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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 24 November 2020

Galway and Tipp hurling coaches face off as Limerick club game feels outside influence

Doon and Na Piarsaigh battle for the Limerick title tonight with new coaches at the helm.

Galway's Tony Ward and Tipperary's Declan Fanning are in opposition in tonight's Limerick final.
Galway's Tony Ward and Tipperary's Declan Fanning are in opposition in tonight's Limerick final.
Image: INPHO

SEAN STACK HAD just witnessed his Na Piarsaigh team produce a display that touched perfection on a big stage.

They had stepped up in a Munster club final and blown Sixmilebridge away, fired home four goals and won by 18 points.

Typically the manager in that scenario should have been ebullient with a provincial title stowed away.

But on the last Sunday of November 2013, Stack was emotionally conflicted. He may have succeeded with the Limerick club he was associated with yet the identity of their Clare victims left him in clear discomfort.

In 1993 he had lined out for his native Sixmilebridge as they lost a Munster decider to a Toomevara team that Stack was at the time managing. Two decades later the fixtures calendar presented him with another hurling pairing he would have preferred to avoid.

“That’s a real hard subject. I’ll be in the ‘Bridge tonight, nothing surer. My heart goes out to them. They have big ambitions and that’s where I’ll always belong.”

Stack had stepped over the county border and made a really meaningful impact on that Limerick city hurling community. The victory in Ennis that day had brought to four the number of major trophies he accumulated – two Limerick and two Munster.

sean-stack-speaks-to-his-team-before-the-game Sean Stack with his Na Piarsaigh team before the 2011 Munster club final Source: James Crombie

He didn’t manage to land the ultimate prize, stepping away after an All-Ireland semi-final loss to Portumna in February 2014, but the Caherdavin-based club had made momentous strides under his watch. They suffered a 17-point mauling at the hands of Adare in their maiden final appearance in 2009, mustering only 0-3 in the game. Yet the memories of that loss have been washed by the waves of success they have surfed ever since.

Tonight represents Na Piarsaigh’s ninth final appearance in 12 seasons. They are chasing their sixth ever title, all achieved since 2011. Stack’s tenure in charge proved the start of something rather than a solitary golden spell. Two further Munster title have followed and their greatest moment in the 2016 All-Ireland final.

And the influence from outside has been a recurring theme in Na Piarsaigh’s fortunes.

When Stack piloted that journey to Na Piarsaigh’s first crown in 2011, defender Kieran Bermingham was the team’s captain. Now he patrols the sideline passionately as manager. If Bermingham’s hurling career is intertwined with that of his club, Declan Fanning has brought in a different perspective.

kieran-bermingham-lifts-the-cup Kieran Bermingham lifting the cup after the 2011 Limerick county final Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Last year Na Piarsaigh appointed Michael Ryan as manager. It was his first post since stepping down as Tipperary senior boss and as the season unfolded Fanning was added to the backroom team. The pair had worked successfully together when Tipperary lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2016.

Na Piarsaigh returned to the Limerick senior final last October but their three-in-a-row bid was foiled by Patrickswell. Ryan moved on afterwards, paving the way for Bermingham to fill the hotseat and Fanning has taken on a more prominent role.

Last Saturday they seized a chance for atonement against Patrickswell.

“Declan is a great guy and he’s a great coach,” says Bermingham.

“He’s really integrated himself really well in the group. It’s great to be down at training and training is fun. If you came down around training, you’d wonder are we training some nights. It’s a joy to be there.”

Fanning’s recent exposure to an elite county environment developed his coaching acumen yet his playing career had also fostered some guiding principle. He retired in November 2010, satisfied after securing his All-Ireland medal that September.

In his autobiography Lar Corbett illustrated the quiet and efficient leadership Fanning provided. After a damaging defeat to Cork in Munster, a qualifier win over Wexford had helped Tipperary regain their balance and Liam Sheedy was concerned players would view the result as reason to go out that night.

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Then Fanning, who needed 25 stitches to heal an ear injury incurred in that game, intervened at Sheedy’s request.

“He asked Declan Fanning to handle it,” wrote Corbett.

“Declan did that in a very low-key way: ‘Well done lads. We’re after getting over today but we won’t go out tonight now – we’ll be back in training on Tuesday and we’ll just drive it on.’

“That was that. Every player looked at himself and said if Declan wasn’t going out, no-one was. They wouldn’t let him down. Not one player went out that night. And Sheedy achieved his target.”

Before the Killenaule native had helped Na Piarsaigh nail down a final place, there was a similar storyline to the success at the start of last Saturday’s double-header.

Doon belied their status as underdogs with their flagship names Richie English and Darragh O’Donovan out through injury. They fashioned a six-point victory over Kilmallock with Tony Ward at the helm. Ward hails from the Sarsfield club in Galway, part two All-Ireland club triumphs as a player in ‘92 and ‘93.

His managerial work has been extensive since. Galway camogie was a strong focus, first taking the reins in 1993 while still playing and two decades later he was at the helm when their senior team got their hands on the O’Duffy Cup. Between 2016 and 2018 he was in charge of the Galway U21 team, losing out to in a semi-final in the middle season to a Limerick team that included current Doon players Eoghan McNamara and Barry Murphy.

Ward was in the frame for the senior job in Galway last winter, a position ultimately filled by a Na Piarsaigh man in Shane O’Neill. After he had dropped out of that particular race, Doon made their approach and it was an opportunity Ward was keen to grasp.

“It is something that was always in my head to do, whether it be an outside county or an outside club team away from Galway,” Ward told in a recent interview.

“You learn from going to other clubs and the way different people approach things. It was something I always wanted to do and when the chance came I took it. I’m really enjoying it.”

Doon’s desire to expand the array of knowledge available to them did not stop there. Gary Mernagh is on board as their coach. Full-back on the Thurles Sarsfields team that ended their club’s 31-year famine in 2005 in Tipperary, he was coach seven years later when they collected county and provincial honours before succumbing to Offaly’s Kilcormac-Killoughey.

In modern times Doon have hoovered up underage titles and seen plenty of their club men graduate to Limerick teams across a range of grades. But that first county senior championship has proved elusive. Two years ago they took on Na Piarsaigh in only their third ever final appearance but fell short by nine points.

barry-murphy Barry Murphy in action for Doon against Patrickswell Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Tonight’s Limerick pairing may have strong Galway and Tipperary characters but it is Banner coaching talent that inspired the greatest success. Stack’s work in helping to put Na Piarsaigh on the map was part of a wider and pattern. After he moved on it was current Galway boss O’Neill, embedded in the club as a long-serving player, who took the managerial reins and drafted in Alan Cunningham – a coach with previous roles for Clare, Offaly and Wolfe Tones – alongside him.

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve worked under,” said Shane Dowling of Cunnngham before the 2018 Munster club final.

“He’s fantastic, it’s not just his hurling coaching, it’s his manner, his approach to players, how clever he is with his use of players. He knows the best thing to do.”

That rave review also stemmed from Cunningham’s help to John Kiely as Limerick reached the hurling summit in 2018. Go back further and the imprints of Clare’s 1995 history makers are visible on the Limerick club game.

Tony Considine guided Garryspillane to a groundbreaking senior final win in 2005. They defeated a traditional powerhouse that day in Kilmallock, a club Considine would later take over for 2010 and 2012 senior triumphs, the first of those ending a 16-year wait for glory. He’s renewed acquaintances with Kilmallock, in charge for last Saturday’s semi-final.

Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin steered Adare to three titles on the spin between 2007 and 2009. He then took over Kilmallock for a fourth county and they journeyed all the way to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day in 2015 when they felt the full force of Ballyhale’s brilliance.

That is not to say the native input has been diluted. Dave Keane was highly successful with Adare before O’Loughlin arrived while O’Neill, Paul Beary and now Bermingham have invested plenty back into their home club. Last October it was one of Limerick’s most famous hurling sons that was the sideline maestro as Ciaran Carey celebrated with Patrickswell, just as his compatriot Gary Kirby had done in 2016.

The trend then has been in Limerick club circles for openness and a willingness to draft in others from whom they can soak up expertise. The geographical proximity to plenty other leading hurling counties helps.

tony-ward Doon manager Tony Ward

In the search for the extra ingredient in success, every avenue is explored.

And both Doon and Na Piarsaigh will hope it can prove a winning formula tonight.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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