Limerick boss John Kiely won't be a dark horse for long
Of the four managers patrolling the sidelines during today's National Hurling League semi-finals, the least conspicuous is Limerick's John Kiely. Maybe that is no bad thing. Limerick management appointments tend to be headline affairs, but Kiely has tiptoed in there more quietly than many of his predecessors. Those who know him describe him as being smart, well-rounded and as having a good rapport with players.
He looks to be a stabilising and unifying force. Since Eamonn Cregan's time, when he served for five years, Limerick have changed managers frequently and gone through many periods of turbulence and uncertainty. Kiely is their ninth manager since then but TJ Ryan, whom he replaced, had three years - the longest since Cregan.
A different pattern has now emerged. Kiely is also the first Limerick man to succeed a fellow county man in the job in 10 years.
That reliance on outside help is a reflection on the shortage of options at home. Limerick have been heavily infiltrated by managers from other counties on the club circuit for many years. It was during John Allen's spell in charge in 2012 and '13 that Kiely became involved as a selector and made a strong impression, leaving Allen reportedly to suggest he could have walked away after the first year and left it in the Galbally man's hands.
The following year they led Limerick to a first Munster title in 17 years, to euphoric scenes reminiscent of the great days of the 1990s, when Kiely was a county hurler for a period under Tom Ryan. He was an unconditionally committed corner-back whose misfortune it was that there were two outstanding men already in those positions, Stephen McDonagh and Declan Nash.
Kiely was an obvious candidate for the position vacated by Ryan last year, a player with whom he won a senior hurling championship for Garryspillane in 2005. He has also assembled a strong backroom team: Paul Kinnerk, coach to Clare when they won the All-Ireland in 2013; Joe O'Connor, who has been retained as strength and conditioning trainer, also with Clare in '13; Jimmy Quilty, a selector with Kiely during his team years managing the under 21s; former player Brian Geary; and former Clare hurler and coach Alan Cunningham.
Kiely was coach to the under 21 team that won a Munster title under manager Leo O'Connor in 2011, and was later recalled as manager for 2015 after they failed to win a match at the grade for three years. After a string of challenge games they set their sights on defeating Tipperary in the opening match, achieved it, and went on from there, breaking Clare's three-year dominance, defeating them in the Munster final in Ennis.
When Allen went for the Limerick senior post after Donal O'Grady had departed in late 2011, Kiely was also interviewed and is believed to have made a lasting impression. When Allen stepped down in 2013, after Limerick were defeated by Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final, Kiely looked a front-runner. But that year he was appointed principal of Abbey CBS in Tipperary town and had to focus his energies there instead.
Limerick have been frustrated by their lack of progress since 2013. Kiely has been given a three-year term to make a difference and help the county capitalise on their recent advances in underage hurling. The captain of last year's minor team that reached the All-Ireland final, Kyle Hayes, made his senior debut in the opening round of the league in Wexford in February, one of five newcomers.
The league has been about rotating players, experimenting and blooding hurlers. Limerick have spent the last seven seasons outside the top tier and their promotion hopes faded after losing to Wexford by a goal, where some of the refereeing decisions drew criticism from Kiely. When Wexford overcame Galway in the second round, the promotion issue was effectively resolved. Limerick went on a winning spree against the weaker counties in the division, destroying Laois by a 29-point margin, then finished with a defeat at home to Galway when losing their way in the second half.
Kiely used the word "abysmal" in relation to that fade-out and at times his frustrations have surfaced. But his underlying message has been that Limerick need time, patience and the support of genuine hurling people. He highlighted a minority of followers who directed abuse at his players after they lost a game in the Munster League to Cork earlier in the year, hammered 7-22 to 1-19, but the team that went out was highly experimental.
Their win in the league quarter-finals in Cork has piqued interest in the team again. They have another shot at Galway in the Gaelic Grounds today, where a win would see them reach a first league final since 2006. Their manager will be a more familiar figure nationally by then if that transpires.
Sunday Indo Sport