Wednesday 23 October 2019

'It's stuff you see in movies, above what we could have dreamed of'

Tom Condon reveals the euphoria of how his catch finally ended Limerick's 45-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy

Safe hands: Tom Condon catches the sliotar in the last seconds of the All-Ireland SHC final, which ended Limerick’s 45-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Safe hands: Tom Condon catches the sliotar in the last seconds of the All-Ireland SHC final, which ended Limerick’s 45-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Here's what he was thinking, 74 minutes into the All-Ireland final, as Limerick clung to a two-point lead like a life belt in a raging sea: "Ah Jesus, Limerick, are we going to do it again?"

Four months on, Tom Condon recites his thoughts with a hint of embarrassment, because for all the work with sports psychologists, for all the compartmentalised focus he knew he needed at that moment, three decades of hurling had ingrained in his subconscious a wretched thought - when the stakes are this high, Limerick is somehow gonna be Limerick.

"It's amazing what your mind can do to you," he says. "Crazy thoughts go through your head."

Four minutes later, during the final play of the game, the ball hung in the air for four interminable seconds, cannonballed in by Joe Canning with just one point between the sides - an anxious terror rising inside every man, woman, boy and girl in green.

Most finals are remembered for a specific score, a back-of-the-net blast or a pivotal point, but not this one.

It was the grab - a desperate snatch of the sliotar by a 30-year-old from a tiny club in Limerick with zero All-Ireland medals to its name. It was the swipe and sprint through a wall of bodies, up and over his county's countless failings, and away into open space, unshackled from unlimited heartbreak. Tom Condon had one thought before that final play, clichéd and all as it seems: walk away with no regrets.

"I was thinking this ball could drop short so it was going through my head, 'just attack this, don't stand back leaving someone else do it'. There's plenty times you tell yourself after games you should have gone for that ball," he says.

When Galway came charging like a Pamplona bull, he thought of '94. Of course he did. Everyone did.

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Six years old, running around his living room thinking Limerick had the All-Ireland in the bag, until of course they didn't, conceding 2-5 to Offaly in the last five minutes.

Two years later his parents couldn't get him a ticket for the final against Wexford, and Condon remembers his dad and uncle cramming into a Ford Fiesta with friends and setting off for Dublin, green and white flags hanging from every window. Of course, they lost that one as well.

After this year's final Condon wasn't surprised when guys like Nickie Quaid, who was also old enough to remember those losses, told him he had the same, haunting thoughts during those final minutes.

"It's not a nice thing to have pop into your head," he says. "But the younger lads wouldn't even mention that or think it - they're made of different stuff."

He joined the squad in 2009, the year Tipp vaporised Limerick with 6-19 in the semi-final, and it's a good thing not many others had scar tissue left from those days of drudge.

In 2010 Condon was one of many who refused to play under Justin McCarthy, feeling he had no option but to side with friends who had been dropped from the panel, and so he went off to Chicago for the summer, ticking a box on his bucket list.

Limerick won Munster in 2013 but their form went walkabout in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare, and ever since there's been enough moments to make any Limerick man miserable with remorse.

"We should have won one, but we never quite did," Condon says. "We had lot of regrets."

Key word: had.

This year he knew early on that things were different. The game they evolved under John Kiely - which had its origins in Donal O'Grady's tenure - became second nature.

Just before Christmas, Condon met friends at a boxing fundraiser and was unable to curb his enthusiasm.

"Something is going happen with this team; it mightn't be this year, but in the next two or three years we're going to win an All-Ireland," he recalls telling them. "I'd never been involved with such a talented group of players. There was a great buzz in the camp."

At 30 Condon was far from past it, but he'd been asked about retirement enough that he at least had to wonder, particularly with a full-time job at a factory in Askeaton and a two-year-old son, Nicky, to look after.

His girlfriend Sarah Carey, daughter of Limerick hurling great Ciarán, plays camogie with Limerick and such are the demands they can often be like ships passing in the night at home.

"Our family are great, always there to help and babysit and only for them I wouldn't be able to maintain it," says Condon. "It has been difficult. Sarah is training most nights and I'd be out five or six nights a week, but it's all worth it when you get days like that."

For much of the summer it seemed unlikely he'd get any playing time in the final, especially after the Clare game in June - the one blot on Limerick's perfect season.

Condon had been given his chance in the 13th minute when Sean Finn went off injured, but shortly before half-time he was shown red after striking David Reidy with his hurl in an off-the-ball incident.

They lost by 11 points, and Condon wondered if that was it for him and Limerick, especially when team-mates jokingly started calling him Zinedine Zidane, a nod to how the French great ended his international career with a red card for a headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final.

"It's great now to laugh about it, but at the time it was a bit raw," admits Condon. "I wondered was that how I was going to bow out? But I let the emotion take over and I shouldn't have."

The team's sports psychologist Caroline Currid had been telling them all year that if they played with emotion they'd play in peaks and troughs. Remove the emotion, find the consistency. But little could prepare Condon for how it felt sitting in the stands, awaiting a call-up during the All-Ireland final.

"It's horrific, your stomach is in knots and you can't do anything. There were times I couldn't look at the pitch, I was so wound up - you'd be nearly sick with nerves."

After 50 minutes he was told to warm up alongside Richie McCarthy when Mike Casey went down injured, but his heart sank a little when McCarthy got the nod. Condon stayed active on the sideline just in case, and when corner-back Richie English got injured in the 72nd minute, he finally had his chance.

"Jesus, when I went on I was battered from all angles - the intensity was ferocious," he says.

"We were still up five points and you think you're home and hosed, we're coasting, but those six minutes felt like 60 minutes."

He remembers Galway's aerial attack, ball raining down searching for all 6ft 5in of Johnny Glynn; he remembers stalking Conor Whelan and trying to spoil as much of his ball as he could; and he remembers that final moment, that last greedy snatch at the ball, his sprint to freedom to fill a lifetime void.

Idolised

"It was unbelievable," he says. "I ran and jumped around the place. I looked like an eejit, but what else do you do?"

Little moments - there's been so many these past few months, each a little signifier of its impact. Like the tears flooding the eyes of Conor McCarthy, a member of Limerick's backroom room, or visiting clubs around the county and understanding the true want - need - that had been out there.

A few weeks after the final he brought the cup back to Knockaderry, a village of 1,500 people, who he has played club hurling with since the age of seven.

"They've always stood behind me, no matter what, even through the red cards," laughs Condon.

Then there were the guys he idolised - Stephen McDonagh, Mike Houlihan, Joe McKenna and the likes - coming up to shake his hand, telling him they should win a few more in the years to come.

"I don't see any reason we can't push on and retain it. It's a massive ask, but we've beaten every team this year and it's the same format so why can't we win it again?"

Few would bet against it, though right now Condon has little inclination to look too far forward, not when looking back - for once - offers such a pleasing vista. He thinks back to that sea of green outside Colbert Station, and later in the Gaelic Grounds, the night they made their homecoming.

"It's stuff you see in TV or movies. The supporters have been phenomenal, even through the bad times, and it's brilliant to be able to give them joy," he says.

"What we got was over and above what we could ever dream of. It was ridiculous. It still is ridiculous."

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