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Act seven, scene three of a true tragi-comedy

ACT SEVEN, scene three, of the Shannonside Saga takes place tonight when delegates of the Limerick county board convene for a special meeting and with a very significant decision to make.

To misquote that famous non-hurling man who gave the world Hamlet, to be or not to be decisive, that is the question. Or more precisely: to shaft Justin or to carry on regardless of the inevitable consequences, that is the conundrum.

It seems that local opinion remains pretty split on this latest eruption of hurling civil war. Yet to most outsiders looking in -- or at least those who haven't already been bored into a semi-comatose stupor -- the answer would appear every bit as emphatic as the losses that Limerick's shadow squad have recently endured.

It is surely time for the Limerick board to thank Justin McCarthy for his services and say it's time to go our separate ways -- in other words, to finally grasp a reality that has been blindingly apparent for months.

It doesn't matter whether you agree with the Limerick hurlers who refuse to play for their boss, or whether you view them as small-ball Bolsheviks. Whether you think players who devote so much of their time are entitled to a voice or whether you stand by the old mantra that players should play and administrators should administer.

It doesn't matter whether you think McCarthy must share the responsibility for that 24-point trimming against Tipp last August (and the dubious tactics employed therein), or whether you believe players who capitulated so tamely have no right to go claiming a veto on who should coach them in future.

It doesn't matter whether you think communication and man-management skills (McCarthy's gravest failings) are critical to the success of the squad-boss dynamic, or whether you believe a group of players who have frequently underachieved should be thankful for the small mercy of having such a decorated coach guiding them.

All of these conflicting arguments were long ago rendered obsolete by the one overriding truth of all player-manager relations -- one that applies to professional team sports but even more so to the amateur GAA where inter-county hurlers and footballers are not beholden to any contractual arrangement.

And that truth is: once you lose the dressing-room, it's time to pack your kitbag.

In other counties where this has happened, several out-of-favour managers have spied the writing on the dressing room wall and left quietly, or else were cajoled into doing so by their county board bosses.


They don't do that in Cork -- or at least they didn't. They procrastinated for a long time on the same vexed question in Clare last winter, but at least they didn't allow the dispute to fester beyond the close season.

In Limerick, though, the executive has allowed this crisis to drift on for almost five months. Even the most recent Cork conflagration involving Gerald McCarthy didn't go on so long.

The template for playing out these disputes is now enshrined by a set of depressingly familiar 'rules': (a) board chiefs stick by their man; (b) club delegates are disinclined to rock the boat; (c) the initial presumption that players will buckle proves wide of the mark; (d) claim and counter-claim are made, mud is flung back and forth; (e) suddenly a new season is upon us and your county has an entirely new team; (f) some attempt at mediation is made even though the concept looks doomed from the outset; (g) the rookies reveal initial flashes of heroism in defeat; (h) but after a few rounds of the league, the margins grow wider and attendances dwindle and you know it's only going to get worse come summer; (i) until, finally, the incumbent goes or is pushed.

But will the end game arrive in Limerick tonight? Being perfectly honest, we're loath to second-guess events.

With so many senior clubs now opposed to McCarthy it's possible that he'll be voted out. Our hunch is that the nightmare alternative could yet materialise, one where the motion of 'no confidence' is backed by a simple majority of delegates but not the required two-thirds.

In other words, the manager is left with a minority mandate that includes the support of the officers but with most clubs against his continued tenure.

Would he stay or would he go, then? God only knows, but quoting the rule book would look a pretty nebulous argument in those circumstances.

Whatever happens, there is one certainty: 2010 is already a write-off for the Limerick hurlers (whoever they are). Moreover, unlike the story of Cork last year, the damage could extend far beyond the season of this sorry dispute.

To be or not to be, as the old bard might say...