Hannon tomorrow. Bigger stage, bigger stakes, bigger role.

He has travelled a long road from that free-scoring teenager to his current role as the experienced defensive fulcrum of an all-conquering Limerick outfit.

The captaincy position elevates Hannon further. Last December he became the 14th man to have captained multiple All-Ireland winning senior hurling sides. With modern serial winners like Kilkenny and Tipperary having rotated their captains, Hannon was the first since Anthony Daly in 1997 to hoist the Liam MacCarthy Cup into the air for a second time.

Victory on Sunday would place him on a higher pedestal, only Christy Ring has achieved that feat three times.

“It’s amazing and a sign that with this team, what a golden era it is for Limerick hurling,” says Fitzgerald.

“We spent all our lives talking about ’73, I can remember my own Mam and Dad talking, wondering would we ever win All-Irelands again. We waited 45 years and now to go for three in four years, it’s an incredible time in our lives really. We’re very lucky to be witnessing it.

“Declan has played an unbelievable role in everything, the way he’s led them. He’s just a genuine, down to earth lad. There’s no airs or graces, he’s just a lovely fella. Carries himself very well and is so well respected. It seems to be working a treat, the captaincy. When he was announced captain, he had been involved in that role with Ardscoil Rís and Mary I, it just fits and works for him.”

Hannon’s hurling career has always had a prodigious air to it. It is a decade since his senior breakthrough, entrusted by Donal O’Grady, who operates in the opposing camp tomorrow, for his championship debut.

He sat his Leaving Cert in that summer of 2011, those exam commitments ruling him out of Limerick’s Munster showdown with Waterford in June. The one-point loss Limerick suffered prompted the post-match debate as to what difference the presence of Hannon could have made?

Three weeks later he provided an answer, starting in a qualifier against Wexford and making his mark in front of an expectant Gaelic Grounds audience, with a scoring return of 0-9.

Limerick exited the championship at the hands of Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final but Hannon had produced a scintillating showing as he amassed 0-11, six of those supplied from play.

“A class act as a young lad,” recalls Fitzgerald.

conor-fitzgerald-and-pat-mulcahy Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

“He was just a natural, gifted hurler. His touch, his striking, left and right, on the run, he was beyond his years really. Everything came very naturally to him but he also worked terribly hard at it. 

“When he got into Ardscoil Rís, that kicked on. They were so successful and he was a key player in all of that. With Shane Dowling, Cian Lynch and the Caseys, they had really great lads coming through together.”

The hurling education Hannon received outside of Adare aided his cause. Those Ardscoil Rís teams were powered by his performances at centre-back for their Dr Harty Cup wins in 2010 and 2011.

That was not the only groundbreaking moment he helped create for a Limerick college. In 2016 when Mary Immaculate landed their maiden Fitzgibbon Cup crown, he struck 1-12 from full-forward to win the man-of-the-match award. That valuable contribution was instrumental in shaping success over UL in a thriller that served up 56 scores before the issue was settled after extra-time.

Those snapshots illustrated a dilemma Limerick hurling faced. Where best to play Hannon and utilise his talents?

He made his name initially on the senior inter-county scene as a wing-forward, even starting in attack in the corner for the 2015 qualifier loss to Dublin.

But when John Kiely took charge at the outset of that campaign, he invested trust in Hannon by handing him the number six jersey. After that initial season he went one step further by appointing him captain in December 2017.

Hannon has flourished with a mix of individual and team accolades arriving – two All-Ireland titles, three Munster, two National Leagues and an All-Star.

declan-hannon-celebrates-after-the-game-with-john-kiely Declan Hannon and John Kiely after the recent Munster final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He’s such a good hurler that he can play anywhere,” reckons Fitzgerald.

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“That’s really the crucial part of it. He could fit in anywhere. There isn’t too many guys you could say have that hurling ability and tactical nous. He definitely controls the game very well. His range of passing from centre-back, he’s such great vision and is so cool working the ball out of defence.”

The current good times are in stark contrast to some early struggles. In 2013, Hannon excelled with 0-17 over the course of wins against Tipperary and Cork that secured a Munster crown.

But his form nosedived in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare. He shot five wides, four from frees, as his radar was attuned incorrectly in front of goal. Those misses eroded his confidence and he was withdrawn midway through the second half. Limerick lost by seven points and after a difficult afternoon, Hannon was in the firing line when the post-mortems took place.

“What he went through with 2013, was really tough,” recalls Fitzgerald.

“We all know the public can be very hard. He has seen it all and it’s come full circle. Declan took an awful lot of stick from the free-taking side of things in Croke Park that day.

“Things didn’t go his way. That can happen to the best. People were terribly unfair and over the top completely with the reaction afterwards.

“It’s a real sign and testament to the guy that he is, the way he’s come back from it. The way he carries himself, on and off the field, is the best thing of all. He’s seen all the bad days. I think himself, Graeme and Nicky probably appreciate it a lot more.”

declan-hannon-dejected Declan Hannon after the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The revival was swift. Hannon was tearful and red-eyed after that 2013 experience against Clare.

Limerick lost at the same stage twelve months later but the Adare man had produced a towering display.

He rifled over five points from play in a gruelling battle as Kilkenny just held off Limerick by two in a Croke Park monsoon.

Hannon persevered and in his locality he is acclaimed. Fitzgerald’s family run the Woodlands House Hotel in Adare, last winter while their doors were shut, the hurling team’s progress provided a welcome source of joy.

This summer he has been able to get customers back through the doors, watched the increased scramble for match tickets with Limerick fans allowed to return to games and the widespread sense of pride in Adare that a homegrown hero is leading this golden age for the county’s hurling team.

declan-hannon-lifts-the-liam-mccarthy-cup Declan Hannon lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup after last year's final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s a different ball game altogether. To be a twice All-Ireland winning captain is incredible, for a county like Limerick especially with how much we’ve suffered over the last 50 years.

“I’m thankful now that I got an opportunity to play with him. Our careers just crossed over, it’s lovely to play with serious hurlers and footballers, to share the field with them.

“I was coming back from injury in 2009, did my collarbone and shoulder, dislocated it. When you look back on it now, it was such a privilege to have played with him.

“We know him very well, we’ve hurled with him. His own family are so embedded into the community as well.

“Having someone like Declan in the area is just brilliant.”

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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