O'Grady can lay foundations for Limerick rebuild
Today's county final will herald a new beginning for Limerick hurling, writes Dermot Crowe
A LL those devoted disciples who journeyed to see Limerick hurl in this year's Munster Championship against Cork -- knowing there could only be one result -- are entitled to feel exultant over the arrival of Donal O'Grady. There were few better redeemers available in their hour of need.
O'Grady will be at the Gaelic Grounds today to watch the county final between Kilmallock and the south divisional side Emmets, a conglomerate of junior and intermediate clubs. One of those clubs is in the county intermediate final and two others have reached the penultimate stage of that competition.
Emmets are outsiders but capable of troubling Kilmallock -- the outcome isn't, like much of what has passed for Limerick hurling of late, a foregone conclusion.
O'Grady will be joined at the Gaelic Grounds by his three selectors, all ex-county players, Pat Heffernan, Ciarán Carey and TJ Ryan. All have management ambitions of their own, and each one was interviewed for the Limerick post. It is foreseen that one of the three will take over the reins once O'Grady departs. The Corkman has been appointed for just one year, but could stay longer if he were to express interest.
O'Grady has the kind of solid credentials which can only aid Limerick's plight. Straight and methodical in his approach, he also has experience of a post-strike situation from his time with Cork, leading them out of the darkness to an All-Ireland final in 2003 and outright victory in 2004.
As he'll hope will be the case in Limerick, he found the Cork players were already greatly self-motivated, anxious to make up for a lost year -- he simply created the environment and conditions in which that will could flourish. Early reports of players being sent home from training for turning up late gave an insight into O'Grady's stern and intolerant line on discipline. Under O'Grady, it will either be done right or not at all.
There won't be any great drama or fancy introductions for the new manager and his team this afternoon. He will hardly recite, like Thatcher, the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi or make much of a show. Already he has met with his selectors informally and this will afford them another encounter in an appropriate setting.
Aside from the stabilising influence O'Grady offers, and his strong and commanding leadership, he is a shrewd and intuitive coach with a natural feel for the game. The players can look forward to enjoyable training sessions, once the drills begin, and they will benefit from a good hurling education.
He will lay down a foundation of good management practice. Limerick's mismanagement at various levels, the gallivanting ways of young players that brought the county ridicule, and the rapidly declining standards in play have left it the worst performing hurling county in Munster outside of Kerry. Having to travel to Antrim and face Clare in next year's league means that promotion from Division 2 won't be the cakewalk it once was. But they are in a better place now and eager to get going.
Apart from crippling deficiencies in man-management, the last management team under Justin McCarthy did not enjoy the careful construction that this one has benefited from.
This has not been a hasty assembly. O'Grady's shortcomings in knowledge of the player base will be less of a problem with three able associates at his side. Carey is still hurling for Patrickswell, though this may now end, while TJ Ryan is not long finished and Heffernan was part of the Blackrock squad that won last year's All-Ireland junior hurling title. All three are well respected and popular members of the Limerick hurling family and throwbacks to a time when Limerick prospered in the 1990s.
With O'Grady's conducting, there are grounds for renewed optimism. "He's a guy I would have a serious amount of respect for," says one of O'Grady's selectors. "He has been through the mill. He comes across as very fair and honest."
Kilmallock, captained by Gavin O'Mahony, haven't won the title since 1994 and are backboned by four consecutive under 21 title-winning teams. Their last county final, a defeat by Garryspillane in 2005, brought an end to a number of careers, including that of Mike Houlihan, and refocused emphasis on to rebuilding. Former Clare manager Tony Considine is in charge of the team, with the former Limerick hurler Jimmy Carroll managing Emmets.
The close proximity to Kilmallock of many Emmets-affiliated clubs adds a keen edge to today's rivalry. In an earlier meeting in the group stage, Emmets left an encouraging impression and had they not missed nine scoreable frees, according to one account, they might have won the match.
The introduction in recent years of divisional teams -- one of the four divisional sides qualifies for the senior championship -- has been well received. Players from smaller clubs are given the opportunity to play at the highest level and advertise their credentials to county management teams. The presence of O'Grady and his selectors will give them an added incentive this afternoon.