Vincent Hogan: Limerick desperate for a little recognition
Most romance in sport is a lie, so Limerick footballers know what is expected of them now. The deep reservoir of irritation that brought out a raging Lear in Stephen Lavin last weekend confirmed their self-awareness. On Thursday, Seanie Buckley said the team "echoed" every decibel of Lavin's anger. Media indifference sticks to their skin like drizzle, you see.
To some eyes, they probably shouldn't even be in Dublin tomorrow. The victory over Wexford was usurped by a debate about Laurel and Hardy umpiring, leaving them feeling welcome as hyenas among a herd of goats.
So maybe it wasn't so much Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly that Lavin raged against last Saturday night as the system. He's been a decade sweating blood for a cause that seems to invite little more than platitude and numbing cliche.
"No one cares about us," said Lavin. Was he wrong?
Tomorrow they will play Kerry for the second time this summer and, most probably, exit the championship. And, before they even reach the showers, the game will have turned up its collar to their story. When he was their manager, Liam Kearns warned them that this could be their inheritance.
Without silverware, history would disregard them.
He spoke to Lavin this week and attributes the player's incendiary words to the "high" of reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final. "But that doesn't mean he wasn't telling the truth," says Kearns. "He was telling the truth.
"What he said may have been in the heat of the moment, but it was coming from the heart. These fellas haven't got a lot of breaks over the years. They've endured some amount of hardship. But any time they beat somebody or get close to a big team, they wouldn't get credit for it. It was patronising stuff, always.
"The thing is, the media will take interest in you and get to know a little bit about you only if you achieve something. That's the reality of it. There is very lazy punditry out there. Pundits that you can tell don't know a thing about the so-called weaker teams.
"It's obvious from their lack of knowledge of the way a team actually plays. It's so bad sometimes that they actually get names wrong. And for proud guys like Stephen Lavin, that's killing to listen to."
Trouble is, Limerick football is cursed by provincial arithmetic. Their only senior Munster title was won in 1896, when 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett was heavyweight champion of the world. And Corbett died an old man before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Sure, they've gone close since, agonisingly so in the last decade. But, over time, a small eternity of hard luck stories just begins to grate like a keening violin.
That said, Limerick haven't lost to Clare, Tipperary or Waterford in championship football since the '90s. In '03, they trimmed Cork by 10 points in a Munster quarter-final only to have Kerry waiting for them in the final.
One year later, they drew a Munster final with Kerry, lost the replay by four points and -- six days later -- slipped out of the qualifiers against Derry.
In '08, they lost the Munster semi-final to Cork by three points and, one year later, spilled two late goals to lose the provincial final to Cork again by a single point. Last year, Kerry beat them by a goal in the Munster final, then Cork took them by two points after extra-time in the qualifiers.
The bluebloods keep pushing them down. Worse, four of Limerick's last nine All-Ireland qualifier exits have been by a single point, one by two and two by three.
So every flashing moment of escape seems to quickly recede in a blur of frustration. Buckley, a city garda based in Foxboro Street, has been a county player since '05 and admitted this week that the novelty of pitching up for training on the doorstep of August reminded him how "this is why you play the game in the first place".
"We've got nothing easy," said Buckley. "We've been knocking on the door for so many years without kicking the door down. And it gets frustrating then when you're written off so often. But look, until you make the breakthrough, the pundits are entitled to say what they choose."
Defeats always leave scar tissue and, maybe, none deposited more than those two clangorous meetings with Kerry in '04.
If anything, that was a better Limerick team than today's and they twice had Jack O'Connor's team by the lapels. They led the drawn game at the Gaelic Grounds by 1-6 to 0-1 before being reined in and, siting John Galvin on the edge of the 'square' for the replay, stretched 1-6 to 0-2 clear again in Killarney.
That, maybe, should have been their moment. It was lost.
Kearns, himself a Kerryman, remembers: "Galvin terrorised them in the replay and it was weird. There was a huge Kerry crowd there and, with about seven minutes to go to half-time, they were completely silent.
"But then Colm Cooper got a penalty for absolutely nothing and they came back at us. Of course, after we'd run Kerry so close, the general consensus was that they had no hope of winning the All-Ireland. But they were actually never tested again for the rest of the year. They won the All-Ireland easily.
"And Limerick got no credit for being the only team that pushed them."
An added complication for Limerick that spring had been a stand-off with the hurling management over dual players. Kearns recalls the dynamic of the time as simple confirmation that, above anything, Limerick was a hurling county.
Six players were wanted by both squads and Kearns was happy to reach some form of accommodation. But hurling manager Pad Joe Whelahan maintained that he needed the "full commitment" of every player and Kearns believes he had the county board backing to make such a stand.
"The gun was put to players' heads in the obvious belief that the boys would go and play hurling," he suggests.
"But they felt very strongly that we'd worked hard to get where we were. They weren't going to be told who to play for and who not to play for. So they decided en masse to stay with the footballers. I'd told them in no uncertain terms that, if we lost them, I'd have walked. Because we had five years done at that stage and I reckoned we might be ready to achieve something.
"The county board didn't expect that outcome. Because Limerick is a hurling county. You could see that again this year. All of the attention and praise in Limerick has been on the hurlers."
You must earn the right to be obstreperous, though, and this year -- to begin with -- the footballers didn't do that.
An unexceptional Division 3 league campaign was followed by their 1-26 to 3-9 whipping by Kerry on June 4. It seemed to reduce them to little more than championship flotsam. They'd gone into the game down six players who had started last year's Munster final and the depletion seemed to infiltrate their thinking.
With a rookie manager, Maurice Horan, in charge, their obituary was now writing itself.
"You'd have to say we got so many things wrong on the day," recalls Buckley. "We probably showed them too much respect. We were going in concerned about the number of lads we were missing. Every match, every challenge game, every training session, someone new seemed to be going down injured.
"I won't say the heads weren't right, but we weren't maybe in a great place. There wasn't a great atmosphere going into that game. But we've picked things up since and, to a man, everyone's stood up to be counted."
Horan, too, has managed to impose his personality on the squad.
The influence of Kearns and Mickey Ned O'Sullivan coloured an entire decade of unrewarded excellence from Limerick footballers and Horan was an officer with none of those Kerry epaulettes.
Yet, critically, the players rated him. He'd been a selector to O'Sullivan as well as being the county's U-21 manager. "Maurice has a great knowledge of Limerick football, which is huge to us," says Buckley.
So they've traced a path of recovery through the qualifiers, beating Offaly (3-13 to 0-15), Waterford (0-14 to 0-9) and, last weekend, Wexford (1-18 to 1-17).
And along the line, they've had the comforting voice of veteran midfielder Galvin, albeit a damaged cruciate restricting his involvement to that of 'water boy'.
Galvin has been a Limerick stalwart since '99 and his head is a scrap-book of disappointments. When he thinks of the Kerry games in '04, he thinks too of the futility of trying to pick themselves up within six days for the qualifier against Derry. "It was actually impossible," he says.
Five minutes into that game, he remembers Lavin soloing into space and -- for maybe 20 metres -- his movement was that of a swooping bird. Then the elastic left his legs and he all but came to a standstill. The Kerry miles had killed them.
Last year's memories gall him too. "We had a massive chance to take Cork out of the championship," he says of their qualifier meeting in the Gaelic Grounds.
"But that's been Limerick's story for the last eight or 10 years. I don't know is it mental or what."
Kearns believes that simple geography is at the core of it. "I definitely think that Limerick were capable of winning a Leinster or Connacht championship over the last 10 years," he says. "But they're always coming up against Cork or Kerry in Munster and, whenever they get a bad beating, the pundits say there should be a 'B' championship for teams like Limerick.
"You can only imagine how galling that is for them to hear. Bear in mind, there's three Munster teams in the last eight now. And, for maybe three of the last 10 years, Limerick could say that they were the number two team in Munster.
"So they should be given credit for actually being able to compete with the big teams. They've been so close, so many times and endured such an amount of hardship. And, remember, the likes of Wexford or Fermanagh would never have got to All-Ireland semi-finals if they weren't playing in the championship proper."
Still, if there was a short straw in the quarter-final draw it was Kerry and, faithful to their history, Limerick pulled it.
The June meltdown will, no doubt, be referenced before they spill down the Croke Park tunnel tomorrow, but they're not foolish enough to tart the challenge up as anything other than a vast mountain to climb.
"You'd be stupid to say it was the draw we were all waiting for," accepts Buckley. "Maybe staying away from either Cork or Kerry would have been ideal. But we're there and we can have no complaints. We wouldn't swap places with Wexford, would we?"
Kearns expresses apprehension for a team, opened so effortlessly by Kerry in the tighter confines of the Gaelic Grounds two months back, now facing the Kingdom in what he calls their "spiritual home".
"They were better equipped two years ago to go to Croke Park," he says of Limerick. "And certainly better equipped back in my time. It's ironic. If we had Ian Ryan and Ger Collins back in my time, they'd have definitely won Munster titles and you wouldn't know where they'd have gone after that.
"But, given the small base they're drawing from, it's a fantastic achievement for this team just to make the last eight."
Galvin will have his operation on September 6 and is hell-bent on being back in the team in 2012. Tomorrow, he promises to be an opinionated water-carrier.
"We're always on about the importance of communication," he chuckles, "and I'm certainly going to be another voice. I really don't care what happens as long as there's a massive performance. We've got to show that we deserve to be in the last eight.
"We've a point to prove to all the people that keep writing us off."
Story of their lives.