So near, but still so far . . .
Limerick's recent travails in Munster owe much to a golden era for Kerry football, writes Damian Lawlor
JOHN QUANE remembers the first Sunday of last July like it was yesterday. The final whistle of the Munster football final had sounded and he was stuck in the empty Páirc Uí Chaoimh stand, looking out on the field where his disconsolate former team-mates lay.
He took a deep breath, and wondered how they could ever come back; Limerick had led from the first to the last minute and looked set for their first provincial title in 113 years. It would shape their lives forever. But just as Quane was setting himself to burst onto the pitch to embrace his old friends, just as the game entered its finale, Cork launched a smash-and-grab raid. They somehow plundered two goals and emerged victorious by a point. Quane's stomach still churns at the thought of it.
The big midfielder had experienced plenty of heartbreak in his own career, losing two provincial finals, but he'd never seen anything like this. Even though he'd retired three years previously and was out of the scene, it took him days to get over it.
"Of all the losses we've endured that was the worst one," he sighs. "I was never more disappointed. We beat ourselves. I'm still not convinced about this Cork team; I think they're a one-trick pony, easy enough to bottle up and I felt that game was the one we should definitely have won.
"I don't know if we panicked and lost our heads, I'm not so sure, I think we were very slow on the line, very slow to make changes. People will ask 'had we guys to bring on?' I would say we had one or two anyway. Cork made a host of changes with 10 or 15 minutes to go and we didn't. It made all the difference."
That day was the latest chapter in a long catalogue of misery. Today is Limerick's fifth final appearance (including a replay in 2004) since the start of the last decade and impressive as they've been, they've always failed at the final hurdle. Even when they beat Cork in 2003, Kerry were there waiting for them next day out.
"In my years there, we were fierce unlucky to come up against that Kerry team that won so many All-Irelands," Quane adds. "We had our chances. Like in the drawn Munster final against them in 2004 when we missed a stack of frees. Maybe we should have tried a few short ones, tried to nab a score that way. Even in the replay, we were seven points up at one stage before losing focus before the break and only going into the dressing room a point up after conceding a soft goal. Sob stories; you'd be sick of them. But that was Kerry. They were brilliant. And while we were close to them, we weren't close enough."
Quane's honesty is admirable, but maybe he is too hard on himself. Perhaps it's more pertinent to identify the low base that Limerick came from instead. Their dramatic surge up Gaelic football's pecking order only highlights the tragedy of not yet finding a pot of gold at the end of their journey.
Before Liam Kearns took them to the under 21 All-Ireland final in 1999, they'd been entrenched in the dark ages, qualifying for just two of the 102 Munster senior finals between 1897 and 1998. They permanently inhabited the lowest possible league pool and knew no escape route. They even gave up trying to break out for a while, losing to Kilkenny and London in the mid 1990s; there was no underage talent and not as much as an under 21 provincial title rested in the cabinet.
Then Kearns started putting his stamp on affairs. In 2001, he told his players the aim was to get league promotion. They did that. A year on, he challenged them to win a championship game. Again, they ticked the box, beating Offaly in the qualifiers.
In 2003, the goal was to win the Division 2 title and beat Cork in the championship. They lost dramatically to Westmeath in the league decider but Kearns allowed no wallowing. He said he wanted no nearly men in his team and they went onto hammer Cork two weeks later, their first significant blow against a major power. Back then the players would have done anything for their manager. Upon returning from a holiday in Australia, John Galvin recalls feeling the surge of respect he had for Kearns on his first night back training. "If Liam had asked me for 50 laps, I'd have done 51 just to ensure I wasn't short-changing him," Galvin says.
His team-mates felt likewise; Michael Reidy, another of their stalwarts around that time, reckons the players gave 20-25 per cent more with each season just to get up near the required mark. Most of that side, the likes of Quane, the Reidys, Muiris Gavin, Seamie O'Donnell, Diarmuid Sheehy and Stephen Kelly devoted six years of their lives to see how high they could fly. By 2004, they were close to the famed Tyrone and Armagh levels of training. Problem was they were up against one of the best Kerry teams of all time. And as already alluded to, when they did manage to beat Cork, they found the Kingdom impossible to breach. It was natural that they would stall a little before the wheel started coming off the wagon. Stalwarts like Gavin, O'Donnell, Quane and Sheehy retired; three or four others went back hurling and others just lost form.
After five years in charge, Kearns stepped down and Mickey Ned O'Sullivan took over a team nearing the end of its product life cycle.
Slowly, he set about changing the landscape. Most of the old guard was kept on but after last year's disaster against Cork, Quane didn't think he'd see too many of them back again this time around.
"It's hard for the likes of Galvin and Johnny McCarthy to keep going but they're managing it. I admire them for doing that; a lot of the gang I played with are still there, Being honest, I'd say they took one look at the Munster championship draw, saw that they got the easier side and said they'd come back for another shot.
"Most of them are nearing their peak now and have plenty of Munster final experience so the backbone of the team is still strong. But hitting the 29-30 mark, I really feel this is their last chance do something.
"To come back after Cork last year is hard going, but I do think that this year's panel is better than it was. We have some young lads, Colm Mullane is back, Jim O'Donovan is able to last full games and seems fitter. I actually give Limerick a right chance in today's final and I've felt that way since the start of the year. I still think we're up there with the best of them. The Kerry midfield isn't at its best these days and if we can stop the supply of ball going into Gooch we have a chance. But you wouldn't want to be giving Kerry even 40 per cent possession or they'll make us suffer."
They arrive in Killarney under the radar once more. At their press gathering two weeks ago, there were only two national journalists present. Most people are convinced their chance has gone. Louth are the media darlings these days.
However, Limerick already have a Division 4 league title in the bag; this particular season has been full of shocks so far and it's most likely that Mickey Ned has taken on board criticisms from the Cork defeat last season. None of this should be ignored.
O'Sullivan hasn't yet watched the video of that game but it's probably still on pause in his mind. With the Cork defeat still charring him, the first move he needed to make this year was increase the quality and depth of the squad.
He's done that. Young goalkeeper Brian Scanlon, defender Eoin Joy and promising forward Eoghan O'Connor have all impressed to-date. Conor Fitzgerald is back, so too
Conor Mullane and O'Donovan has been an ever-present alongside Galvin in the engine room.
"It's the strongest panel during my time in charge," says O'Sullivan. "We got seven out of the under 21 team this year and being in Division 4 was a benefit as they were able to get blooded without the serious intensity of higher football. They had more time to get used to inter-county football; it built their confidence.
"The Cork game was very disappointing," he recalls. "We lost our shape. We didn't have the fresh legs to bring in which would have seen us over the line. We needed to maintain the first-half intensity but you can only maintain that if you have a bench you can empty. But we've scoured the county over the winter and I'm very pleased with the panel we have now."
Having been out of the limelight for most of this year, confined to Division 4, the camp is not surprised at being written off in many quarters for today's game, even if it is a little disrespectful.
"Respect? It's not that we don't get it," Galvin surmises. "It's more the fact that we're not in the limelight anymore because over the past few years we've usually been knocked out early in the Munster championship and then we might win a game or two in the qualifiers. It doesn't really excite people and we've lost our profile."
Quane feels they have to land a Munster title to gain the recognition they deserve.
"The Munster title is the thing," he says. "Westmeath and Laois both managed to win Leinster titles last decade and they got much better recognition from it. But I would maintain we were every bit as good as them."
Silverware today would be tangible proof of all that.
Kerry v Limerick,