THE SOLITARY LIMERICK survivor.
It only took Seamus Hickey two seasons as a Limerick senior hurler to grace All-Ireland final day.
Cast your mind back to 2007. Hickey was a symbol of a Limerick team powerless to stop a Kilkenny side at the peak of their considerable powers. A teenage corner-back detailed to pick up Eddie Brennan come throw-in, by the final whistle he had been taken for 1-5 by an attacker in a lethal mood.
It was one of those instructive experiences that a lot of youngsters go through, the problem for Hickey was it took him so long to get back to that stage and attempt to make amends.
The final whistle in Croke Park at the end of July carried a deep personal significance. After an extra-time epic, Cork had been despatched. Limerick were returning to a final and Hickey found himself the only long-serving figure still partaking.
“I couldn’t believe it would take this long to get back here. Especially when we won Munster in ‘13, I could not believe it would take this long to get to the big day.
“Listen I was on the field for the final whistle against Cork and the realisation sunk in after Dowling buried the penalty, that we’re going to an All-Ireland final. It was a special occasion to be a part of.”
It took until his 13th season as Limerick senior hurler for his second involvement on All-Ireland final day. This time he had number 21 on his back, he ended up stationed in the seats in the Lower Hogan Stand for the afternoon but when that final whistle blasted and Limerick had got over the line with a point to spare, the significance of the result was not diluted.
In essence, Hickey was just grateful to be afforded the chance to be a part of the group that made that breakthrough for Limerick, halting 45 hurling years of setbacks and disappointments and hardship.
“It’s incredible, absolutely incredible. It is everything I hoped it would be to be on the winning side of it. It’s humbling to be part of the group we’re part of. All the people and past players that I’ve played with, that were close, never got there, it’s humbling to believe that we got there. After 45 years it’s amazing and special to be part of this.
“There’s enormous gratitude. I’ve been so blessed. It’s not about me. All the young lads that have been there that have lead the line this year, all the experienced lads that have lead the line this year. The individual has been lost to a sense of unity and a spirit that carried us over. The reality is any successful team needs to have that or you won’t be successful.”
When success arrived at last, there was plenty to share it with. Himself and his wife Ellen’s daughter Anna turns three in a fortnight. Last March their family grew with the arrival of twin boys, Matthew and Patrick.
2018 was already defined by a milestone off the pitch. To allow Hickey the time to commit to the Limerick hurling cause and have a front-row view for yesterday’s momentous occasion, required no shortage of support.
“This year was tough, with the two boys arriving in March and the strain my wife has been under. Everybody who has played the game will tell you important it is to have the people around you, bought in and supporting you all the way.
“I couldn’t do this without my wife and without my family supporting us at home. I feel like I’m living a boys dream and I’m a grown-up man. It’s something special. I’m glad I have this special feeling. It feels surreal, it feels giddy, it feels all that good stuff that you imagined it would be.
“At the end of the day, they’re my everything, they’re my number one. To have them on the field with me afterwards, that’s my ultimate moment. You don’t want to let yourself think too far ahead the week of the final but for me that was the dream come true to have them with me to do it. I’m very, very lucky and I know I am.”
He suffered his fair share of hurling hard knocks before then. In the spring of 2006 Hickey was first parachuted into a Limerick senior side. He was a Leaving Cert student who lined out in a league final against Kilkenny and a Croke Cup final with St Flannan’s in the space of 24 hours on the May Bank Holiday weekend. Lost them both. It was a first taste of the need for perseverance.
Hickey has served under seven different Limerick hurling managers. County legends in Joe McKenna and Richie Bennis, then a trio of Cork men – Justin McCarthy, Donal O’Grady and John Allen – before a spell with TJ Ryan in charge and then the victorious incumbent John Kiely.
He’s witnessed championship exits at the hands of six counties, Kilkenny their tormentors on four occasions. 2010 was a lost season, Hickey one of many absent players in a messy and chaotic time for hurling in the county. After the 2007 decider there were defeats in the All-Ireland series – twice in quarter-finals and three times in semi-finals.
He talks freely about the ‘horrors in Croke Park’ that he has gone through. That final loss to Kilkenny. The 24-point hiding to Tipperary in 2009. Tearing his cruciate and being wheeled off 15 minutes in on a dispiriting day against Clare in 2013. A wholehearted defensive showing in 2014 yielded a man-of-the-match award but Limerick slipped to a two-point reversal against Kilkenny.
Yet there were also high moments. The Munster title win in front of the locals five years ago. The personal satisfaction in an All-Star award in 2014, just over a year after his knee had snapped.
And the growing sense this summer that Limerick were building to something big.
“I think everything John (Kiely) has done about representing, being the face of the team and the way he spoke has been so measured and so on the money,” says Hickey.
“I thought after the semi-final he nailed it. I thought the message to the group was excellent. I thought the message to people outside the group was even better.
“It was just apt yesterday with Tom (Condon) and Richie (McCarthy) coming on. There was enormous confidence that regardless of who went down, there was a capable person to step in. You can’t fake that.
“We’ve a tremendous management team, tremendous focus and discipline to our play this year. We’ve tried to change the direction of our attack, we’ve tried to keep it changeable. But it’s always to a masterplan and every person knew their place in that plan. That’s what’s special about it.”
That role of observer was a test of emotions in those nerve-shredding phases when Galway chipped away at Limerick’s sizeable advantage.
“It was agony,” reflects Hickey.
“After Dowling’s goal, I was quids in, we’re done and this is it. Then after Whelan scored the goal, the first one, when eight points goes to five, it’s like falling off a cliff.
“Eight is comfortable, five is not. In hurling that is absolutely nothing. For the free then to go against us and when Joe stood over it, I thought his striking had picked up very well towards the end of the game. I thought he could bury this. Two points, it was a nail-biter.
“But if we’ve shown anything this year, it’s been character in tight games. I’m not going to say I was fully convinced in the last minute and a half that we were going to do it but when the whistle did go, it was just pure relief and joy.”
He knows that sense of relief is shared throughout a county that was fed up with their time away from the podium in Croke Park continuing to drag on.
“Limerick is exorcised. Limerick is free of the history. The men of ‘73, Joe McKenna, Richie Bennis, there’s so many there, they’re free as well.
“They wanted this as much for us as we wanted it. They’ve always wanted that, they wanted it in ‘07, they wanted it in ‘13, they wanted it all the times we’ve good teams. It was them that was driving it. It’s amazing that their history has been passed on and we can make it a bit more.
“Just Declan (lifting) the cup and what he has been (through) stood out. The journey he has been on since ‘13. I empathise with him.
“Just the type of leader he is and when you think of the Anthony Dalys, you think of the captains that have walked up those steps for counties that have broken famines, I couldn’t think of a better member of our group to do that. I’m so proud of him. It’s great. That stood out.”
He appreciated the Monday after an All-Ireland final as a winner. Morning trips with the silverware to hospitals in Dublin, the journey home to Limerick and the prospect of celebrating in his home place of Murroe-Boher in the next while.
“I’m just back from Temple Street and Crumlin which I think is such a fabulous tradition. The gratitude and appreciation from the nurses and the staff and the kids is mind blowing. If you want perspective in life, that gives it to you. If you want happiness and joy, it’ll show you that too. It’s great.
“We’re going to enjoy this. I plan to enjoy this for as long as it goes. I don’t see any reason not to. To be fair every Galway man to a man that I shook hands with after the game, told me to enjoy this, that it’s special.”
Recruiting a couple of babysitters to help during the celebrations is the only box left to tick.
“They’ve put up with me for this long, I’m hoping they’ll row in for another week or two,” laughs Hickey.
“It’s bonus territory, it’s great. I just feel like I’m witness to something special in Limerick and Limerick history and to be a part of it is pretty cool.”
12 years after he started out, the hurling prize he craved is finally in his grasp.
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