Turmoil of days gone by holdsno concern for dual star Lucey
Published 01/08/2009 | 00:00
In the end, maybe even the gods fall into line behind patient men. The draw that bequeathed Limerick footballers a clear diary last weekend felt like a sympathetic roll of the dice for a county not accustomed to throwing sixes.
After all, the hurlers had an All-Ireland quarter-final to play against Dublin in Thurles.
If the footballers had Championship business 24 hours before that, it would have been asking a lot of Croom clubmates, Stephen Lucey and Mark O'Riordan, to be up to speed in both.
As it happened, both acquitted themselves well against the Dubs and have, since, had the benefit of six days to replenish energy levels for this evening's football Qualifier against Meath in Portlaoise.
The dual-player may be an imperiled species then, but he's not extinct. Not yet, at least.
You think of the ramshackle years visited upon Limerick, the catalogue of squabbles over footballers wanting to hurl and hurlers wanting to play football and you detect an air of adult maturity about the way business is now being done.
Mickey Ned O'Sullivan and Justin McCarthy seem to get along just fine and, if a hard decision had been visited upon Lucey and O'Riordan last weekend, it's doubtful that decision would have been referenced by ultimatums or raised voices.
Limerick, long trumpeted as one of the few authentic dual counties, finally appears to be connecting the dots between image and reality.
For Lucey, espec-ially, this must feel like a revelatory summer.
He has lived through the worst of the dysfunction, the musical chairs of '02, the generational crisis of '03, the pained exclusionism of '04, the turmoil of '05, the dramatic crash of '06, the spurned opportunity of '07, travelled every stony road and, yet, never forsaken the simple joy of competing.
Hurling has always been his game, yet he is sufficiently accomplished at football too to pursue it with genuine ambition.
The madness of Limerick's recent history is, perhaps, best synopsised by the summer of '04. Football manager, Liam Kearns, was happy to facilitate the hurlers in his squad. Hurling manager, Pad Joe Whelahan, took a view that he couldn't accommodate the footballers in his.
Six players, famously, fell through the cracks.
The day the hurlers lost their opening Munster Championship game to Cork at the Gaelic Grounds, Lucey was in Lahinch, a tortured soul trying to kill the hours.
He described it at the time as one of the biggest disappointments of his life.
"I was just sitting there, thinking 'I can't take this anymore', cracking up like," he revealed.
"It's killing us that we're not playing hurling. People say you have to do one or the other, you can't do the two. Hurling people would say you have to be hurling the whole time, which is true.
"But, if you're fit for hurling, you only need to play a small bit of football. That's my opinion. Liam Kearns was happy to do that for a few of us. I'd say I would have spent 90pc of the time doing non-stop hurling training, but that wasn't accepted. I think that's ridiculous.
"I'm just sick and tired of people saying the dual players are a burden on the county."
The players stayed loyal to Kearns that summer and did, at least, have the considerable distraction of Limerick making it to the Munster football final before being edged out only after a replay by a chastened Kerry team that subsequently won the All-Ireland.
Kearns did admit at the time "my heart bleeds for the players." He complained that a dual-player policy was, theoretically, in place. But that that policy was being over-ridden without any intervention from the county board.
Lucey was among the players to put his signature to a statement, stressing that they had not opted out of the hurling panel. Rather they had been "presented with an ultimatum."
He is 29 now and, presumably, closing in on the waning years of an inter-county life. A doctor by profession, he was on two of the U-21 teams that won All-Irelands under Dave Keane and seemed to prophesise summers of plenty for Limerick.
Summers, of course, that never fell. A contem-porary of his, Brian Begley, finds himself confined today to Inter-mediate hurling with his native Mungret after a career cursed with serious ankle and knee injuries.
To Begley, Lucey's longevity is a tonic to behold.
They share the pained history of '04 though, true to his own story, Begley could not even find solace with the footballers because of an obstreperous ankle.
Last Thursday night, he reflected "I remember when we were involved in both, we were saying you could probably do it for a couple of years when you were, say, between 21 and 24.
"But it certainly wasn't something you'd be able to carry on for a long period.
"But Stephen's flying it altogether now and, most importantly, he's staying injury free.
"To be fair, all he ever wanted to do was play games. I remember when he was based in Dublin, we'd be playing League games and he'd be travelling back up on the Sunday night.
"He was hurling with UCD at the time, yet he was always up and down to training too.
"So Stephen was always trying to do as much as he could. Fair play to him. It's frustrating to look back to '04 now.
"At the time, we'd be talking among ourselves and we felt if a fella was good enough and he was able to do it, it should be up to himself.
"I mean the player would be the first to see if one or the other was suffering. Then he'd have to make a decision."
Yet, Lucey's story flies in the face of recent history. Inter-county preparation is now ratcheted to such a level of intensity that the stories of dual All-Ireland winners like Liam Currams and Teddy McCarthy seem to belong to a quainter age.
Even one of the 'Limerick Six' from that sulphurous summer of '04, Mike O'Brien, admitted a few years back: "Playing two codes just cannot be done anymore."
Lucey would have known that an unhelpful draw in the All-Ireland football qualifiers would have franked that view.
Yet, the week's grace granted by being drawn against the winners of Meath and Roscommon (the latter having had to replay against Wexford) bought Limerick an escape from potential conflict.
And, given their history, few could deny the county's entitlement to that lucky break.
Lucey, thus, continues to defy the conventional wisdom that decrees two masters to be one too many.
It is estimated that during his time at UCD, he played in excess of 300 matches for the college between hurling and football, U-21 and senior, inter-varsity, club championship and challenge.
If there was a game to be played, whatever its weight or context, Lucey seemed drawn to it like a moth to a light.
Now full-back with the county's hurlers and centre-back with the footballers, he radiates a sense of ease and spontaneity to this summer chase. But Begley suggests we may be witnessing an illusion.
"Personally, I often found that if I hadn't played football for a while, it took a couple of games to get back into it," he explains.
"Even the changeover Stephen has to make this week must be difficult too.
"He was hurling in an All-Ireland quarter-final last Sunday and now, six days later, he's playing football at just as high a level.
"And I'm sure
the fact he's with the foot-ballers this week-end, he won't have much hurling done this week.
"So I suppose he's missing out on that side of it.
"But fair play to him for doing it. One thing himself and Mark (O'Riordan) have going for themselves is they're both in great condition. They'd be fit all year-round.
"So it's just a case of changing mindsets I suppose."
All he ever fought for was the entitle-ment to try.