Martin Breheny: Circling ‘vultures’ won’t deter Ryan as Limerick re-set for latest attempt at converting promise into prizes
Fresh optimism on Shannonside as a rejuvenated squad bids to reach first NHL final in ten years
TJ Ryan was in animated mood after Limerick's win over Dublin in Parnell Park last Saturday week, releasing a blast of steam that had obviously been building up for some time.
The defeat by Clare 13 days earlier sentenced Limerick to another season in 1B but now they had finally got a break. They worked hard for it too, beating a highly-rated Dublin team that had finished third in 1A, with wins over Galway, Waterford and Cork.
Na Piarsaigh trio Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes and Ronan Lynch, all of whom had missed the 1B campaign due to the club's successful pursuit of an All-Ireland title, had made important contributions.
For the first time this season, Ryan was able to select the team he wanted, rather than being without top talents from the best club squad in the country.
He didn't specifically reference the promotion decider against Clare in Round 5, but it's obvious that Limerick would have had a much better chance of winning that day if they had been able to select from a full squad.
Instead, they lost by four points, having had to play with 14 men for all of the second half after Barry Nash was sent off on a second yellow card just before the interval.
It was the third successive year that they were weakened for the League as their county champions chased All-Ireland glory, which raises the question: would Limerick have escaped from 1B in one of those seasons if they could have dealt from a full hand?
Cork (2014), Waterford (2015) and Clare (2016) had no such interference as they safely negotiated promotion courses.
"We were missing 25pc (Na Piarsaigh players) of our panel for the whole League. We missed players (Kilmallock) last year and the year before too (Na Piarsaigh).
"In three years in 1B, this team has lost only two games (of 15) and in both those games we had a man sent off," said Ryan, before cutting loose on some local critics back home in Limerick.
"If you come down to Limerick and see some of the vultures we have down there and read what's being said. . .
"There are hidden agendas all over the place - hidden agendas against this squad and against some of the backroom team. It has been part and parcel of my reign. It's frustrating."
He didn't identify the 'vultures' but obviously the criticism has stung him.
Quite what the basis was for the sniping is unclear, since Ryan was right to point out that Limerick were short-handed for three successive Leagues.
Perhaps it all goes back to what happened after Limerick ran Kilkenny so close in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final.
A month earlier, they had surrendered the Munster title to Cork but their semi-final performance was so full of promise that expectations soared.
Limerick led by two points early in the final quarter, only to experience the trademark Kilkenny crush, which saw the Cats home by two points.
It was very disappointing for Limerick but once the initial misery had subsided, ambitions soared ahead of last year's Championship. They continued on the upward graph when Ryan's men beat Clare, only to crash heavily at home to Tipperary in the Munster semi-final.
Dublin later beat them in the qualifiers and while the margin was only one point, it might as well have been ten.
The sense of a lost season was the same and, as seems ridiculously inevitable in almost all counties nowadays after a Championship exit, a disproportionate amount of responsibility was tossed in the manager's direction.
That was probably behind Ryan's straight-talking after the recent League quarter-final win. A break had finally gone Limerick's way and, understandably, he was savouring the moment.
The return of the Na Piarsaigh contingent had given Limerick an extra edge, with Dowling and Downes strengthening the attack while Lynch's presence facilitated a tactical adjustment.
The 19-year-old played as a sweeper, doing exceptionally well too in what was a powerful Limerick performance.
Now, the big question is whether they can further refine their approach and outwit a Waterford team that hurls a very structured game.
The Deise scored less (average 0-19) and conceded less (average 1-15) than the five other teams in the 1A group games and continued on the same pattern against Wexford in the quarter-final, winning by 0-17 to 1-3.
It leaves Waterford with only one goal, scored by sub Tom Devine against Tipperary last month, from their last seven League and Championship games.
"I won't say it's a damning stat but it's not one we want to be associated with," said manager Derek McGrath.
Waterford start as 4/7 favourites to win tomorrow, a ranking that will please Ryan and leaves McGrath apprehensive.
McGrath described Limerick as "a serious team" this week and with the shot of confidence that the win over Dublin provided, the he knows that this will be just as difficult as any of the 1A games.
Despite finishing behind Clare in 1B, Limerick were the group's top scorers and with the attack further strengthened by the return of the Na Piarsaigh set, the Waterford defence can expect quite a test.
Limerick are dangerous further out too, with midfielder Paul Browne enjoying an excellent season. Rather unusually for a midfielder, he is Limerick's top marksman from open play, scoring in all six games to reach a total of 0-18.
His ability to drift into open space and pick off long-range points makes him probably the top performing midfielder so far this year; it's something McGrath will have noticed.
Browne may find room more difficult to find amid Waterford's space-filling mechanisms than he did earlier on but, from a Limerick perspective, it's another problem that McGrath has to address as he attempts to plot a way into successive League finals.
It's amazing how quickly a season can turn. Deeply disappointed after the defeat by Clare, Ryan questioned - justifiably - why John Conlon's early goal had been allowed to stand after he took several steps too many before firing to the net.
Nor was he convinced that Nash should have been sent off, a loss that stacked the odds ever higher against Limerick. Despite the double setback, they were only four points behind at the finish. And in Ennis too.
Ryan's reaction to the win over Dublin pointed to a man who felt liberated and excited.
Limerick teams always bring huge determination to their efforts but, on this occasion, it was sprinkled with a corresponding level of efficiency.
It suggested that there's a whole lot more to come, especially when the successful U-21s feed into the squad and gain more experience.
The next test for Limerick is to show that the win over Dublin wasn't a one-off, but rather the official launch of a productive season.
Reaching a League final would help that particular cause and leave the 'vultures' with no carcass to hover over.
"We go from one extreme to the other. We go from talking about winning All-Irelands to talking about sacking managers. Let's talk about winning the League," said Ryan.
The next phase for that ambition comes tomorrow.