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Forced into early exit but Dowling still packed plenty into big Limerick hurling days

Shane Dowling announced his retirement from Limerick today at the age of 27 due to injury.

Shane Dowling celebrates his goal in the 2018 All-Ireland final
Shane Dowling celebrates his goal in the 2018 All-Ireland final
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IN FEBRUARY 2018 Shane Dowling stood on the Parnell Park pitch and his words were tinged with pure emotion.

That Saturday afternoon he had been sprung from the Na Piarsaigh bench at half-time, the call for All-Ireland semi-final assistance as they were struggling to contain Slaughtneil’s drive.

He set up a goal for team-mate Kevin Downes and then produced a strike of genius to bag one for himself, nailing down their spot in the St Patrick’s Day decider.

“It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” remarked club captain Cathal King afterwards.

Shane O’Neill, Na Piarsaigh manager then and Galway boss now, sang from the same hymn sheet.

“The skill levels of him are just phenomenal. Nobody would get that goal on that pitch today except for Shane.”

The game marked Dowling’s first appearance since the previous October’s Limerick county senior final. He’d been sidelined with a knee injury in the interim and a week before that Slaughtneil match, his hopes of a comeback looked to be scuppered.

He talked afterwards about breaking down in tears when his knee didn’t respond well to a warm-up at the club’s grounds in Caherdavin. It took a week of rehabilitation, overseen by Dr Tadhg O’Sullivan who is affiliated with their recent club rivals Ballygunner, to help get him right and then Dowling had the capacity to unleash his hurling talents.

It captures the struggle at the core of Dowling’s fortunes of late. The battle to get his knee right for the rigours of elite hurling and then the moments of magic he could conjure up when fit and free to take to the pitch.

Today he announced his decision to bring that county career to a halt. Three knee operations in as many years with the prospect of a fourth in store, pushed him reluctantly in the direction of making that decision.

His retirement statement is loaded with regret and disappointment at having to take that option. Given the level of potential this Limerick team bristles with, that’s understandable.

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Last year saw them pick off two major honours last year in reaching the league and Munster summits before their hopes of the third prize were denied by Kilkenny. The stakes are raised considerably with the knockout post-pandemic format but Limerick’s status in the leading pack beforehand won’t be altered.

That Kilkenny loss saw Dowling make another dazzling contribution in the form of that ingenious second-half goal.

It has transpired to be Dowling’s last stunning score in Limerick colours. He rightly describes his decision to bow out at the age of 27 as premature but it has not been a brief spell of service.

Before the crew of Lynch, Gillane and Hayes would arrive to propel Limerick to major glory, Dowling was part of an underage group that spiked hopes in the county.

In August 2011 he fired 0-7 in a Munster U21 final classic against Cork that produced over 80 minutes of action and 52 scores. Dowling was still eligible for the minor ranks at the time and another extra-time epic against Cork in 2018 would provide happy memories as he weighed in with 1-4. The following game was Limerick’s day of hurling deliverance, Dowling supplying another goal to grace the occasion against Galway.

It was not all scores and success. He arrived in the senior squad for the 2012 season, accompanied by big expectations for himself and his contemporaries. Limerick’s hurling history is littered with the false dawns generated by underage promise.

By his second campaign Dowling had picked up a Munster senior medal, that 2013 decider in the Gaelic Grounds featured a 0-3 tally when introduced in a role that would become more familiar than he would have liked.

The next season saw him command a starting berth and respond with eye-watering scoring totals in 2-9 against Tipperary, 0-12 against Cork, 2-8 against Wexford and 0-7 against Kilkenny. A first All-Star award was duly collected at the close of the 2014 season after those sparkling displays.

He didn’t always fit into the management plans for starting teams, a source of obvious frustration, yet it was undeniable that he could come on to help dictate the trend of a game. The injuries were an obstacle in a regular run of starts but his success at a local level could have been described as proving problematic as well.

Na Piarsaigh became a powerhouse of the club game over the last decade and that translated into marathon campaigns through the autumn and winter before emerging to the spring on the other side. Those took Dowling away from the county stage at different stages but they were certainly profitable in terms of titles – Limerick (5), Munster (4) and All-Ireland (1).

shane-dowling-celebrates-after-the-game Shane Dowling celebrates after the 2016 All-Ireland club final Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

That 2016 triumph over Cushendall secured an honour that had eluded Limerick club players previously. The roles of Na Piarsaigh and Ardscoil Rís, where he blitzed opponents at Dr Harty Cup level, were instrumental in elevating his profile initially and his parting words indicated his own appreciation for how those units had cultivated his hurling prowess.

The irritation for him will be that those attacking inputs had become sporadic of late as injury proved too regular a hindrance.

Still he accumulated a fine array of honours and leaves having achieved the ultimate club and county prizes on the Croke Park stage.

For someone making an early exit, he packed plenty in.

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It’s a Shane Dowling-themed episode this week on Warriors, the GAA podcast for The42 members, as we look at his hurling career and rewatch the 2011 Munster U21 final to focus on the impact it had on the fortunes of Limerick and Cork. To listen go to https://members.the42.ie

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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