Sunday 18 February 2018

'It started to happen when we matched Kilkenny'

John Allen tells Colm Keys how Limerick belief mushroomed after challenge clash

Limerick players and managerJohn Allen (centre, background) celebrate in the winning dressingroom after victory over Cork
Limerick players and managerJohn Allen (centre, background) celebrate in the winning dressingroom after victory over Cork

JP McManus has ploughed significant amounts of money into Limerick GAA over the last three decades, often without the return it should have yielded.

But to listen to John Allen yesterday, it's unlikely that there has been a better investment to surpass the funding of a commemorative challenge match between Limerick and Kilkenny at the Staker Wallace GAA grounds just outside Martinstown last May.

Martinstown is now home to the well-known businessman and benefactor, and to complete his palatial mansion it required the purchase of the club's old GAA grounds adjacent to it.

In exchange, a new purpose-built state-of-the-art facility was developed further down the road, and to celebrate its official opening it was tied in with the 40th anniversary of Limerick's last All-Ireland success.

McManus has a close affinity with that '73 team. Pat Hartigan, the great defender who won the first five All Star full-back awards from 1971 to 1975, often recalls how his old South Liberties friend managed to find his way behind the security to present himself as one of the first people into the dressing-room after the victory over Kilkenny. He was still only in his early 20s then.

Out of the deep McManus pockets, the costs of a celebration of '73 were covered.

The '73 and current teams from both counties were suited and booted for subsequent celebrations that followed a challenge match, from which Allen really began to draw belief that this Limerick side could match the very best standards.

Sense

He didn't say it at the time but Allen got a curious sense of something that evening.

"I remember thinking that night it could be a very significant night in lots of respects. The fact that you had the '73 aspect, it's 40 years ago and we had played well against Kilkenny in the challenge," Allen reflected yesterday.

"Whether there was a greater plan there I'm not sure but it certainly seemed that night that there was something greater happening, that it was starting to happen that night.

"It was a bit of like trying to explain the Holy Trinity without any tangible proof. You're explaining it but nobody has actually seen this thing working."

For him, competing with Kilkenny that night was the evidence he required to illustrate to his players the level they could reach.

"For me that was a bit of a watershed moment really. Kilkenny had a fairly strong team, 10 or 11 starters out, and we matched them in every facet of their play.

"That was proof positive – that players could see that we are actually good enough. You had the '73 teams there and you had a bunch of very interested supporters, and everyone saw that on the night.

"I was interested to see a week or two later Eddie Keher was impressed and felt Limerick looked good."

Allen concedes that at that particular point of the season he might have had trouble making his players believe after watching Dublin being filleted by Tipperary in the league semi-final.

"When you saw the 1B final and then you saw the representatives (Dublin) coming out and not being at all at the pace Tipperary were at in the semi-final..." Allen continued.

"We were trying to justify the fact that we were only beaten by a point in a game we felt we should have won and then to watch Tipperary playing ducks and drakes with Dublin in the next match!

"You are asking 'is there such a gulf in the standards between 1A and 1B?' and I think it was very hard to try and convince the player that actually that we are better than that, not necessarily better than Dublin but the standard that we play at is as good as anyone else. But we had no proof of it until we played Kilkenny down in Martinstown on that Sunday evening."

Allen admitted their belief might still have been shaken by that 1B final experience when Dublin struggled to a draw with Wexford on the night before Limerick beat Tipperary in the Munster semi-final.

"Really until Dublin drew with Kilkenny you were saying Dublin had slipped back into previous year's mode again and weren't delivering," he said.

Allen, who has now guided two different counties to Munster titles, said he first had to believe it was possible before his players could.

"If I didn't believe myself my body language would have given it away. I wouldn't be able to make the players believe if I didn't believe it myself. Having been around the Cork scene for a while I had an idea of what standard we needed to get to, and could see from what we asked the players in terms of their gym, nutrition and hydration programmes, that they were actually buying it into it all, not taking short cuts.

"I was very sure that we had a group of players that were extremely committed but just needed some bit of reassurance that this thing does actually transfer on to performance."

He is adamant that Cork didn't really believe that they could lose to Limerick on the back of two challenge matches that they played earlier this year.

"We had played them twice in challenge matches this year and they beat us once in St Finbarr's (his home club in Cork) on a wet February night where they had a very mediocre team out and again in early May when they got five goals against us, and psychologically I have no doubt that night that Cork thought, no matter what happened this year, if we meet Limerick we'll beat them.

"Psychologically that night I knew that there would be a false sense of how much better than Limerick Cork might be from that result. We played certainly under the standard that I would have expected."

Allen returned to Cork early on Sunday night but only after leaving a jubilant Limerick dressing-room just short of 7.30.

He believes the team will be able to cope with the five-week gap to the All-Ireland semi-final, the same length of time they had to wait for the Munster final.

"We probably won't get a good challenge match in because there won't be teams available but we'll cope."

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