Limerick brought the fun back to the inter-county game while ending the famine

2018 will be remembered as a glorious year for hurling while many of Limerick’s young stars became household names.

THE LIMERICK HURLERS flew out to Mexico yesterday for their team holiday, drawing an incredible 2018 to a close. 

Gearoid Hegarty, Aaron Gillane and Dan Morrisey celebrate winning Gearoid Hegarty, Aaron Gillane and Dan Morrisey during the recent Fenway Classic. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

The two-week trip to Cancun will bring the Liam MacCarthy Cup celebrations to an end before the 2019 campaign comes sharply into focus.

With their Allianz Hurling League opener against Wexford arriving on 27 January, John Kiely’s side trained through the Christmas period – including St Stephen’s Day – and they’ll fit in a few training sessions during their holiday too. 

But as we look back on the sporting year, it’s worth reflecting on the remarkable 12 months the Treaty have enjoyed. This time last year, they were priced as seventh favourites to go all the way in 2018, behind Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny and Clare.

Despite winning two of the previous three All-Ireland U21 crowns, Limerick were thought to be a year or two away from even competing for the big prize. 

Fast-forward 12 months and they’re widely regarded to have the strongest squad in the game, with the Hurler of the Year Cian Lynch and Young Hurler of the Year Kyle Hayes in their ranks.

Aaron Gillane with Cian Lynch Aaron Gillane with Cian Lynch at the PwC All-Star Awards. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

At 22 and 20 respectively, that duo will only get better over the next six or seven years. As well as being the most talented squad, Limerick surely boast the youngest panel too with grizzled veteran Graeme Mulcahy their oldest outfield starter at just 28.

Their entire starting team were nominated for All-Stars – a rare achievement even for All-Ireland champions. Kiely’s second year in charge of the team turned Limerick’s youngsters into household names across the country.  

Aaron Gillane gave glimpses of his immense talent for Mary I in the Fitzgibbon Cup and with the U21s, but he propelled himself onto the national stage this year.

His first league campaign for the county and finished with a tally of 5-57 across seven games as they sealed promotion from Division 1B. He finished with 1-37 in the championship and developed into the sort of reliable free-taker required by any side in the mix-up for All-Irelands. 

A year after failing to appear off the bench in the U21 All-Ireland final, Seamus Flanagan became the focal point of the senior forward line and brilliantly complemented his full-forward colleagues Gillane and Mulcahy. 

Graeme Mulcahy celebrates scoring a goal with Kyle Hayes Graeme Mulcahy celebrates scoring a goal in the All-Ireland final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Mulcahy catapulted himself into the Hurler of the Year conversation by scoring an average of 3.1 points per game in the summer, including 1-2 in the final. He was held scoreless just once in the championship – against Clare – in a career-defining season for the Kilmallock man.

Hayes, the phenom from Kildimo-Pallaskenry, won man of the match after a commanding All-Ireland final at centre-forward. His 6’5″ frame sets him apart as an exceptional athlete and the four points he scored from play off Gearoid McInerney highlighted his class with the hurley.

The powerful half-forward line of Tom Morrissey-Hayes-Gearoid Hegarty were outstanding all year, not least in the landmark All-Ireland quarter-final win over Kilkenny. They clipped over 0-10 between them that afternoon to help the county to their first win over the Cats since 1973, the year of their last All-Ireland triumph. It proved a good omen for what was to come.

The most important score of that day in Semple Stadium arrived in the 65th minute from the stick of Morrissey, just seconds after Richie Hogan had rattled the back of Nickie Quaid’s net to threaten a Kilkenny comeback. Morrissey’s effort propelled Limerick to the finish line where they outscored the Cats by 0-5 to 0-1 in the closing stages.

At 29, Quaid was already a veteran but the goalkeeper saw his star reach new heights after his mesmerising semi-final block on Seamus Harnedy as the Cork forward prepared to send home a potential game-winning goal. The jaw-dropping stop went global, being listed by Sports Illustrated as its “sports highlight of the weekend.”

Two members of Quaid’s full-back line – Sean Finn and Richie English – deservedly won All-Stars and Mike Casey was unlucky not to pick up one himself after keeping Johnny Glynn under wraps in the final. 

The half-back line was backboned by brilliant skipper Declan Hannon, who only turned 26 last month. Flanked by Dan Morrissey (24) and Diarmuid Byrnes (25), they provided an outstanding attacking platform throughout the season, were dominant under the high ball and their use of possession helped set up countless scores for the forward unit.

The Lynch-Darragh O’Donovan combination at midfield worked a treat, with the latter happy to sit deep in midfield and allow the former drive forward to support the attack. At 22, Lynch is the youngster Hurler of the Year since Tony Kelly in 2013.

His post-game embrace with his mother on the Croke Park pitch shortly after the final whistle in the final provided one of the heartwarming moments of the year. Valerie Lynch later explained how she “hopped the fence” and evaded stewards to share the touching moment with her son minutes after his greatest triumph.

Cian Lynch celebrates with his mother Valerie celebrate after the game Cian Lynch celebrates with his mother Valerie after the All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Their bench packed a serious punch all year as the likes of Shane Dowling, Peter Casey, William O’Donoghue, Tom Condon, Richie McCarthy and Seamus Hickey kept the starters honest.

Dowling, in particular, proved a superb impact sub for Kiely, not least in the semi-final where he posted 1-4 against Cork. He added a crucial goal against Galway two weeks later and gave a couple of colourful interviews that provided a little insight into the dressing room. 

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t touch a drop of liquor from January ’til nearly the end of the season, none,” he said after the All-Ireland win, lifting lid on the fun Limerick had during the year.

“Now, after every championship game, we all go and enjoy ourselves, management included.

“The whole enjoyment side, which I believe was gone for the last number of years, because of how serious it went, that’s after going full circle again, and people are after buying back into the amateur, enjoyment side of it, which is very important.

“After every game, there’s chilling inside the dressing room. We’d be playing music, some lads would get up singing, some get up dancing, and that’s what I mean by the fun element and the great craic. It was brilliant to be involved with all of that.

Dowling added: “Even small things — like the ice cream van would pull into training at the Gaelic Grounds, and everyone was just chilling out on the field, having a 99. That would not have been heard of five or six years ago.”

Shane Dowling celebrates after the game Shane Dowling was a terrific impact sub for Limerick in 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It was one of a few brilliant quotes that came out of the Limerick camp after they annexed the Liam MacCarthy. From Lynch’s quip that “there’s still a warrant out” for Valerie after her entrance onto the field, to Gillane’s revelation that his mother came back down from Dublin so she could make his breakfast the morning of the final.

In the winners’ banquet, as he sat beside Michael Lyster, Tom Morrissey joked he hoped the interview wouldn’t last too long.

“I’ve a pint of Guinness just ordered so I hope it’s still there when I get back,” he laughed.

Then there was Kiely’s remark about the train journey to Dublin that morning, where the players’ carriage was more relaxed than the one packed with nervous supporters.  

“If you met us yesterday on the train you’d think that our carriage was the supporters carriage and the other carriages were the players. Because the supporters were nervous all hell, there wasn’t a word out of them and our carriages were singing on the way up,” Kiely said.

Another moment of fun was Declan Hannon’s rousing rendition of Caledonia on the bus out of Croke Park after the decider, and later in front of a heaving Gaelic Grounds.

Hannon also revealed that when Joe Canning stepped over an injury-time free in the final, he was “ saying a prayer to my grandfather”, hoping the Galway man would miss. 

It was an unforgettable campaign for Limerick but the new season has rolled around quickly.

Kiely’s 42-man panel for the league included seven newcomers - Adrian Breen, Conor Boylan (both Na Piarsaigh), Robbie Hanley, Aaron Costello (both Kilmallock), Ronan Connolly (Adare), Mikey O’Brien (Doon) and Jamie Power (Monaleen).

Hickey is the only retiree from 2018, meaning Kiely has a formidable squad to chose from once again. Repeating the trick in 2019 will be a difficult task but the key for Kiely will be keeping things fresh on and off the field.

If his main men can stay fit and continue their good form, Limerick will be right up there with Galway, Tipperary and the rest in the race for Liam. 

Another tantalising season of hurling is just around the corner. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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