Conflict bequeaths costly legacy
Limerick hurling had a nightmare year in 2010 and the wounds are slow to heal, says Damian Lawlor
LIMERICK hurling has been lurching from one crisis to another and although there have been calls from within for a new era of peace and goodwill, the county has not yet seen the last of controversy.
With the county board's annual convention approaching, old wounds have been re-opened in recent weeks, with secretary Mike O'Riordan among those offering an honest assessment: "Since October 12 months ago, this county has been dragged through the depths of what can only be described as torture. All sides were wrong, there is no two ways about that."
It may be that the appointment of Donal O'Grady as senior team manager has brought an end to the very public and highly acrimonious dispute which saw the 2009 squad refuse to play for Justin McCarthy but there are still some areas of contention to be resolved.
O'Riordan, for instance, warns that finance is the biggest challenge now facing the board. And he says it could take seven years for the board's improved emphasis on underage hurling to pay dividends.
"Lessons have been learned and we will endeavour to make sure events like this will never occur again," he told the Sunday Independent. "This time last year, we were in the middle of calls from players pulling out. The saga dragged on all over Christmas and only worsened as the year went on. It was a debacle, nothing else. It will be great to wave goodbye to 2010 and it's great to welcome in a new era with everyone on board."
But the problem for Limerick is that not everyone is "on board". Such has been the loss of confidence in the county board that there is a motion tabled to convention on January 4 to allow a new hurling board take control of all hurling affairs. A vote will be taken at that meeting and to succeed, it will need a two-thirds majority.
The proposal has caused heated debate locally and the fear must be that with administration now undergoing internal strife, it will remain difficult for the wounds of 2010 to fully heal. It seems that the motion is unlikely to succeed on this occasion, but its presence on the agenda will surely lead to more heated debate on the day.
In the meantime, there have been signs that the board is raising its game. While the 2009 players could have handled their side of things better, and while Justin McCarthy could have walked away when 24 players decided not to play for him, the board didn't emerge unscathed from the saga either. In November 2008, just as the row was escalating, they received advice that the only exit strategy in the debacle was the removal of McCarthy.
They should have acted upon that counsel, but didn't. Despite the introduction of a raft of promising players like Thomas O'Brien, Kieran O'Rourke, David Breen and Nicky Quaid, Limerick's league and championship campaigns were a calamity. By the end of it all, the board had had enough and McCarthy, who had blooded 16 rookies, was not reinstated.
"It was time for a new era after the season ended," says O'Riordan. "There are now four or five players ready to stake a claim for a regular place thanks to Justin and his work, let's point that out. Thomas O'Brien has seen his development fast-forwarded by two years and there are four others I feel who will make it next year. That's one positive."
They now have Donal O'Grady at the helm. They probably couldn't have made a better appointment.
"Recovery won't happen overnight," O'Riordan warns. "Only a few years ago, we were getting hammered in Tony Forristal and Nenagh Co-op underage tournaments. Now, we can at least hold our own. But that progression up through the ranks will take some time. People will have to be patient for senior glory."
Their intermediate side has been turned into an under 23 outfit that they hope will feed talent to O'Grady, one of the most astute coaches around.
They have lacked firepower up front, however, and in recent years have been forced to play defenders like TJ Ryan and Ollie Moran in their forward lines in a bid to remain a force. There are some younger players coming through, but there's still not a whole lot in attack. With the exception of Thomas O'Brien's free-taking and Graeme Mulcahy's skills, there was little else of note in attack this year.
They might have the undoubted talents of teen prodigy Declan Hannon to call upon, but he is still only 17 and although a brilliant half-forward, he is another natural defender.
So while observers maintain that things cannot get any worse than this year, O'Grady doesn't exactly have the strongest hand available to him. And while the manager and his squad get back about their business, there's a lot more that needs addressing off the field.
This year's row has resulted in a significant financial loss for the county. Attendances plummeted as the Limerick public lost interest once it was clear that the 2009 panel would not play for McCarthy.
All confidence was lost in the fledglings when they leaked 6-30 to Dublin in the final round of the National League and were duly relegated to Division 2. They lost in the region of €75,000 in revenue from their main team not being present as they hosted Galway, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork this year.
The usually productive Supporters' Club also suffered as the season dragged on until July when they lost to Offaly by five points. By then, the Supporters' Club revenue streams had plummeted from €72,997 in 2009 to just €32,308 this time around. The Dublin branch of the supporters' club also saw a fall, from €45,764 to €20,895.
Diehard supporters lost their way for a while too -- revenue from the Mackey Stand Draw, an ongoing earner for the county board, suffered, falling by more than €100,000 on the figures from last year. In the end, it wasn't surprising that the board recorded an operating loss of €148,485. It would have been much worse only for the one-off sale of a plot of land in Rathkeale worth €48,832.
"There's no doubt that figures fell this year," the secretary adds. "There were two reasons for that -- the problems with our senior hurling team and the recession. All the top four hurling teams came to the Gaelic Grounds this year and we lost between €70,000 and €80,000 in income because our top players weren't available and supporters didn't turn up. We don't get opportunities like that every year to get the best teams into Limerick.
"But we have revised structures; a new manager, strengthened panel and all involved in Limerick hurling will have to pull together now. It's a new dawn."
The recovery continues slowly. The board wants more 2011 championship matches in the Gaelic Grounds to increase their reserves. There is the chance of a Munster final if they progress to meet Cork in the decider. That would boost coffers by €200,000.
They are continuing with the development of impressive training facilities in Mick Neville Park, Rathkeale, where a new synthetic pitch has been laid, with a full floodlit capability. Additional lands and pitches are also fully floodlit. Dressing rooms, a viewing area, offices and catering facilities will also be implemented.
Last week, O'Riordan visited Liam Brady at Arsenal to get an insight into their youth coaching set-up and brought home a plethora of ideas.
Next autumn, they will move their seven full-time coaching and games personnel to the University of Limerick where they can avail of all sorts of services and facilities.
Senior hurlers Gavin O'Mahony and James Ryan were recently appointed to the county board's coaching staff, while Joe Quaid has been appointed Coaching and Development Officer for the next five years. Their brief is to target kids in the 10-21 age bracket. Another part of Quaid's role will be to drive hurling in the city where rugby is an ever-increasing threat to the GAA.
They say night gets darkest just before the dawn. And after a year of hell for Limerick hurling, it seems the first shaft of light is finally forcing its way through.
FIVE RAYS OF HOPE
Here are five reasons why Limerick can lift the gloom in 2011 . . .
- Their dual players could focus solely on hurling next year.
- They are well-placed to receive an instant promotion back to Division 1.
- They are only one game (Waterford) away from reaching a Munster final, with Tipperary, Cork and Clare all on the other side of the draw.
- 'Lifting the Treaty 2' is a committee that has been formed to streamline and monitor managerial appointments, structures and club fixtures over the coming years.
- He may be only 17, but Adare's Declan Hannon is one of the game's brightest prospects.
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