Former Limerick ace and ‘striker’ Condon reckons players’ actions in 2010 paved way for county’s current successes
You often have to deal with the darkness before experiencing the light and while he departed the county scene with Limerick at the pinnacle after two All-Ireland SHC successes in three years, Tom Condon was also there when they hit rock bottom.
Condon’s retirement at the end of the 2020 season marked the last of the famous ‘strikers’ to exit stage left, having taken a stand under Justin McCarthy a decade beforehand when Treaty fortunes were on the floor.
Condon had been handed his inter-county debut in 2009 and was only on the panel a wet week but he knew enough to know that what was happening just wouldn’t cut the mustard, with radical action the only solution.
The nuclear button had to be hit, as they regretfully withdrew their services – “it wasn’t done lightly” – and 2010 was a write-off for him and Limerick as a brand new squad, who were paddled by all and sundry, took to the field under McCarthy. “Believe me, you do have supporters who said that they’d never again go to a Limerick game as long as such and such was still on the panel after not playing in 2010, I’ve heard this so many times,” Condon reflects.
“People thought that we were doing it out of our own selfishness, we weren’t. We knew ourselves that things weren’t right and it wasn’t being done right. The last thing we want to do is go out and make an embarrassment of ourselves. You just want to be given the best opportunity that you can to actually go out and achieve something.”
It may not have seemed like it at the time, but the wheels were actually slowly in motion for the golden period which they are currently experiencing to eventually unfold.
“From all of that fiasco, all of the underage structures were put in place and that’s where a lot of these fellas came through, from the structures that were put in place back then to invest in coaches, facilities, to get the right coaching,” he adds.
“The Academy was set up, the proper structures were put in place to facilitate the growth of the future generation of Limerick hurlers. It’s been slow progress since then, but we are where we are because of that.”
Their 2009 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tipperary, a 6-19 to 2-7 massacre, also “spurred John Kiely to get involved and make a difference and he rang the county board to get on board somehow in management”. Lo and behold, Kiely would be the messiah to lead them to the promised land in 2018 but even that arrived after an underwhelming first season, with Condon considering his future after their lacklustre qualifier defeat to Kilkenny in 2017.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Condon smiles. “After the Kilkenny game, there was a lot of deep soul-searching and reflection going on and I was like, ‘Will I, won’t I stay on?’ I’d a good chat with John and he maintained that I still had a lot to offer. “He said to not even think about walking away. There’s a lot of lads that have gone before me and better hurlers that deserved a Celtic Cross, but unfortunately they didn’t get one and I was just lucky enough that when it happened, it clicked right.”
It didn’t look like Condon would play a part on that famous September day in 2018 – when their 45-year Liam MacCarthy famine ended – as the clock ticked into injury-time with the Knockaderry defender resigned to remaining unused. History will always remember him as the one who made the famous catch that saved the Treaty’s bacon, though, as his white helmet stormed out with the last ball amid a sea of bodies to repel Galway’s last-gasp chase for a score with what is known locally as ‘The Hand of Tom’.
If his famous interception hadn’t happened, who knows what might have occurred or where the sliotar might have wound up and it was “fairytale stuff” to play the final six minutes and leave his own indelible print on the game’s greatest occasion.
As one of the old stock among the new generation, Condon had experienced a few uncomfortable moments dealing with the culture shock of how Kiely and coaching guru Paul Kinnerk wanted them to play, though. “There was a big change in terms of the style of play alright,” he chuckles. “I’ll never forget we were playing Waterford early in 2017. I’d come on and John and Paul were trying to instil this type of play, to work the ball through the lines and stuff like that.
“I remember Nickie Quaid hit a short puck-out to me 45 yards out and I just took a shot from way out and I’ll always remember Paul running onto me and he just looked at me and he goes, ‘No Tom, no, no, no, no. Play through the lines’.
“It was a shock to the system, but you have to change or move on. You look at things differently and think, ‘Jesus, yeah you can see why they are playing this certain style’ or you can see why the percentages of us retaining the ball or scoring goes up. The day of pot-shots and not looking where you’re hitting the ball is gone. Everything is possession, retain it, work it through the lines until - as Paul Kinnerk always talked about - you get it to the optimum man. That’s the fella that’s in the best position to deliver the best ball into our full-forward line.”
“Genius” is the only way Condon can describe Kinnerk as he concocted training sessions that were “absolutely through the roof and left you floored” but also prepared them for anything in a championship game.
Condon is outside the bubble now but he “can’t stop smiling” when he thinks of the memories made. “Even if you were getting flogged or getting sick in training, you were still enjoying it because everyone was going through the same thing”.
He is an anxious and excited supporter now but the “Limerick family” has continued to excel in his absence and he doesn’t think they are for catching this year, despite Henry Shefflin’s Galway coming down the tracks.
“They’re just as resilient as ever and mentally strong now. That’s built up over time and I just can’t see anybody stopping them,” the 34-year-old says matter-of-factly. “If Limerick perform to what they’re capable of, like in the Munster final, they’re only going to improve and they’ll win the three-in-a-row.
“It’s always about putting yourself in the position and it’s up to every other team to catch Limerick. These lads are just so used to winning at the moment – they have the hunger. They just love winning, that’s what they’re accustomed to at the moment.
“It’s up to other teams to develop and get up to the speed of it. I can’t see Limerick out of the top three or four over the next five years and if they put themselves in the position, I can see them always getting over the line, both mentally and physically.”
They are now masters of making it over that elusive end line, with Condon’s catch the catalyst that first got the ball rolling. Who knows when it will stop moving now.