Saturday 16 December 2017

Drawing potential out of the 'Well

Having bridged a gap in Limerick, Gary Kirby and his charges are ready for a crack at Munster

Aaron Gillane of Patrickswell in action against Ballybrown’s Des Kenny during the Limerick SCH final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Aaron Gillane of Patrickswell in action against Ballybrown’s Des Kenny during the Limerick SCH final. Photo: Diarmuid Greene

Dermot Crowe

His recollection is a little hazy but the Patrickswell club notes reveal that at its committee meeting on Wednesday, January 13 the following management team was ratified: Declan Fitzgerald, coach; Ross Corbett, strength and conditioning; John O'Brien, selector; and the man sitting here now, having come straight off a 12-hour work shift, Gary Kirby: manager.

Due to turn 50 next January, Kirby is instantly recognisable from the hurler who marauded the playing fields 20 years ago in the green of Limerick, winning four All Stars and virtually every honour in the game. The one to elude him he might be remembered for most. He wasn't alone there, joining scores of other Limerick hurlers in doomed bids to emulate those who triumphed on the wet day in September 1973.

Patrickswell manager Gary Kirby Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Patrickswell manager Gary Kirby Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

But his story, like all players fortunate enough to play county, started and finished with his club. And in coaching and management the story continues to renew itself, even if the spotlight is less invasive and the public fascination has ebbed. The oldest player on the Patrickswell team is 39-year-old Barry Foley, a teenage revelation in the famous Gaelic Grounds win over Clare 20 years ago. Beneath Foley the age profile is nearer 20 in the main. Five of the Limerick players that won an All-Ireland under 21 title last year hail from the club.

How many of them even remember Kirby playing or saw him in the flesh? He is old enough to remember being at the '73 All-Ireland final with his family and he can recall that year's Munster final cliffhanger with Tipperary and the winning score off the stick of Richie Bennis, his uncle. Patrickswell are still producing good hurlers, if not the same stream of county titles. Two weeks ago they ended a 13-year wait for a 19th senior championship, a record haul they share with Ahane.

Kirby, a ten-time county championship winner, has coached many of these players from their earliest days. For ten years he stopped working to focus on raising his three kids, reinventing himself as a house husband, a family decision which granted his wife, Carmel, the main bread-winning role. She is a native of Kinsale and employed as chief fire officer for Limerick county. Kirby spent some of his free time coaching kids in the local national school and also helped out at Crescent College, his alma mater. He gave five years to the UL Freshers teams, winning an All-Ireland.

In UL, Declan Fitzgerald was his coach. The two have retained that working relationship with Patrickswell. His family has also grown up. Jane is now 17, Patrick 14 and John 13. "The daughter is big into the hockey, she played in the inter-pros last weekend," he explains. "Patrick played Tony Forristal this year; John will probably play it next year."

He had two years previously as Patrickswell manager, reaching the semi-finals of the county in his second season, when Brian Lohan came on board as a coach, but they lost narrowly to eventual winners Na Piarsaigh. In 2003, he was on the club team that won its 18th title, his last county medal, and he retired after they lost the Munster club final to Newtownshandrum later that year. For two-and-a-half years he served with Richie Bennis on the county management team appointed when Joe McKenna left suddenly in the summer of 2006. They brought stability and in '07 reached an All-Ireland final but were gone after a poor '08. After Justin McCarthy's reign ended, Kirby applied for the Limerick job and got an interview but the position went to Donal O'Grady.

He went back coaching the juveniles, spent some time with a camogie team and then the chairman, Kieran Carroll, an old friend who lived four houses away, came calling. On his phone he shows a photograph of the two, Kirby and Carroll, clutching the county trophy after beating Ballybrown in the final two weeks ago. "I treasure that," he says. A special moment? "It is yeah. He is our chairman and trying to pull everything together. There has been fall-outs, there is no point saying there hasn't been. But one thing I will say about that guy is everything he does is for the club, not for himself. And I would say this: it is the same for me."

As a player, Kirby came into a Patrickswell senior team studded with stars, and already having won two titles in a row; his first county medal in 1984 marked their third on the trot. He'd win ten medals and two more at Munster level. But in his first time managing he felt the players hadn't the same depth of feeling for it. "I felt there wasn't enough hurt there with the players. That, if they lost, so what? We'll just move on. But last year when we lost the county final I went out on the pitch and you would see genuine hurt and disappointment in the players. Which I thought was a great thing; it showed it meant something to them.

"Then Deccie, the coach, was already involved, he was already in, and then the strength and conditioning guy Ross Corbett, he was already in. So I knew they were very good, so it was easy enough make the decision to go with them. I just needed the backing of the wife, that was the big one, what she would think? But as it turned out all the family wanted me to go for it bar the young fella (John); John wanted me to do the 14s but we got over that."

They looked at last year's final and how the team faded in the final stretch. They'd won the semi-final easily but there was a traceable fade in the same period. So they focused on increasing stamina. They weren't winning enough loose ball in the middle of the field. They looked at that. Barry Foley had been a success as an experimental full-back last year, but in the final it came unstuck. For a couple of years he had effectively stopped hurling, was persuaded back and then he had one bad day. They dissuaded him from quitting; he stayed, worked hard and has ended up in a new midfield role.

James Mann came back from injury during the campaign and was a natural full-back option. Another problem solved. Cian Lynch returned from America, refreshed, and starred in their last three matches as they swept to the championship, destroying Ballybrown in the final. Did Munster get a moment's thought? No. But now it is upon them and they feel they can have a decent crack.

They played Glen Rovers, today's semi-final opponents, in a challenge a couple of months ago never thinking they'd meet again in a match like this. "We told the boys to enjoy the county final celebrations, they needed to celebrate a county final victory," says Kirby. "We had a great night, and another on Monday night. Some did Tuesday evening. And we were back training Wednesday night. We did Wednesday night, Thursday night, Saturday morning and Monday morning."

He is upbeat about their prospects. "I would say we have a strong squad, and six good forwards. In the quarter-final we had 11 different scorers, in the semi-final eight and in the final ten, all from play. We have a great spread of players who can score from any direction. Even in the county final there were 19 points scored from outside our '45. I would say we have five or six of the best forwards that have ever represented our club, as a scoring unit. They are very strong that way. Going on that I would think we have a chance this year. I would put it to you this way: we are every bit as good as what's out there."

Somewhere along the way he found time to manage Bruff in the intermediate championship, leading them into senior hurling. It appealed because there was no chance that they would be facing Patrickswell, which was a non-runner. Once they went senior he could not longer stay in the position.

"I coached them for three years. We were beaten in Munster club final by Cappoquin from Waterford and they (Bruff) went up senior last year and asked would I stay on. I said no, I couldn't coach a team against Patrickswell. I just couldn't do it."

Winning with the 'Well then has no equal. "Winning that county final was the happiest moment I ever had to be honest with you. We went out that Sunday night and I don't drink - well, maybe a small glass of wine when we'd go for dinner - but I am not a drinker. And I just sat back and I really enjoyed it. You'll never again see what we saw to be honest with you. I won ten counties and we did not celebrate like this.

"Only a few players were there who had a county medal, most never saw a team paraded through the village. My young fella was one when we won it last. We have three local pubs in the village, we did the three of them, from 8 in the evening to 3 in the morning there was a singsong, the whole way through. I have it on my phone."

They don't have the numbers other clubs enjoy and need to make up teams in certain age groups with younger players, maybe two or three years below the upper limit. During the 13-year wait for a senior title there were tensions and rows and blame was freely apportioned. "It was all about power, 'I want this, and he shouldn't be doing that'. Now I've seen past players and the tears coming out of their eyes last Sunday (week). The passion is there in the club. I saw a fella shake a fella's hand whose hand he hadn't shook in three years. A player was dropped, there was a fall-out."

Winning has healed rifts and rolled back the years. Why stop now.

Munster Club SHC semi-final

Patrickswell v Glen Rovers, Gaelic Grounds 3.30

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