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Getting the better of hurling greats O'Connor and Mullane, and a 'manager's dream' to have on the field

Limerick stalwart Seamus Hickey announced his inter-county retirement earlier this week.

FORMER LIMERICK HURLING boss Richie Bennis quickly discovered that there was a lot to like about Seamus Hickey when he first took the helm of the Shannonsiders.

Stephen Lucey, Richie Bennis, Mark Foley and Seamus Hickey Richie Bennis along with Stephen Lucey Mark Foley and Seamus Hickey in 2008. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Bennis was drafted in during the 2006 championship in a caretaker manager capacity following Joe McKenna’s resignation.

It was Hickey’s first season with the seniors having lined out for the county in a minor All-Ireland final in 2005, and for Bennis, he ticked all the boxes.

His punctuality for training was exemplary. He followed orders from management without question and was producing quality performances on the pitch too.

That’s not to suggest that the other players didn’t co-operate with Bennis, but given that Hickey was still in his teens at this point, it was encouraging to see that he was already showing the maturity of an inter-county veteran.

“There was never a problem with him, he was always there on time,” Bennis tells The42 when reflecting on those days as the Limerick boss.

He never shirked anything he was asked to do or questioned anything. He was any manager’s dream to have when they’re young.

“He was always a confident individual. He always seemed to have control of what he was doing. He was as level-headed as he is now, that’s the best way I can put it.

“He was very quiet and the very few times he’d speak you’d listen. He was a man of few words and was very concentrated. You could see it in him in the dressing room [that] he was completely focused on what was ahead of him.”

When Bennis took over the Limerick hurlers in 2006, they were struggling in the championship. They had just shipped a 17-point defeat to Clare in a round-robin qualifer but they still had two games remaining against Offaly and Dublin to progress out of the group.

They travelled up to Tullamore for the first game under Bennis’ watch and came away with a victory before dispatching Dublin the next day out to set-up a date with Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Ben O'Connor with Seamus Hickey Hickey keeping up with Cork legend Ben O'Connor in 2006. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Hickey was playing in the Limerick defence and was already shaping up to be a player that Bennis could rely on.

“The first time he played was against Offaly when I was involved above in Tullamore and what I saw of him that day was unreal,” the Patrickswell man recalls.

Then we played Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final and he held no better player than Ben O’Connor for most of the match so he was confident enough.”

Limerick suffered defeat to their Munster opponents that day but they would go on to surpass that stage the following year by booking a spot in the All-Ireland final for the first time in 11 years.

They accounted for a much-fancied Waterford side in an epic All-Ireland semi-final and Bennis recalls how a 19-year-old Hickey was leading the charge from corner back.

“He handled it very well and took it in his stride. Another great compliment to him was in 2007 against Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final.

He was only 19 years old going in against the best corner forward in the country at the time, John Mullane and you couldn’t pay him any bigger compliment than when Justin McCarthy took John Mullane off.

“That’ll tell you just how good he was.”

“I didn’t have to move him because he was so successful at corner back but he showed his versatility and what he’s made of. He has played half-forward, half-back, and centre-back.

Seamus Hickey and John Mullane Hickey getting away from John Mullane in the 2007 All-Ireland SHC semi-final. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He gave great service to Limerick and was never found wanting.”

Facing Kilkenny in the final, Limerick were coming up against arguably the greatest hurling outfit of all time and it has been remarked that the pre-match hype and euphoria may have affected their preparations.

In any case, they were outfought on the day. By half-time, the reigning champions were eight points clear and on course to defend their All-Ireland crown. They eventually won by seven.

Hickey was delegated the task of marking Eddie Brennan that day, but the youngster received something of an education as Brennan posted 1-5 in a man-of-the-match display.

It was an experience that would cripple a young player’s confidence in most cases, but Bennis was proud of how Hickey responded in the second half, although he also believes that the defender was targeted on account of his inexperience at this level.

“Eddie Brennan gave a lot of corner backs the same treatment that he gave to Seamus that day.

“He scored a goal against Seamus early but in fairness after that he got to grips with him.

He didn’t just lie down and let Eddie walk all over him and he got a bit of treatment from a few other players because he was a young fella.

“I’m not knocking Kilkenny, I admire them and would have done the same thing myself, but they targeted him because he was a young lad.

Eddie Brennan with Seamus Hickey Eddie Brennan peels away from Hickey's clutches in the 2007 All-Ireland final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But they didn’t get the better of him because he came out in the second half and did very well.

What I liked about him was when they were beaten, he was very, very disappointed. Even if he had played well he would have been very disappointed. You have a lot of players, and when they play a five-star game and lose [but] they’d be happy enough because they played so well.

“He wanted to win the whole time and that was his target.”

Hickey called time on his inter-county career earlier this week after giving 12 years of service to the Limerick cause, which culminated in a famous All-Ireland victory this year.

He played more of a substitute role during this campaign and made his last appearance for Limerick during their All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork which went to extra-time.

Speaking to The42 after defeating Galway in the final, Hickey admitted that he “couldn’t believe it would take this long to get back here” as his county toasted to their success of ending a 45-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

The Murroe-Boher clubman leaves the inter-county stage with a Young Hurler of the Year award, a 2014 All-Star, a Munster SHC medal and that well deserved Celtic Cross.

He also has a loving family with his wife Ellen, daughter Anna and twin boys Matthew and Patrick who were born earlier this year. As he said in his retirement statement, “God is good, Luimneach abú!”

“It just shows the calibre of the man that he stuck in there,” says Bennis.

“He wasn’t just playing for the sake of winning and getting out. He wanted to play hurling for Limerick and wear the jersey, something he did with pride and with distinction.

“He played and he won his All-Ireland, a just reward and he was a contributing factor to winning that All-Ireland.

He owes the county nothing.”

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