Monday 10 December 2018

The renaissance man and the rising star - Limerick duo key cogs in multi-pronged attack

Graeme Mulcahy celebrates after scoring Limerick’s opening goal with team-mate Kyle Hayes. Photo: Sportsfile
Graeme Mulcahy celebrates after scoring Limerick’s opening goal with team-mate Kyle Hayes. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

They are the oldest and the youngest. The little guy and the giant. The journeyman and the prodigy. They're two very different players. But no-one did more to bring Limerick a fairytale first All-Ireland in 45 years than Graeme Mulcahy and Kyle Hayes.

At 28 Mulcahy is a grizzled old-stager by the standards of the new youthful All-Ireland champions.

Quite a few of his team-mates weren't even born when Offaly broke Limerick's hearts in 1994, among them baby of the bunch Hayes, who has just turned 20.

The Kildimo-Pallaskenry man is something of a phenomenon. Just out of minor last year, he played senior for Limerick and was an outstanding centre half-back on the under-21 team which won the All-Ireland.

Success and plaudits have been an almost permanent feature of his career so far. Major stardom seems an inevitability.

Mulcahy was a prodigy himself once. He also debuted for Limerick in his teens and five years ago looked capable of becoming one of the game's marquee forwards. The going got tougher after that.

Last year when Limerick lost to Clare in the Munster Championship, Mulcahy was taken off at half-time.

The year before he was subbed with 15 minutes left in the qualifier defeat by the Banner.

With a plethora of outstanding young forwards in the pipeline Mulcahy looked likely to become an even more peripheral figure from now on.

His lightly-built 5ft 10in frame seemed anomalous on a team filled with imposing physical specimens of whom the 6ft 5in Hayes is perhaps the most spectacular.

Gearóid McInerney is swarmed by Darragh O’Donovan, Kyle Hayes, Séamus Flanagan, Tom Morrissey, and Gearoid Hegarty. Photo: Sportsfile
Gearóid McInerney is swarmed by Darragh O’Donovan, Kyle Hayes, Séamus Flanagan, Tom Morrissey, and Gearoid Hegarty. Photo: Sportsfile

Yet nothing has been more remarkable about Limerick's rise this year than the renaissance of Mulcahy.

And nothing typified his battling spirit more than what happened in the 16th minute after he gathered a perceptive pass from Hayes.

After he turned his man expertly and headed for goal Mulcahy couldn't manage to get a shot off. The sliotar tumbled from his grasp.

Yet as defenders surrounded him, the Kilmallock star kept motoring forward and was rewarded for his persistence when after a series of pinball-style ricochets he got the touch which steered the ball over the line.

Historically-minded Limerick fans in search of good omens perhaps noted that this was the scrappiest final goal since Mossie Dowling's against Kilkenny in 1973.

The goal steadied Limerick's nerves and Mulcahy also set the tone for their performance in other ways.

All year he and his forward colleagues have been ruthless in closing down and harassing defenders. Yesterday they took it up a notch.

Galway's tactic of playing the ball short to Adrian Tuohey and John Hanbury and trusting in the athletic corner-backs' ability to power forward was like a red rag to Mulcahy and his comrades.

At times in the first half Limerick seemed to be playing against their own haunted history rather than a lacklustre Galway.

A string of wides prevented the underdogs from running up the kind of half-time lead their dominance merited. You wondered if such serial inaccuracy might sap their self-belief in the second half.

Enter Hayes with one of the great individual spells in final history. He pointed in the 39th minute and the 40th and the 41st to put seven between the teams.

There was a possessed quality to the kid's brilliance. When Mulcahy, chasing one more lost cause down the line, was clobbered by Pádraic Mannion Limerick went eight up from the free with 25minutes left. Pundits prepared to deploy gratuitous Cranberries references.

Limerick were still eight up with two minutes of normal time left and it seemed the closing stages would constitute a lap of honour.

But teams seeking landmark All-Irelands never have it easy. Galway in 1980, Offaly in '81, Clare in '95 and Wexford in '96 all had to suffer a bit before reaching the promised land.

Now it was torture time for Limerick. After Conor Whelan and Joe Canning goaled and Niall Burke cut the deficit to a single point with two minutes of agonisingly elongated injury-time left, you could practically see the clouds of cosmic injustice massing over Croke Park.

This was going to make the 1994 giveaway look like a minor mishap.

A shell-shocked side sorely needed someone to shout stop. Cometh the hour, cometh the man who knows what it's like to play for six managers in eight years, to be stuck in Division 1B for seven, to be discounted before a season even begins.

Did Graeme Mulcahy ever think in those doubt-filled doldrum years that one day he'd have a shot to win the All-Ireland final? Because that's what he had when the ball fell to him with 60-odd seconds left. He landed his shot and landed the All-Ireland too. There was time for Joe Canning to get one point back but not two.

All year Mulcahy, with his unquenchable spirit, and Hayes, with his fearless exuberance, epitomised the qualities which made Limerick special.

Mulcahy put Tipp on the back foot with a string of points in the very first match of the championship and kept Limerick afloat in the All-Ireland semi where Cork looked like running away with it.

Hayes hit the last-gasp leveller in the round-robin draw against Cork which served notice that Limerick were serious contenders and ran Kilkenny ragged the day fans probably began to dream in earnest.

So when the final whistle blew it seemed fitting that Hayes and Mulcahy were beside each other to celebrate victory in the greatest All-Ireland championship ever.

They'd done it. The oldest and the youngest. The little guy and the giant. The journeyman and the prodigy.

That's the great thing about fairytales. They always have a happy ending.

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