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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 27 January 2021

The ex-Limerick hurler, the Man City physio and their club-mates in charge of Galway

Shane O’Neill has been an influential figure in Limerick hurling but is in the opposing camp today.

Shane O'Neill and John Fitzgerald are at the helm of Galway tomorrow.
Shane O'Neill and John Fitzgerald are at the helm of Galway tomorrow.
Image: Ken Sutton/INPHO

THERE ARE MOMENTS where Damien Quigley finds himself marvelling at how far all the different Limerick hurling sectors in his life have come.

He thinks back to a decade ago when the county side were locked in a state of turbulence and he was one of those primed with providing a resolution in the search for a manager.

The autumn before that 2010 season, his club Na Piarsaigh had made their maiden bow in a senior hurling final. They showed up and were sent packing, 17 points a reflection of Adare’s considerable superiority.

Now look at them all. Limerick take to the Croke Park pitch today as the team who have accumulated five major trophies in the last 27 months under the watch of John Kiely. The centrepiece was in August 2018 and it is the retention of that crown which fuels the drive of the current squad.

“As a Limerick person it’s fantastic,” says Quigley.

“It’s ten years since Limerick couldn’t field their first team below in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in a Munster championship match. You see what’s happening the last few years and the level of success, it’s beyond belief in a number of ways. I hope people are enjoying it. The current bunch of players and management have us spoiled rotten at the moment.” 

Being fed a constant supply of good times is also the case back at local base. In September it was Na Piarsaigh handing out a county final hammering by posting a tally of 5-27 on the board as they cruised past Doon. That clinched a sixth Limerick title since 2011, a nice accompaniment to their four Munsters and 2016 All-Ireland victory.

Quigley served in forward lines for plenty years with Shane O’Neill, during seasons where it was far from prosperous on the silverware front.

“It’s an incredible achievement whatever way you stack it up. Shane and I would have a chat every now and again over a drink, we’d reflect back and shake our head and say, ‘This is mad’.

“Ten years ago we’d nothing won at adult level.”

na-piarsaigh-celebrate-with-the-trophy Na Piarsaigh players celebrating September's county final success. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Their shared hope has always been with the betterment of Limerick hurling in mind, years of struggle making these modern moments taste particularly sweet. Today is a test though, a strange All-Ireland semi-final experience for all.

Four Na Piarsaigh players are part of Limerick’s 26-man squad, only injuries have prevented that representation being enlarged. O’Neill is in the Galway hotseat, club-mate John Fitzgerald riding shotgun as coach.

“It is strange,” admits David Breen, the former Limerick and Na Piarsaigh player.

A Man City Academy physio these days and with his younger brother Adrian on the Limerick bench, he’s awaiting this contest with interest.

“With Shane and John Fitz, you’d always want the two of them to do well. But not so well that they’re beating Limerick.”

Quigley can draw on a previous episode of such tangled loyalties. He shot 2-3 in the 1994 All-Ireland final but saw his county man Eamonn Cregan face the uncomfortable scenario of having masterminded Offaly to success.

The national hurling prize he craved did not arrive afterwards and that made the Na Piarsaigh breakthrough nine years ago all the more momentous for the battle-hardened veterans.

“It was the highlight of my sporting career, an incredible thing. I think Shane would have even said this, winning the All-Ireland club was brilliant but the first county title was the pinnacle of everything. 

“I was only a sub that time, I was done more or less. Shane was an integral part of the side. He had hurled every single match we’d played at senior level. He came back from his honeymoon in ’09 or ’10 for a match. So that was from ’95 to 2011 or whenever it was, a long time. It was dream come true stuff and it wasn’t just the two of us.

“The likes of Brian Hartnett, Kieran Bermingham, these men had suffered. Some years we were just trying to survive. To actually get there at the end was incredible and it snowballed from there.”

damien-quigley-with-his-children-emma-and-colm-celebrate-with-shane-dowling-and-kevin-downes Damien Quigley celebrating Na Piarsaigh's 2011 Limerick title win. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Breen had done a few years soldiering in the club trenches but had undergone the same extent of suffering of his older colleagues.

“I remember the first few years of my senior career at club level. Going out in quarter-final or group stage or we won a relegation match to stay up senior. You’d go out for your few drinks at the end of the year, just remember the likes of Shano and how disappointed they’d be. Guys like that deserved it more than anyone.

“Playing with him and being your main county man, he’d come in for a good bit of punishment. He was always a big figure in the club. Shano played on the wing, a big target man for puckouts and just a big leader. That team we didn’t have too much of the older generation so having the likes of him was massive.

“After getting a defeat like we did in ’09, you’re really looking to the response of those guys like Shane who haven’t got that many years left in them. The way they doubled down on their efforts, everyone just fed off that really.”

shane-oneill-and-barney-mcauley Shane O'Neill in action for Na Piarsaigh against Loughgiel Shamrocks in 2012. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

It was during another managerial hunt that had fallen his way that Quigley sounded out O’Neill about a different hurling role. Finished up playing in his late 30s, he took the reins of their club senior team in 2014. It was the start of a glorious run that yielded two Limerick and two Munster crowns before they delivered a display laced with skill and control to land the Tommy Moore Cup on St Patrick’s Day 2016.

“Sure there was only one person for the job at that point. It was as clear as day. I knew he had all the personal traits you’d want in a leader or manager, it was a no-brainer. The only question was would he want to do that? Thankfully he did.”

Breen got a close-up view of O’Neill the manager. He was starting to move into physio roles in professional sport, first with Leinster rugby and then a move in the summer of 2016 across the water to join Wasps in the English Premiership.

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Those positions seemed incompatible with pursing top-level club hurling. Breen needed a manager who he could forge a strong relationship with, who would accommodate his work-sport balance and still deliver stringent performance reviews when needed.

“First and foremest we knew each other as team-mates. That relationship was still there. Him being the manager, you just respect the fact he’s got a job to do in the role.

“He would have always dealt with me in my situation respectfully and he knows the pressures that you’d be under. He’d be very straight with me too if I wasn’t cutting the mustard.”

O’Neill ended up leaning on Breen more than he had planned towards the end of 2017 as they got a bid going for another All-Ireland.

david-breen Former Limerick hurler David Breen.

“Everyone was reinvigorated in ’17. I just said to him, ‘Look I’ll try and stay fit, get home and play the odd league game.’

“Around the county quarter-final or semi-final stage, got the arm twisted to make myself available again. When you’re in it at that stage, you’re all in.”

That sparked some interesting attempts to explain to English colleagues about the complex nature of the GAA club calendar and scheduling.

“You win the final and they say, ‘Did you win yeah, oh brilliant.’

“The only problem is we’ve got a Munster semi-final in two weeks time. My boss is scratching his head and the other lads in work are saying, ‘Hang on a second, you won the final? What do you mean you’ve a semi-final?

“Oh that was just Limerick, now we go into the Munster championship. You’re trying to explain the All-Ireland system then. But for me, Shane was great to work with.”

The journey was not capped off on a happy note as they lost out an All-Ireland final replay to Cuala, six days after an epic drawn game. When O’Neill took the managerial reins again last winter, it was not in a place that had been envisaged.

shane-oneill-celebrates-after-the-game Shane O'Neill celebrates after Galway's win over Tipperary. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I guess I was a little bit surprised that he took the Galway job because it’s full on,” says Breen.

“In the same way I know how passionate he is about hurling. When you get those opportunities with a big county like Galway, they don’t come around too often.”

A partner in Limerick solicitor firm Sweeney McGann and with a young family, the Galway job seemed set to heighten the demands O’Neill faced. But Quigley sketches out the qualities that would have enticed those out west to make a move.

“Shane has no ego, that’s the best thing about him. Whenever Shane leaves Galway, Galway will be well set for the future because he will have brought on new players and freshened things up and done what’s right for Galway hurling rather than necessarily what’s right for Shane O’Neill.

“He’s a very calm person, doesn’t get ruffled easily. You’ll never see Shane jumping around or screaming or getting worked up. That’s not the way he is, he’s a very composed guy.

“He loves hurling, he loves the game with a passion. Even as a young man he was a person who was doing their very best to be the best they could be. He always prepared properly, trained properly, did the right things. I’d say he can’t look back and have too many regrets about what he did because he prepared brilliantly for everything.”

His coaching sidekick John Fitzgerald has an intimate knowledge of Limerick hurling as well.

“I’d say I would have played with him between 2004 and 2008 maybe,” outlines Breen.

“John Fitz was in his last few years, he was number one goalkeeper in the club for a long time. He trained us when I was a minor, an excellent trainer. Definitely one of the best coaches to come out of Na Piarsaigh anyway. I know he’s been very unlucky with Nenagh as well.”

john-kiely Limerick hurling manager John Kiely. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

And today their aim is to cut Limerick down, halt the winning machine that John Kiely has constructed. Both Kiely and O’Neill hurled together on various Limerick teams, worked in tandem with their respective roles as club and county bosses since then.

This afternoon will see that emotion parked and the game viewed in a disapassionate fashion.

“Shano is very professional and he always has been,” says Breen.

“If he’s doing a job, be it in work or in sport, he’s going to do that. If you’re still standing at All-Ireland semi-final stage, you’re not doing too badly. I think this will be Limerick’s toughest test for so many reasons.”


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Fintan O'Toole

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