Wednesday 22 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: In the game's decisive moment, Seamus Harnedy must have felt like a seagull swooped on his house keys

29 July 2018; Limerick goalkeeper Nicky Quaid makes a save from Seamus Harnedy of Cork in the final moments of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Cork and Limerick at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
29 July 2018; Limerick goalkeeper Nicky Quaid makes a save from Seamus Harnedy of Cork in the final moments of the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Cork and Limerick at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Hurling is still God’s creation, but this was a hymn to human ingenuity.

A 90-odd-minute-long intake of breath that left John Kiely, instantly, glimpsing a panorama of traps ahead as Limerick seek to close out this epic summer. Worry had already hitched a ride on his shoulders as he came to the media auditorium, warning against any informal contact being brazened with his players.

"I’ll shut the whole thing down," he said, adopting the grave tone of a general stepping from a war-room.

Maybe too much of Limerick’s hurling story has fallen the way of scoundrels and satirists for the man at the helm to be anything but spooked now.

Winning a game that, in time, shrugged off the chains of system and structure to become something so ethereal, so magical it became almost hallucinatory won’t be any comfort to Kiely if the gods go against them on August 19.

Limerick, after all, aren’t habitués of this place in autumn. They’ve normally, by then, been somehow complicit in another heartbreak.

So these men choose to be, or at least want to be, different. They like precision in their lives. They use a kind of wood-chip vocabulary, words like "process" and "routines" and "objectives" landing like mortars anywhere there’s the merest outbreak of giddiness.

Limerick would have lost this game 99 times out of a hundred in their past. Because it was a contest demanding everything of them they once just couldn’t find.

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There was an elegant rhythm to it all, the sense of every move being thought out, measured, tailored. No hit and hope, no taste for big men bullocking out through picket fences.

Limerick are a big team but, for an hour, their best player was Graeme Mulcahy. And Cork’s? Daniel Kearney. Two hurlers who wouldn’t look conspicuous if sneaking into a primary school game.

No doubt, there will be some old-school grumbles about that, about the refusal to allow possession become any kind of splintering lottery. The ball was ferried from one end to the other as if being taken to a Securicor truck. It was all about radar precision, gossamer hands.

You would think that might have made it a little over-structured and monosyllabic. A game of patience almost. But it blew up into a funfair ride.

So maybe we could forgive Kiely afterwards for not, openly at least, embracing the role of Moses. Limerick haven’t won this thing in 45 years. Their story is scarred with the acne of spurned chances. 

He wasn’t so much calling for prohibition now as a little room to breathe.

"Look, outside there, that’s the supporters’ job," he said, eyes still glazed from the wild beat of it all. "What you saw going on there for two hours. They lifted the roof, it was phenomenal. And it lifted our team so much at vital times in the game. It was immense, I can’t thank them enough.

"But we just need to be able to go and do our work over the next few weeks."

The wonder was that he had the energy to speak. With eight minutes of normal time remaining, he had to have been running a pathologist’s eye over the men in green, trailing by six points and – seemingly – ready to follow so many old ghosts away into the dystopian blackness.

And then?

Limerick scored seven unanswered points. Think about that. They all but crossed the Serengeti without water to save themselves, leaving it up to Cork to bring the game to extra-time through a nerveless Patrick Horgan free.

It shouldn’t have come to that and it probably wouldn’t have, had Aaron Gillane converted one of the three goal chances that fell his way.

Yet, that’s the thing about this new Limerick. They still incubate little, dysfunctional tendencies.

While Cork were building their lead, Mulcahy missed a jab-lift that would have put him clean through on the Hill end goal. Seconds later, Cian Lynch was also in, only for Anthony Nash to make the save. They began accumulating wides that invited all of us to recycle an old story.

But Limerick turned this game around and they did it through their bench.

Substitutes in green delivered 2-6 of the final total; Cork’s just 0-1. And the stardust man was a near-forgotten one, Shane Dowling in from the 57th minute and chasing destiny like a one-man wrecking-ball.

None of this might have mattered mind, but for Nickie Quaid’s intervention with the sides level and the game deep in injury-time. Seamus Harnedy must have felt like a seagull had swooped on his house keys.

"Incredible, wasn’t it," smiled Kiely of the miracle theft.

His captain, Declan Hannon, was equally dizzy. "Nickie just came out of nowhere. If that went in, it was over for us."

Instead, they stayed breathing. We were in the 83rd minute when Dowling stood over that Hill end penalty, not a shred of indecision in his mind. Paul Kinnerk ran in to make sure of it.   

"His words were, 'This is how championship games are won, go for it'," Dowling would say after. "And I did!"

Limerick led by a single point at the time. A brave decision?

"You have to, you have to go for it," stressed Kiely. "Sure with Shane Dowling and Aaron Gillane on the field, why not? Shane is a brilliant ball-striker. One on one with a ’keeper? I’d fancy him all day long."

Mad though it seems, that was the moment, almost an hour and a half in, that generated the first real spasm of panic in Cork. They were entitled to it too because, three minutes later, Pat Ryan spooned a third goal into Nash’s net to end it.

So Limerick are still alive in autumn and, according to Hannon, a different proposition to the sides he was on that lost semi-finals in 2013 and ’14.

"They were heartbreaking losses, but I don’t think we were ready in those years for the occasion," he argued. "This squad is a different group, mentally and physically. I just thought we were in a better space coming into today."

And history now?

"It’s gas, none of us in that dressing-room ever think about that," he said flatly. "It’s a kind of a new era, a new group of lads who, as Tom Morrissey said before, are trying to create their own history. We’ve got to an All-Ireland final, but we need to win it to really make history.

"Hopefully, we’ve learnt from past experiences of Limerick teams and management coming up to Croke Park for a semi-final and not being ready. Just expecting it to happen. And, obviously, it doesn’t."

Word perfect for a manager’s ears.

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