Limerick's Seamus Hickey on mission to right the wrongs of recent years
Sitting in Semple Stadium last September, Seamus Hickey couldn't help but rub his hands together watching the Limerick under 21s waltz to All-Ireland glory with a pool of talent ready to take the seniors to the next level. Then it hit him. These fellas were coming to take his spot.
But like many other challenges, Hickey has met it head on. What you see on the pitch is exactly what you get off it. Honesty. Passion. Intelligence. Skill. Energy. Traits which make the swashbuckling defender a joy to watch between the white lines and a pleasure to deal with outside them.
His emotional man of the match speech after their heart-breaking 2014 semi-final defeat to Kilkenny tells you everything you need to know about what Limerick hurling means to him. And having made his debut 10 years ago as a raw teenager, it's only natural that he should be helping to guide these eager youngsters down the right road.
Today, four newcomers take to the same Thurles sod they lit up nine months ago and TJ Ryan's squad is buzzing with enthusiasm on the back of Na Piarsaigh finally breaking Limerick's club final duck on St Patrick's Day. All of which creates a positive narrative about the health of hurling in the south west.
But there comes a time when actions must speak louder than words. "We believe we have the tools to go on and win things, but it's backing that up with the quality and backing it up against top quality opposition in Munster every year and then getting beyond it. It gets to the stage where you have to stop talking about how good you are and you've to do it," says Hickey.
"We're trying to put it all together and that's the key. I'd say the standard of hurling is really, really good at the moment where any team could beat anybody and winning one game isn't good enough, you have to be prepared to win two or three on the bounce against really good teams. That's the challenge for Limerick, it's about consistency."
They're one of the great enigmas of the GAA and like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. Will it be the team that pushed Kilkenny to the pin of their collars two years ago? Or the side who fell tamely to Tipperary on home soil 12 months ago? Or the Limerick who capitulated against Waterford in the closing 35 minutes of this year's league semi-final?
The Jekyll and Hyde of the hurling world have been struggling with an identity crisis in recent times and Ryan has taken a lot of flak for his experimentation with a variety of systems and styles. But none of it has come from Hickey's direction with the 28-year-old happy that they're always willing to tinker until they find the right mix.
"Every team craves a style, a roadmap, a plan of what you're going to do and sometimes you have to try a few things and get it wrong to develop the right way. But I love the fact that we're trying. It would frustrate me if we weren't trying anything and we were getting the same results," he adds.
A deep intellectual himself, working in mechanical engineering research at the Stokes Institute UL, Hickey revels in "the thinking man's approach to hurling" and appreciates the various game plans in the modern game, even if Limerick's have often deviated from their traditional "off the cuff" style. Game plans upset many but Hickey believes that's only natural, it happens in all sports.
"How many coaches have Real Madrid let go despite being a successful team because they're not playing the way they wanted to play? Fabio Capello won the league and was ousted because he wasn't playing the brand so we're an amateur game and we play for our localities. But our localities are demanding," he says.
"The winning team writes the script and the losing team is open to criticism and negativity, even if they performed well in defeat -they were still defeated. We're no different to any other county. When you're an inter-county player, you actually have to take the criticism levelled at you by the public because at the end of the day you're representing those Limerick people."
The Murroe Boher defender avoids social media, choosing not to use Twitter or Facebook as he finds the concept of people commenting on your life without any appreciation of it very "challenging". He has enough to deal with already anyway after being elected as GPA chairman by his peers last November, succeeding Donal Óg Cusack.
Balancing work, life, hurling and family can be demanding and a frustrating league campaign saw niggle after niggle minimise his playing time. "Over-zealous to return", as they narrowly missed out on promotion from Division 1B yet again. 2015 left a bitter taste in his mouth after the upward trajectory of the previous two years, which included Munster success in 2013, and they're out to right some wrongs.
"It came down to two days. First day against Tipperary, we didn't play well. Second day against Dublin, it came down to an awful defensive mistake, which I was a part of. We were ahead in the last minute, and myself and Richie McCarthy went up for the same ball. It was unbelievably frustrating to make an under 12 mistake at All-Ireland championship level.
"Last year was a bit of a knife in the stomach and this year we have to make amends. We're looking to redeem ourselves. I am always frustrated when I don't win. When I see someone else lift the Liam MacCarthy, it kills me."
Their 2016 championship journey begins today in Thurles against a Tipperary side which blew them out of the water at the same stage last summer. Avenging that harrowing loss wouldn't be a bad starting point as they aim for the next level with an exuberant young side, guided by a wise head with the most exuberance of them all.
Sunday Indo Sport