Friday 23 August 2019

The making of Aaron Gillane: Limerick man's meteoric rise from 'B' panels to All Ireland winner

 

Limerick star Aaron Gillane is among the best half dozen forwards in the game. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Limerick star Aaron Gillane is among the best half dozen forwards in the game. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He could have slipped away unnoticed, lost somewhere behind hurling's back. Aaron Gillane, just another silhouette, another rumour.

The game is such a resolutely masculine place, some disappear for simple, logical reasons; an incompatible career path, a life abroad. Others for just being denied the patience to fail and grow.

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In Patrickswell, Gillane's ability was always self-evident, but he was no shooting star, no Cian Lynch. Just someone who made county 'B' panels at U-14 and U-16 level, who struggled to make Limerick minors' match-day squads.

Someone who got a mere five minutes of action in the 2014 Harty Cup final, third sub for Ard Scoil Rís as they torqued to a 15-point win. Someone who was playing with the 'Well's juniors six years ago alongside a 43-year-old Ciaran Carey.

What changed?

Two years after leaving school, Gillane returned to Ard Scoil Rís for work experience in service to his career ambitions. Niall Moran, the former Limerick player who teaches and coaches there, remembers being struck instantly by the change. So often, there's a philosophical ocean between the school-leaving boy and the man who strides out of college.

For Moran, that's what he saw in Gillane after his first two years in Mary Immaculate College.

"Personality-wise, he changed an awful lot" he recalls. "To be honest, the guy we worked with two years after leaving school was probably very different to the one we remembered. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way.

Aaron Gillane of Limerick celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final match between Limerick and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Aaron Gillane of Limerick celebrates scoring his side's first goal during the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 Final match between Limerick and Waterford at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

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"But college for some guys, it's the one time in life they start becoming comfortable in themselves. And once a guy is comfortable in himself, he's comfortable in his game and, more importantly, in dealing with people.

"That, to me, was Aaron."

Gillane, today, is in hurling's best half-dozen forwards. Not an All-Star, admittedly. Last year's Munster Championship dismissal against Cork probably denied him that status, given his best hurling only really came as the season narrowed into a race for Liam MacCarthy.

Over the stretch of quarter-final, semi-final and final, Gillane's scoring accumulation amounted to 0-21, of which 0-11 came from play. And two early balls caught over the head of Daithi Burke in the final sent an energy through the Limerick team that only truly dissipated in injury-time, Galway suddenly bounding from the darkness.

Just turned 23 then, this story still has the sense of a beginning.

The last day of his old life? There probably hasn't been one, yet those who were in the Gaelic Grounds on November 6, 2016 saw something in Gillane that maybe previously hadn't been conspicuous.

As a group, Patrickswell misfired in that Munster club semi-final against Glen Rovers, but not everyone went down in flames.

Moran recalls Gillane "almost single-handedly" keeping his team in a contest they would lose by a solitary point.

Aaron Gillane
Aaron Gillane

"That was the day I really felt, 'this guy has changed, he's really a different animal!'" he remembers.

Jamie Wall was in attendance that day too, largely to cast an eye on Cian Lynch with Fitzgibbon hurling looming.

It would be his first campaign since taking the Mary I managerial reins from Eamonn Cregan and he'd already been in contact with some of the more senior players in the college, Lynch among them, to outline his plans for an attempted defence of their first Fitzgibbon crown.

In passing, Cian had mentioned a second year in the college who was hurling strongly for the 'Well. Wall had never seen Gillane play before but that day in Limerick, he knew instantly he had a player.

"I was just blown away," he remembers. "On the way home, I rang my selectors. 'Boys, we've got more than just Cian from the 'Well!' I knew straight away the minute I saw him. He could win dirty ball, he could finish, he could do everything."

What followed might easily be garlanded as some kind of transformative journey, but Wall is adamant that the player he saw against Glen Rovers was already half-way there. Gillane just needed to understand how good he could become.

Around the time Mary I were embarking on what would prove another triumphant Fitzgibbon campaign - Gillane at the epicentre of it - John Kiely was releasing the 'Well man from Limerick seniors' extended panel.

But, if life at Mary I rehabilitated Gillane's hurling career then Wall is reluctant to see that side of the story over-romanticised.

Challenge

That January, Mary I played a challenge against Laois seniors and everything Wall had seen in Gillane against Glen Rovers was confirmed that day in his performance at centre-forward.

He also stresses the importance of Darragh O'Donovan's willingness to let Gillane take the frees for Mary I on the basis that it would bring him instant involvement in each game.

"They all saw something in him" Wall says now.

"They all saw that if this lad kicked on and caught fire we'd have a serious operator.

"I'd love to take the credit for it, but it wasn't a case of any motivational masterstroke. Like it was Darragh who made me aware that he'd been dropped by Limerick seniors (he would be recalled after that Fitzgibbon campaign).

"I just think he needed a campaign playing with the likes of Ronan Maher, Richie English, these guys who were nearly born mean in a good way.

Like Aaron wasn't born mean, but he kind of developed that mean streak in his play. When I say mean streak, I don't mean hitting someone, I mean that kind of ruthless streak of going after a game and burying a team when they're there to be buried.

"A sort of Kilkenny meanness rather than any sort of stupidity. Like that campaign did an awful lot for him in that sense. By the end of that eight-week period, we nearly had a different fella to what we had at the start of our championship campaign."

Later that year he'd be a mainstay of Limerick's U-21 All-Ireland win and, two years on, Gillane now draws maybe hysterical comparisons with some of Limerick's greatest forwards.

But with such adulation comes sharper scrutiny too. That sending off against Cork last year, for a petulant strike on Sean O'Donoghue, offered a sobering reminder of the need for an even pulse in the white heat of battle.

Suspended for the subsequent Munster Championship game against Waterford, he only got his starting place back one month later for the preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final against Carlow.

"I thought I was after ending my year," he reflected subsequently.

Gillane's time at Mary I is up now, the team he captained ending up beaten finalists in this year's Fitzgibbon against UCC.

He hopes to become a primary school teacher and if the hype building around Limerick after the addition of a National League title to last August's All-Ireland win dissipated a little with the recent defeat to Cork, Moran believes Gillane is well equipped to bounce back from a poor individual performance against Eoin Cadogan.

"I often hark back to the All Blacks line that 'Better people make better All Blacks,'" says the Ahane man.

"When you see substance in a person, then that substance tends to carry through to how they perform sporting-wise. Aaron's a superb player, but he's still learning and maybe the lesson he learned the last day was he met a battle-hardened guy who got him into a kind of warfare, probably akin to what Henry Shefflin has spoken about being dragged into against Gregory Kennedy in '01.

"He's responded to adversity well before and the hope is that he will do it again. But people need to give these lads breathing space too.

"There's no patience with teams now. You're either a hero or a zero, people aren't willing to wait. I hear people even questioning Galway, just a year and a half after winning the All-Ireland.

"And they'll be very quick to criticise Limerick and Aaron now if they don't perform this Sunday (against Waterford), to say they were some kind of flash in the pan.

"But the reality is, no, it's only years from now anyone can make those judgments."

Wall is of a similar view, expressing specific respect for the leadership Gillane managed to communicate during his final year in college.

"It's been a massive 24 months for him," Wall reminds us.

"He's a smart guy. Like I think the Cork game last year was a brilliant learning curve for Aaron and I really hope that the Cork game this year will be another one.

"You have to remember Eoin Cadogan is a man. He won an All-Ireland football medal in 2010, he's someone who's been around the block a long time.

"Aaron's lucky in that he'll have the support of a very strong back-room team in Paul Kinnerk and John Kiely.

"They'll break it down to very simple things he didn't do. And, all of a sudden, it won't seem as emotive a subject. It will just become a learning experience.

"And you know, down the line, it could be the best thing for him."

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