Sunday 18 March 2018

Limerick's lost year

Despite Justin McCarthy's exit and winning Division 2, the scars of 2010 are still only healing. But what was the real story behind the Treaty's bitter divide?

Christy O'Connor

During last year's Munster semi-final, Limerick supporters draped a banner in front of the Blackrock Terrace in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.

It was effectively a bed-sheet smeared with large green lettering and in short, the message lambasted the county board.

At the final whistle, the banner became the focus of the TV cameras because it was the perfect metaphor for another lost day in a lost year.

An internal crisis which began in October 2009 ignited a blaze which raged through winter and spring and left a trail of black ash and destruction all the way into last summer. Limerick were relegated from Division One of the league, shipping a 31-point hiding from Dublin in their last game. They lost to Cork and Offaly in the championship by an aggregate margin of 19 points but those numbers weren't worth calculating. Limerick hurling was on its knees.

"The lads who were playing were trying their best but everyone knew that we were going to get relegated and face humiliation and the county board still persisted," says Ollie Moran, who retired at the end of 2009 after 13 seasons.

Deep down, most of McCarthy's panel accepted that fact as well. That they were only lambs to the slaughter. "Your gut feeling told you that all we were really going to do was try and put up a good show," says one young player, who played under Justin McCarthy in 2010, and who has been a regular under Donal O'Grady this season.

"Management tried their best but when we weren't winning games, there was no winning mentality in the squad. It was my first year on a county senior panel but, to be honest, I felt that the set-up was very poor. Personally, and from talking to some of the other lads, we knew we were going nowhere."

So how did Limerick get to that point? There were many competing perspectives but the dissolved panel of 2009, whose loss of confidence in Justin McCarthy's management, and their less than unanimous solidarity with 12 discarded players, were at the heart of the dispute. Yet this story has to begin at the outset of McCarthy's management to try and paint the real picture.

When he was first announced in October 2008, McCarthy was the most high-profile appointment the county had made in the previous 30 years. Although he had controversially departed as Waterford manager the previous June, nobody could argue with McCarthy's fantastic achievements there.

He led the county to three Munster titles and while they failed to win an All-Ireland, that team will always be cherished by the hurling public for the quality of their play in their pomp. Some of the hurling they played in 2004 and 2007 was some of the best ever played. It was almost total hurling.

Appointing McCarthy reflected ambition but he didn't have the same cerebral or technically gifted players in Limerick that he had in Waterford and his immense coaching abilities hadn't the same scope for player development. Limerick's character, and style, is defined more by aggression, passion and raw intensity and the players needed someone who could inspire them to produce it.

Moreover, Limerick's recent track record had hinted at a group who needed an organisational framework as much as McCarthy's renowned coaching practises. His record earned him the right to his views but McCarthy's success in Limerick was always likely to depend on how much he'd embraced the experience of his final turbulent months in Waterford.

McCarthy never viewed man-management as critical in his role, which ultimately led to his downfall in Waterford. Assuming he would develop his man-management with Limerick was too large a leap of faith.

Over the previous few years, Limerick had always elected two player reps to liaise with management but McCarthy appeared unhappy with that arrangement. The players said that he was slow to entertain their concerns or requests and there was minimal player input and interaction during the 2009 season. McCarthy was repeating the mistakes which had ultimately sunk him in Waterford and he had lost the dressingroom again. Culling so many experienced players, including both player reps -- Stephen Lucey and Niall Moran - was probably the only way he felt he was going to get it back.

After the mortifying collapse against Tipperary in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final, McCarthy was entitled to make whatever changes he saw fit. But the manner in which he went about it -- failing to inform players they were dropped and then referring to indiscipline as a reason -- was his biggest mistake.

"Fellas definitely felt that, while it was the prerogative of management to drop whoever they wanted, certain individuals were unfairly treated," says Moran. "It was well known by the county board that there was a lot of antagonism towards that management, and that players felt they were going nowhere under them.

"Both sides then became entrenched but the players felt that it certainly wasn't fair play. Most of the guys they dropped were all very committed and that's what really galled players. The county board thought players were weak and that if they put enough pressure on, others would go back. But fellas just decided, 'This is wrong and it's not acceptable'."

Although selected players gradually began to leave the panel in solidarity, the county management committee unanimously backed McCarthy in November and he was content to keep pressing on with his stated intention of infusing the squad with "new blood". Given the delicate squad ecosystem - with a number of McCarthy loyalists and more young players unwilling to go against the manager - it was difficult for the 2009 panel to formulate a coherent strategy. Without that unity, a strike was never a feasible option and the board knew it.

On December 16, the County Board Executive's vote of confidence in McCarthy was carried by 70 votes to 54. Then a heated debate raged for almost two hours. "Backing Justin McCarthy is not going to work," said Ballybrown delegate Kieran McCarthy. "What is Plan B? They picked a new panel in Cork last year and we saw that outcome. Is that Plan B?"

Mickey O'Sullivan, board vice-chairman, countered immediately: "The public are sick to the teeth of these problems with the players. Are things any worse now than they were in the Gaelic Grounds in 2008 (against Offaly) when they were booed off the field by our own supporters?"

The Executive appeared intent on making a stand against player power but at that stage, there was another element to the board's stance. Towards the end of a meeting between players, delegates and the Executive eight days previous, one delegate posed a question to the Executive. He asked if the rumour was true that JP McManus would withdraw his sponsorship of Limerick GAA if McCarthy was sacked. The Executive didn't deny it but they said that the ramifications would be disastrous if McManus pulled out.

At no stage had McManus hinted at withdrawing his support but there had been a fear on the ground that he might if McCarthy was removed. When former Limerick player Pat Hartigan publicly backed McCarthy a few weeks earlier, the comments were seen by many as an extension of McManus' support because the two are close friends.

The board may have only been second-guessing McManus' intentions but they felt a duty not to disregard or dishonour his immense patronage. In 2004, McManus donated €5m to the county board to assist clear the debt incurred in the renovation of the Gaelic Grounds. Later that year, he took over as sponsor.

The players were well aware of the issue and mindful of the ramifications; that if they continued with their crusade, they could irreparably damage Limerick GAA.

The players kept their counsel until McCarthy gave a radio interview to Drivetime Sport in mid January 2010. They issued a statement a few days later but it had minimal impact because 24 hours after it was released, there was limited discussion on the topic at a county board meeting. The controversy simmered for the next two months, occasionally coming to the boil, before the heat went out of it after the final vote in support of McCarthy was declared at a county board meeting in late March.

Immediately after that result was announced, one delegate loudly stated: "This is the end of the GPA." The players' representative body had only been passive observers in the conflict but the delegate's comment endorsed how skewed public opinion had become. The decision to support McCarthy was seen by some as a stand against the increasing climate of player power.

All through the dispute, the Limerick players' situation was complicated by a lack of public trust in them. In each of the three Cork strikes, the players did not start out with the weight of public opinion behind them but they had acquired it long before the end. And in each case, that support was a factor in the outcome.

Limerick hadn't the same unity as Cork but when it became clear by mid-January that 23 players wouldn't go back under the manager, refusing to engage in a high-profile PR battle allowed speculation to continually damage their cause.

Not wanting to be perceived like Cork ultimately nailed them. They didn't want to take the conflict into the public domain and run the risk of the opprobrium and derision that the Cork players were subjected to. Cork's crusades required extraordinary courage, willpower, leadership, organisation and conviction; the conditions for that aggressive agitation simply didn't exist in the Limerick dressingroom.

"I suppose the Cork players had the collateral of All-Ireland medals that we didn't," says Moran. "I don't think there was the stomach for it because after the hammering by Tipp, players didn't have the overwhelming support of the general public. It was never a militant campaign but hurlers aren't really set up to be political animals. No player ever forced another player into making a call but the spin that was coming from the county board was wrong.

"There was an awful lot of resentment from the players towards the county board. They felt that they were getting the two fingers and it was having a disastrous effect, undermining everything. It had a huge effect on support, finances and even on the way Limerick GAA was perceived. Everyone could see that but the county board kept on digging their heels in."

Three days after his final endorsement in March, McCarthy made efforts to contact every one of the 23 disaffected players from the 2009 squad. They all refused to go back. "I felt it was too close to the championship," said Brian Geary. "It was a year wasted for me hurling-wise."

Although McCarthy retained support at board level, the season was always going to be a write-off. "We lost a complete year and it was a disaster," says former Limerick county board chairman Donal Fitzgibbon.

What made the whole saga even more infuriating was that it was completely avoidable. "The key issue in the whole saga was respect," says Fitzgibbon. "It's critical that you treat every player with respect and if you want to give someone bad news, there's only way to do it; eyeball them and tell them to their face. I'd have to say that my sympathies were with the players."

Mike O'Brien, one of the players initially dropped, completely endorsed that viewpoint. He didn't drink or smoke and having to make a round-trip of 60-miles to training - often not getting home until midnight -- put a huge strain on his duties as a farmer.

"If Justin McCarthy felt I was no longer of any use to him, if he had picked up the phone and told me, I would have had no problem with that, none whatsoever," said O'Brien at the time. "It was only a matter of common courtesy. To pick up your local paper then and read that you were dropped because of disciplinary problems -- I found that really hard to take. There was never any messing, I always prepared to the letter of the law."

After McCarthy's final vote of support, O'Brien publicly slated the county board for allowing McCarthy to remain unscathed for his part in the 24-point hammering to Tipperary in 2009. He also publicly criticised his club Glenroe for backing McCarthy in that final vote.

The dispute became so divisive that club-mates and friends found themselves on both sides of the divide. In Kilmallock, Brian O'Sullivan, Graeme Mulcahy and Barry Hennessy were all part of McCarthy's new panel, while Andrew O'Shaughnessy was one of the players initially dropped and Gavin O'Mahony left of his own volition.

O'Mahony's departure was a hugely symbolic move in the whole saga. He'd been handed his championship debut by McCarthy in 2009 and had ended the season as an All-Star nominee. He wasn't part of the early wave of defections but his decision became official on December 31st, 2009.

"It was nothing to do with other players being dropped or pulling out," he says. "I didn't talk to any of the other players, I made up my own mind. Just before New Year's Eve, I went away on my own for the day and as much as I didn't want to pull out, I just thought, 'No, I can't do it'.

"I couldn't commit to something I didn't believe in. Even though 2009 was my best year with Limerick, I just didn't enjoy the whole set up. Someone said to me that if Justin McCarthy had any pride, he should have left after the hammering we got against Tipperary. I would have to agree but I would also say that the players have to hold their hands up as well. It was total humiliation and soul-destroying but preparation was terrible, there was no gameplan or anything. It was probably the worst day in Limerick's history."

In February 2010, some members of the board met O'Mahony in Charleville and asked him to return. "They were trying to guilt me into it but I never felt guilty, or that I was leaving anyone down," he says. "If I was to go in there and do things half-assed, I would have been letting myself down. I did the right thing because I did what I believed in. I could have gone in and I'd have been cock of the walk. I'd have nearly been calling the shots but it wasn't for me."

O'Mahony, like most of the disaffected, just focussed on club hurling and he captained Kilmallock to their first county title in 16 years in October. Yet the lingering sense of loss and regret was never far away.

"It was hard," says O'Mahony. "You try and take yourself away from it and say it's not your business anymore, but it still hurt. Even watching league matches, you're a Limerick man and you still want to be playing. A lot of the guys playing are your friends and club-mates but personally, I never blamed myself. If anything, I blamed Justin McCarthy because it should never have got to that."

By the end of the championship, many of McCarthy's loyalists knew that the show was over. There were a number of incidents suggesting poor organisation but the most graphic occurred the day they lost to Offaly in the qualifiers. On the way to Tullamore, the players stopped at a petrol station outside Birr. They queued up for tea or coffee at a dispenser and then had jam scones while sitting on a wall.

"It was a complete joke," says another young player from last year's squad. "If that happened at club level, you'd be asking serious questions."

Finally, the county board accepted that the sham marriage had to end. Just three days after the defeat to Offaly, they appointed an independent three-man committee to pick the next manager. Although McCarthy secured a nomination, it was always unlikely that he would get a second term.

In the circumstances, Donal O'Grady was the ideal appointment. When he took over the Cork hurlers in the winter of 2002, they had just emerged from the first players' strike. O'Grady immediately created the conditions and environment which the 2009 squad felt weren't there under McCarthy.

Although there was never any bad blood or rancour between the different panels of 2009 and 2010 -- as there was during the third Cork strike in 2009 -- part of O'Grady's management will be ensuring that everyone now is working towards the betterment of Limerick hurling.

Over the last two decades, Limerick hurling had often limped from one crisis to the next but the lost year of 2010 was their nadir. It was a sorry episode and only time will tell how long it will take for the scars to fully heal. However, if there is any positive to be gleaned from the experience, it's that it has forced everyone to look hard at themselves and ensure the mistakes are never repeated.

"If one good thing came out of it all, it's that it shook up everybody -- players, management and the county board," says O'Mahony. "People were saying, 'Hold on a minute, this is bigger than any of us'. Everyone had questions to answer, especially the players. Fellas knew going back this year that we either go at this 100 miles an hour and put our lives on hold or else stay clear of it. Because anything less than that and we were going to be eaten alive.

"At the start of the year, I think people were saying, 'These guys are going to have to win us over again'. That was the feeling I got anyway, which was expected. In a way, it took us all down a peg or two and took away any hype. It's just game by game now. Step by step."

The long road back has begun. But at least Limerick are on that road, with their lost year fading fast in the distance, and hopes of a brighter future stretching out ahead of them.

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