Hurling's bad bank
ONE of the sadder aspects of the row which has disfigured Limerick hurling so grotesquely is that relatively few people seem to care.
Really care, that is. It's as if there's a sense of resignation inside Limerick that this season is a write-off and that it's now a matter of enduring the pain and the embarrassment before calling in the slate cleaners after the championship lurches to its inevitable failure. Meanwhile, let's have the pubs open on Good Friday and enjoy the rugby.
Outside of Limerick, interest in the interminable saga waned a long time ago. Unlike the Cork disputes of 2008 and '09 which, despite their wearisome episodes, always retained the attention of the hurling world, Limerick's civil war lost the public a long time ago.
Whatever about their methods, the Cork players knew exactly what they wanted and were prepared to work assiduously towards achieving it. Pictures of the '08 squad training collectively on frosty January mornings sent out an unmistakable signal that they were a serious group, who had a coherent plan and policy in place. Whether or not you agreed with their methods was irrelevant, but you definitely had to admire their zeal and organisational clarity.
And while the county board stuck by decisions reached earlier in the closed season, everybody knew that sooner rather than later the mood in the county would swing behind the players. Cork tried the second string route early on in the league but as Dublin, Tipperary and Galway all trounced them, the futility of the exercise became apparent.
It was followed by rising temperatures as the Cork hurling public demanded a solution which would bring the striking squad back. Some of the treatment dished out to Gerald McCarthy in that period was disgraceful but, inevitably, there could only be one solution.
McCarthy departed, the '08 panel returned, Denis Walsh was appointed manager and the hard work began. Still, it was too late for Cork to turn the season around.
Justin McCarthy would have seen what happened in his native county and while the background to the row which erupted in Limerick last autumn was different, one might have thought he would have carefully assessed the risk associated with alienating players.
Of course he was entitled to overhaul the panel following a season where Limerick's arrival in Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final wasn't a true reflection of their place in the pecking order. Quite simply, they weren't the third or fourth best team in the country and were demolished by Tipperary in the semi-final.
One wonders if McCarthy would have done things differently if given a chance to re-visit last October's landscape. Would he have phoned the players he was omitting to thank them for their services? Wasn't it the very least they deserved?
Presumably, McCarthy informed the county board executive of his decision to omit several of the '09 squad. Surely, that should have prompted the top table to ask if he'd talked to them as a matter of courtesy. A player can have no complaints if he's omitted from a squad, but he is entitled to be personally informed of the decision. And once the Limerick cull had taken place without any communication from management, the seeds of trouble were sown.
Five months on, they have grown into noxious weeds which are a blot on the Limerick hurling landscape.
McCarthy rides on with the backing of the county board executive and the majority of clubs, but to where? To three more League defeats, demotion to Division 2 followed by two championship defeats in summer? Very likely.
If the players thought that, like their Cork counterparts, they had the support of their clubs and the public they were badly mistaken. But then their campaign was poorly focused, haphazard and lacking a purposeful sense of direction. That was evident from the start and reinforced this week when mixed messages emerged from the squad.
The difference between Cork and Limerick was that, down on Leeside, the public appreciated what the players had achieved. They were winners, whereas the Limerick squad were seen as under-achievers who had been through six managers in 10 years. That's actually unfair on many of them, who were as good and as dedicated as players in any top county, but squads are judged on results and unfortunately for Limerick they didn't deliver.
A crucial point came when Croke Park declined to become involved in mediation as they'd done in Cork. Having made discreet enquiries, they realised it was pointless intervening in a row that could only be solved locally. That's not to say Limerick's mess shouldn't be of real concern to GAA chiefs. Hurling is strong in few counties as it is, without effectively losing one for a season. This year's League has been damaged by the dispute just as the '08 and '09 Leagues were hit by the Cork rows.
As for the longer impact on Limerick hurling, it could be more serious than is thought. On Good Friday, the city's bars will be full of people before and after the Munster-Leinster rugby game.
Many of them will be from Limerick, but will the row occupy the thoughts of even those among them who are hurling followers? Probably not, because there's dispute fatigue all across the county. Meanwhile, rugby's profile continues to grow. That's bad for Limerick hurling -- and indeed the wider game.
The scary thing is that if Mike McNamara hadn't resigned in Clare, the same thing might be happening there. Cork '08 and '09, Clare (for several weeks) and Limerick (on-going) in 2010 all had serious managerial issues. Wexford have had their difficulties too and, of course, Justin McCarthy stood down in Waterford after a player revolt two years ago.
It's all damaging to hurling at a time when it should be commanding headlines for positive reasons.
Plans are now being prepared to present counties with guidelines and protocols so that this type of problem can be sorted out at the early stages. That's to be welcomed because managers, county boards and players have very different ways of looking at things so it's important to install mechanisms which raise the alarm at the first sign of trouble.
All three have prospered in Limerick since last October, resulting in a dramatic devaluing of the county's hurling stock. And as the Anglo Irish Bank saga has shown, one bad bank can corrupt a whole lot more than those directly involved. That's the worry for hurling in Limerick and beyond.