John Kiely hails character of his men as Limerick’s three-in-a-row dreams survive epic Galway challenge
Great teams are impervious to the outside world, deaf to the voices in fragile heads, blind to the consequences of failure.
For most of us, the idea germinates into a firm conviction that Limerick hurlers are, slowly, inexorably coming back to the pack, but they don’t think in those terms. Because if Galway took them to the brink here, this is a group uninterested in too many backward glances.
Asked to address the relevance of their All-Ireland final opponents on Sunday week, Kilkenny, being the only team that has beaten Limerick in the last five championships, John Kiely made the question sound almost eccentric.
“The game that you’re referring to was three years ago,” he shrugged in the media auditorium. “Can’t change the past, but by God we can influence the future.”
The miracle of the modern Limerick has been a vague indifference communicated toward the physical ferocity of opponents. How, after all, could you soften a team that scarcely as much as saw you?
Even at full pelt, they’ve been inclined to retain structure, control, ideology, simply refusing to bend to the will of others.
Is that changing? That taste to hurl resolutely on their own terms – which, for many an opponent, must have felt like banging on the door of an empty building – appears to be wavering under furious coercion now.
Clare managed it in the Munster final. Galway categorically did it here.
That they survived both blizzards tells us that their will is, at least, intact. But the rest of it?
“To be honest with you, I don’t think we worked quite hard enough today,” said Kiely flatly. “When we look back on it during the week, I think we’ll see our work-rate was down a notch. And that’s something we’ll be disappointed with.
“We turned over too many balls in the tackle and that’s our fault. The tackle is your opposition’s responsibility but holding on to the ball is ours. And we coughed up too many balls in the middle third.
“Not everything today was at the level we would have liked it to be.
“Our pass completion, the retention of ball… we know it wasn’t quite at the level that we wanted it to be. So we’re going to be going after that for the next 10 days to make sure it’s right for the next day.”
After a slow start in which they fell 0-1 to 0-6 down inside eight minutes, Henry Shefflin’s team actually played wonderfully. Aaron Gillane thieved three points off Daithí Burke in just six minutes and, yet, the Galway captain never surrendered the fight.
When your leader digs as deep as Burke managed yesterday, only a straw soldier refuses to follow.
And Shefflin had none of that species on duty here. To a man, his team took a torch to the idea that this might be a group with an almost unrivalled facility for under-performance and self-harm.
It was broadly noted after that the scoreline (0-27 to 1-21) was an almost perfect reprise of the semi-final arithmetic between these teams in 2020 (0-27 to 0-24). However, it framed an entirely different narrative.
Two years ago, Galway tried to pick off Kiely’s men from distance without ever truly threatening a bloody nose. But the moment Brian Concannon’s 37th-minute thunderbolt knifed past Nickie Quaid into the Canal End goal yesterday, Limerick understood implicitly that they were on the ropes.
Through it all, Henry was a dervish on the line, his windmilling arms working like a bellows on the team, both he and Paul Kinnerk even yellow-carded in the 47th minute as emotions flamed.
To survive, Limerick needed everything they had. Bench included.
David Reidy’s three points in a 15-minute cameo rightly became the headline story, but this felt like it went deeper.
“I’m going to be brutally honest,” said Kiely. “Every day we go out, the kitchen sink is fired at us. And whatever is left over after is fired as well. And we’ve had to stand up and take everything that’s been fired at us all season long.
“That’s just the way it is and I don’t see it’s going to change.
“But I know that every day our boys have stood up and withstood everything. They’ve shown great resilience, determination, composure, calmness and an ability to see out the game. And I’ve great trust in that, so I’m worried about nothing.
“The character was incredible but, listen, we know that. We trust our group. There’s incredible unity and togetherness within our group. That’s never ever been a doubt.
“The only thing I’d ever hate to do is to lose a game without us producing that on the pitch. That stuff that we pride ourselves on.
“I know these guys, every day, they always deliver. You know we will hit wides, we will misplace passes, we will miss a few chances here and there, we’ll concede scores.
“But ultimately, at the end of the day, we know if we keep at it and keep at it, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
The bonus was, obviously, getting game-time into Peter Casey and Cian Lynch too and Kiely pointedly name-checked Barry Murphy for putting in “a huge shift” that came up just short of getting him into the match-day 26.
And those who, maybe, underachieved in this cauldron?
Half of Limerick’s front eight – Darragh O’Donovan, Gearóid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey and Graeme Mulcahy – did not complete the 70 minutes, albeit Kiely could see only opportunity in front of those men now.
“For those players themselves, they want the challenge for the next 10 days,” he stressed. “If a fella is disappointed after his performance today, he wants the battle in training next Friday night, next Sunday, next Tuesday week.
“He wants that because he wants to fight for his own place and he wants to fight to get himself up to the level where he knows he’s fully prepared for the game that’s coming.”
That three-in-a-row remains on their radar then. But the road ahead is treacherously mined.