Rock-bottom in 2018, an 'Italia 90' penalty shootout and a first Munster final in 12 years

Former Limerick footballer Pa Ranahan speaks to The42 before today’s provincial decider against Kerry.

THERE WAS NO trophy on offer, but to the Limerick faithful that were gathered in Cusack Park, it felt like a win that was worthy of silverware.

limerick-celebrate-after-the-game Limerick players celebrate after defeating Clare in a penalty shootout in the Munster SFC quarter-final. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

A Munster quarter-final against a Clare team that many would argue have a stronger football tradition than their Shannonsider opponents. A late free from Limerick substitute Robbie Bourke sent the game to extra-time where a winner still could not be determined. And for the first time in football championship history, a penalty shootout was required with Limerick edging out the spot kicks by 4-1. 

Rapturous scenes followed. Limerick players poured onto the field to celebrate their progression to the semi-finals after a 90-minute arm wrestle.

Having already earned promotion to Division 2 this year, defeating Clare was another important win for Billy Lee’s side. They followed it up with a victory over 2020 Munster champions Tipperary to see them through to this weekend’s provincial decider.

Pa Ranahan, who retired as a Limerick footballer in 2016 after an 11-year career, was in the stands for the Clare and Tipp wins. What he saw at full-time in the quarter-final reminded him of another famous penalty shootout that inspired the fans despite the absence of a cup at the end of it.

“Italia 90 is exactly what I thought of,” he tells The42 about the significance of that Clare result for the Limerick footballers.

“I was a child of that era and I still remember watching the penalty shootout with Dave O’Leary at my grandmother’s. I had my two kids with me at Cusack Park and it was way passed their bed-time because I thought we’d be home earlier.

“But there was definitely that feel off it. I was thinking about whether they’ll remember that as much as I remember Italia 90? And the fact that they were there in person was a great memory for them. But we’ve all been involved in teams where you win a match by nine or 10 points, and there isn’t the same level of celebration at all. A penalty shootout is the ultimate and it was the first time it had happened in the championship.

“I’ve no idea how they felt after it but it had to be massive. People were hanging around on the pitch for 30 or 40 minutes afterwards. They didn’t really know what to do after it. And I know the players went out that night. Billy has always been very aware that any success, no matter how small they might look, that they’re celebrated and not taken for granted.”

Reaching the Munster final, according to Ranahan, depends largely on the draw and avoiding Cork and Kerry en route. That applied to Limerick this year as the big two were forced to square off in the other semi-final. Ranahan says that a favourable draw like that “opens the road a small bit” for teams like Limerick.

The momentum they had built up from the league was a key factor too.

“Having the league fall the way it did was completely unexpected really if you were to ask anyone, either someone involved in the group or in the supporters,” says Ranahan.

“No-one saw that coming. And then there’s that level of expectation when it comes to the championship. Everyone is saying, ‘Oh sure you’ll follow it through now and get to the final.’ Clare in Cusack Park was a huge game and Limerick probably rode their luck at times during that game. Clare are a very good, seasoned team.

“I suppose the way they got over the line that day with the penalty shootout and the way it fell. I’d say they got serious confidence out of that and the way it happened. They must have thought, ‘This is our year.’”

Reflecting on the semi-final against Tipperary, Ranahan says that while there were errors in the Limerick display, it was a “mature performance” that eked out a six-point win. A sign of how much the team had grown during Billy Lee’s six years in charge. Defeating the Premier County earned Limerick a place in their first Munster final since 2010. Ranahan was involved in that decider which ended in a three-point defeat to Kerry, and the Kingdom will provide the opposition again today.

Getting to this point has tested the limits of the Limerick squad. The 2017-2018 period was particularly challenging as many players had quit the squad while the Irish Examiner reported that Lee came close to forfeiting their 2018 Munster championship opener against Clare after a player’s name was accidentally left off the squad list.

“I’d say Billy was fairly aware coming in,” Ranahan notes, “that he had a big job on his hands, and that it was going to be a long-term thing. He’s been vocal about it and the players have been vocal about how there were some very tough days in the early years.

“It was probably rock-bottom there in 2018, but Billy is one of those people who takes the rough with the smooth. [Limerick midfielder] Cilian Fahy has said he’s been much more than just a football manager. For a lot of them, he’s helped them grow up a small bit as people. That’s a big thing that he always talks about that football is great and you have to make the most of it while you’re in it but there’s more to life than football.

declan-osullivan-and-pa-ranahan Kerry's Declan O'Sullivan tries to wrangle possession from Pa Ranahan in the 2010 Munster final. Cathal Noonan Cathal Noonan

“He was quite supportive of lads if they wanted to go away for a year or if work took him away, or if college was getting in the way. He was never one for trying to twist anyone’s arm to stay involved. He’s obviously reaping the benefits of all that now, because you have lads who have done their years of travelling and college. The age profile of the team is mid-20′s and they’re really serious into their football now.

“But again, it was a long time coming. A lot of credit is going to Billy in fairness, and fully deserved.”

Ranahan openly admits that promoting football in Limerick is, and always has been, a huge challenge in what is primarily a hurling county. That was certainly the case for Ranahan, who didn’t come into contact with the Limerick footballers until his mid-teens and early 20s.

Additionally, Limerick has developed into a powerful hurling force in more recent years, winning three All-Ireland SHC titles in the last four years. Achievements of that scale make the small ball game look even more attractive to emerging talents in the county. John Kiely’s hurlers are also in a Munster final this year, and will aim to defend their title when they face Clare next weekend. It’s the first time since 1934 that Limerick will be competing in both Munster finals.

Looking to the future, Ranahan has a coaching role with the Limerick Football Academy, and expects to see few exciting players to make the breakthrough in the next few years.

A promising league campaign for the Limerick seniors, with a Munster final on the way later today could further that effort even more going forward. 

“It’s certainly a lot easier when you’re winning, and this game on Saturday is pretty much the first time that this group is going to be on RTÉ. That in itself brings it to a new audience. The way social media is these days, there were Limerick lads getting on the Team of the Week during the league. And on the recent championship teams of the week.

“Kids see that and want to be that. It’ll always be hard but it’s not even a thing that football people who are kind of aware, it’s not a challenge that they try to take on. They just accept the fact that hurling is going to get the draw and you’re trying to make the absolute most then of what you have.

“I do personally think that if you took away every lad who was only into hurling in the county, you’d still have a huge amount of players who are available to you, that would be good enough to play with a bit of support.

“The Academy has been going for a few years now, but when you’ve a senior team who are winning, who are in Croke Park and are getting to play next to the Dubs, Kildare, Meath and all these teams, there’s no better selling point really.”

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