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The Limerick footballer who became Hurler of the Year

Gearóid Hegarty’s golden season is one to savour for the St Patrick’s club who watched him grow into a star.

HegartyFinal

EARLY IN THE summer of 2015, the clock was starting to tick in the Limerick U21 hurling camp.

They were a few weeks out from a Munster semi-final against Tipperary, working with a squad backboned by classy minor hurlers fresh from winning back-to-back provincial crowns.

The hard selection calls were fast approaching but the management retained an open mind. They had spread the net wide to trawl the county in search of talent.

Gearoid Hegarty had wandered into view the previous winter. He wasn’t armed with a glittering CV, on the fringes as a minor in 2012 without ever managing to force his way into match-day squads.

He carried a greater reputation as a footballer, his services shared at the time with John Brudair’s senior squad.

The U21 management persisted but a gruelling schedule was having an impact. A spark was needed for ignition.

In a challenge match in Moneygall against Offaly, they took a punt on him at wing-back.

“He was dynamite,” recalls Jimmy Quilty, an U21 selector then.

“While he had something to offer, we were running out of time.

“He’d had a couple of trials at half-forward. It could have been fatigue or anything but he just didn’t really impress.

“He was a big unit and he’d a great engine. It was just a lack of hurling practice that was letting him down.”

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They went on to beat Tipperary in that Munster semi-final, Hegarty starting 18 days after featuring in a qualifier battle with Tyrone in Omagh when Limerick’s football ambitions for the year ended.

“It was something that worked and he ended up being part of a vintage back line.

“Hego was the late bloomer, he was the bolter.”

The summer careered away from there and ended with Hegarty depositing an All-Ireland underage medal in his pocket.

He joined the senior hurling squad the following spring and the accolades have kept flowing: last December, a second Liam MacCarthy Cup win and a man-of-the-match final performance as his flawless shooting yielded seven points; last Saturday night, a first All-Star award and the Hurler of the Year crown.

Look back at the last decade of winners of that individual honour – Fennelly, Shefflin, Kelly, Hogan, Reid, Gleeson, Canning, Lynch and Callanan. Reasonable cases can be made that all displayed bursts of youthful potential that hinted at future stardom.

But the 26-year-old from a small city club, who had two seasons as a senior footballer under his belt before he ever lined out for a Limerick hurling team in championship, and only made his Croke Park debut in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final?

It was much harder to forecast his rise.

Yet it catapulted him to the head of the hurling pack in 2020.

*****

The bloodlines are strong. Ger Hegarty won an All-Ireland minor medal with Limerick in 1984 from wing-back at the expense of Kilkenny. He followed it up in 1987 with the U21 equivalent, his input provided from midfield against Galway.

The best chance to complete the set on the senior stage came in 1994. A key architect at centre-back in placing Limerick on the cusp of victory, an eyewitness for the type of heartbreaking collapse that weighed heavy on the county’s hurling prospects in the years that followed.

ger-hegarty-limerick-hurling-1994 Ger Hegarty during the 1994 season. Source: © Tom HonanINPHO

Gearoid was just three weeks old at the time, the first child of five to arrive to Ger and his wife Majella, an Offaly native, that allegiance adding another twist to the All-Ireland outcome 27 years ago.

The Irish Independent profile pieces the day before the game captured a momentous time on and off the pitch.

Hegarty Ger Hegarty pictured with his son Gearoid before the 1994 All-Ireland hurling final. Source: Irish News Archive

Injuries wrecked Ger Hegarty’s hopes of finishing his hurling days on a golden note with Limerick. The first cruciate tear occurred in his left knee in a challenge game in 1992 against Tipperary.

That meant ‘93 was a write off, a successful comeback in ‘94 before his right knee buckled in the same grim fashion in ‘95. He managed to return to the exchanges in ‘98 but his career had been derailed in a luckless fashion by then.

Management and coaching have kept him immersed in hurling, spells with the Limerick camogie team, various club outfits and overseeing the county minors for 2009-10 where he worked with Declan Hannon, Dan Morrissey and Shane Dowling amongst others.

There are four clubs in the south inner area of Limerick city. Tightly bunched together are Old Christians, Ballinacurra Gaels, Claughaun and St Patrick’s. Ger Hegarty hurled for Old Christians based in Rathbane but set down roots nearby in Rhebogue which meant Gearoid nailed his colours to the St Patrick’s mast.

St Patrick’s won two Limerick senior hurling championships back in 1949 and 1950 but their last final outing at that level was in 1966 and last year they slipped back to the junior grade.

Their lower status means the county call is not heard as often in their locality. Gearoid’s ascension to the elite is savoured, embellished by younger brother Diarmuid having a couple of seasons in the minor ranks and winning a Munster medal with Limerick in 2019.

diarmuid-hegarty-and-liam-lynch-with-jarlath-collins Diarmuid Hegarty (left) in action for Limerick against Clare in 2019. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Dermot Phelan and John Mullane were in the Limerick football setup under Mickey Ned O’Sullivan’s stewardship.

But prior to Gearoid, the most notable breakthrough on the senior hurling front for a St Patrick’s man was Ger McMahon back in 1981, sprung from the bench in a Munster tie against Tipperary and the contributor of a point that helped fashion a draw.

Four decades on, it adds up that they would cherish the hurling riches being experienced by one of their own now.

“There was always huge potential in him but he worked at it,” says Eamonn Phelan, Limerick county board assistant secretary and lifelong St Patrick’s club member.

“I look after the field down there, cut the grass in the summertime. You’d always see Ger and Gearoid and Diarmuid, down training and pucking around with the dogs down the field.”

The barren times are easily explained. Changing demographics in Limerick saw the population in their catchment area get older and clubs on the outskirt of the city get stronger. The pool of players became shallow.

But when they discovered a diamond like Hegarty, there were plenty people willing to put work into guiding him along.

“His first coach was Diarmuid Murphy, president of our club, a former school principal in The Model in Limerick. He did massive work underage. Then from minor up, Sean Maher coached him all the way up to today.

“There’s two people that passed away the last couple of years, they were staunch supporters of Gearoid – Jack Sheehan and Paddy Quilligan. They were two genuine St Patrick’s people. To remember those two guys, they really brought on the club. Paddy used to get hurleys for Gearoid, he was a great man for that.”

As his profile has exploded due to Limerick feats, the ties to the club stay strong.

“We were in a senior relegation final in 2012 in Ballingarry against St Senan’s, a good football team from the west of Limerick,” recalls Phelan.

“It was the first time Gearoid played senior for the club, started full-forward for his height. Sure we won that and Gearoid had an outstanding game. That helped him get picked up for the Limerick footballers.”

Two years on they reached the county senior football final, Hegarty a driving force in a journey that culminated without success. They have ploughed on since without huge reward but their figurehead remains reliable.

Last September in that intermediate relegation final, Gearoid played centre-forward where he was pitted against Donal O’Grady, his current county selector and the talismanic Munster winning captain of 2013, in the Granagh-Ballingarry ranks.

St Patrick’s shot 1-14 as they lost by two points.

Gearoid hit 0-14 of that tally, ten snapped over from frees.

As his club duties wound down before county business began, he had done as much as he could to keep them afloat.

***

From another angle, Gearoid Hegarty can be viewed as the one that got away.

In January 2015 Limerick’s inspirational football midfielder John Galvin announced his retirement. The stalwart had fuelled the county’s hopes for the guts of 15 years with his rousing displays and magnetic presence.

In the search for successors in the middle of the pitch, one youngster was starting to put his hand up.

Hegarty had been drafted into the Limerick dressing-room in 2014, still a teenager. It was a season to adjust to everything around him.

“19 years of age, he was very young to be thrown into it,” recalls former Limerick footballer Seanie Buckley.

“It would have been a bit of a shock to the system. He was always very athletic and tall. That year his main role was coming off the bench. There was a big physical development by 2015, naturally, but also by working on his own strength and fitness as well. He was a starter and well established at that stage.”

The physical progression was key. Hegarty recalled in an interview last month the footballers undergoing a strength test in UL in 2014. Players were required to bench three-quarters of their body weight. He struggled with the task, the embarrassment felt more acutely by watching team-mate Garrett Noonan in front of him. It opened his eyes to the work that was needed.

“Garrett would be fairly exceptional too,” says Buckley of his Dromcollogher-Broadford club-mate.

“It was probably the biggest contrast you could find. It is surprising what lads do remember. It just goes to show that when you are new to the thing, you’re like a sponge and you are picking up what’s going on around you. To use that to light the fire inside himself speaks volumes to the type of player that Gearoid has become.”

By 2015 Hegarty was starting to hit full speed. Used off the bench or at wing-forward the previous summer — he replaced an injured Buckley to score a goal in a qualifier against London — he was now commanding a midfield spot.

In his final game at U21 level in March of that year, he formed a partnership with William O’Donoghue, a pair of future senior hurlers that provided a platform which almost enabled Limerick to take down Cork.

peter-harte-and-gearoid-hegarty Gearoid Hegarty in action against Tyrone's Peter Harte in 2015. Source: Presseye/Andrew Paton/INPHO

“The expectation levels within the group of what he could bring to the team rose come 2015,” remembers Buckley.

“He was a mainstay. Almost a go-to man at that stage. As the year went on, his standing improved definitely.

“He was well able to field ball but his biggest attribute was as a ball-carrier. He’d straighten up a defender and he’d a bit of a jink on him. He covered the ground well with his large stride.

“I remember in 2015 we did the 150 bleep test. The first thing is five metres and he’d that done in nearly one step. He was exceptionally fit.”

Soon he was no longer available.

2016 began with Hegarty playing McGrath Cup and football league but by mid-March he had made his choice. TJ Ryan handed him a senior hurling debut as a substitute in the league against Laois and that was the road he has travelled since.

“We’ve seen it before,” reflects Buckley.

“There’s a good number of lads who have gone over hurling, obviously none to the success that Gearoid has had.

“At the time you’re thinking, ‘Jesus wouldn’t it be great if he was back with us?’

“Then as time goes past after a year or two, you just wish him well and say drive on.

“That’s essentially what he’s done.”

They received fleeting reminders of his football abilities in club games or in the college arena with UL. Despite his hurling commitments, Hegarty continued to play Sigerson Cup up to 2018 alongside the likes of Kerry’s Shane Ryan, Galway’s Ian Burke and current Geelong AFL player Stefan Okunbar.

In 2017 he made the Sigerson team of the year for his displays. UL came desperately close to defeating a UCD side studded with stars like Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion in the semi-final in Bekan in Mayo. Hegarty powered through in injury-time with UL trailing by two points but rocketed in a shot that flew just the wrong side of the post.

gearoid-hegarty-misses-a-late-goal-chance-to-win-the-game Source: James Crombie/INPHO

gearoid-hegarty-dejected-after-missing-a-late-goal-chance

In 2018 he made the Fitzgibbon team of the year, winning a medal there with UL under coach Gary Kirby, an old Limerick team-mate of his father’s.

From there he has flourished, soaring to new heights last winter.

“What he did last year was absolutely crazy,” says Buckley.

“His level of accuracy is gone through the roof. The Limerick hurlers’ gain was definitely the footballers’ loss.”

******

Where did the improvement come from? Could it have been envisaged at the outset of 2020?

The brilliant Limerick hurling statistics book 20/20 Vision by Ciarán Crowe and Joe Lyons puts Hegarty’s championship scoring record at 2-23 up to the end of 2019. That’s from 17 appearances, 15 of those as a starter. In the league he had hit 4-35 across 23 games, 20 of those when he started.

There was nothing shabby about those figures. Scoring was not viewed from the outside as Hegarty’s primary role in the team. Some games he had stood out like in the league with 2-6 against Laois in 2017 and 1-5 against Waterford last March. In the championship he chipped in with a couple of points here and there.

But the 2020 level of sustained scoring excellence? It was hard to detect signs of that.

In October he struck 0-5 against Clare. Then November brought 0-2 apiece against Tipperary and Waterford, and 0-4 against Galway.

December was the crowning moment with 0-7 notched in a rematch with Waterford. Only Seamus Callanan with his 0-9 haul in 2016 has hit more points from play in a modern All-Ireland hurling final.

“His hurling has really come on in the last two or three years,” says Quilty.

“He’s a unique sort of half-forward with his intelligence and his ability to get into positions. Always being available for an out ball and ability get up and down the pitch.”

In various conversations as he has done the interview circuit in accepting awards of late, Hegarty has touched on different issues shaping his transformation.

A Maths teacher in Desmond College in Newcastlewest, he talked about the chaos of lockdown in 2020 affording him the chance to reset. He felt calmer last season, not as perturbed about small hiccups in his preparation.

A shift in Limerick’s play also helped the spike in his scoring. In 2018 they crashed home 14 goals in eight championship matches, six in their last two games alone. In 2020 they only raised three goals across five games and didn’t net in their last three matches en route to lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The focus moved to Hegarty and colleague Tom Morrissey potting points from the half-forward line, something they did with aplomb in scoring a combined 0-12 in the final. Hegarty’s smooth and effortless point-taking style on the run was a key facet of Limerick’s dominance.

gearoid-hegarty Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And perhaps much like the Liverpool team he supports, 2020 was the sporting season where Hegarty’s effort for a few years finally paid off in spectacular style.

When John Kiely became Limerick boss in September 2016, he brought U21 selector Quilty with him to the senior bigtime. Over the following two seasons the Kilfinane native got to work closely with Hegarty and since he moved on at the end of 2018, has admired his impact from a distance since.

james-ryan-and-selector-jimmy-quilty-celebrate-a-goal JImmy Quilty (left) during the 2018 All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He realised he had to make up for lost time and he did spend a lot of time honing his skills. In 2017 he was tried at full-forward and it didn’t suit him. He was almost stifled up there.

“He’s better in the open spaces. His hands are gone really slick. His ability to adapt when in difficult situations. He’s just not looking to get on the ball, he’s selfless enough in that respect.”

Hegarty’s mentality always appealed to Quilty. Back in that 2015 U21 game against Tipperary, Limerick were in a spot of bother with centre-back Barry O’Connell shown a red card and Colin O’Riordan cleaning up around the forward line as he got in for two goals at the end of the first half.

“We had tried a couple of fellas on him and he was still doing damage. So we put Hegarty on him in the end and it turned into a serious physical battle.

“Hegarty didn’t back down. It was probably the day he established himself as a potential future inter-county senior hurler. He played well hurling wise and showed he could mix it with a formidable senior opponent.”

He’s mixed it ever since. He plays in an abrasive fashion and on the edge but it pays dividends in the manner in which he dominates in attack.

“I guess the big thing has been his ability to dominate games,” says Quilty.

“He’s running at defences and he’s frightening them. He’s been consistently good.

“Nobody could have foreseen this at the start of the year either. 

“I still think he could be a fantastic wing-back but I’ve been proven wrong. He’s really become as complete a half-forward as you can get.”

*****

In September 2018 the St Patrick’s club welcomed their star back to Rhebogue and the hurling silverware they had craved to see.

“The homecoming, sure the whole city went mad,” recalls Eamonn Phelan.

“We’d a celebration down in Rhebogue, the place was packed. Four of us met him above at his house and we walked down, at the crossroads, then down to the field. The Boherbuoy band was there ready for him. They played all the way down, such a scorcher of a day and a massive turnout.”

Last December the club turned out in a different way. Their championship viewing experience had changed but if they couldn’t shout Hegarty on from the stands, settling for living rooms instead, they wanted him to know the heart of their support was still beating strong.

And so on All-Ireland final morning as Hegarty was dropped by his mother into Limerick Colbert train station, St Patrick’s supporters lined the road to cheer him.

“We were going to do it for the Munster final and we said we wouldn’t because it might be too much of a big deal for him.

“We were even talking then before the All-Ireland about should we do it? But in the end we asked his parents on the Saturday morning, would it be okay and they’d no problem.

“But he didn’t know about it at all and the amount of people that showed up. We met at eight o’clock in the car park of the club and walked up from there, then lined the road and spaced out.

“His mother knew then which way to turn out of his house to hit the crowd then.”

The cause for celebration continues, the club’s pride swelling further last weekend at the announcement they have produced the best hurler in the country.

“I was out walking with my dogs in the parish on Sunday morning and to see the amount of people wearing the green tops of St Patrick’s,” says Phelan.

“It was such a great and emotional thing for the club. The amount of calls we got over the weekend. To produce an All-Star and Hurler of the Year is unbelievable.

“One man I met there, Tim O’Connor, he’s 88 and vice-president of the club, he stopped me in the street and he was just so thrilled.

“It’s a lift for everyone.”

They’re on the hurling map now.

One man has helped put them there.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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