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McCarthy's Limerick on a hiding to nothing

THIRTY-SEVEN years of Croke Park heartbreak ended last Saturday night when a Limerick team finally won an All-Ireland hurling title at headquarters.

The honour fell to Blackrock, who captured the junior club title, the first side from the county to do so. And the win brought temporary relief to besieged Limerick supporters, who, all winter, have looked on in despair at a mess that has spiralled out of control. In that time they've seen relationships between their county hurling squad, its management and board officials deteriorate to an all-time low.

The season starts in earnest today with the visit of Galway, but the mess which is Limerick hurling shows no sign of being cleaned up. It should never have got to this.

Last November, the county board was advised that it might be easier for all concerned if Justin McCarthy stepped down -- or was asked to -- as manager. But the board chose to tough it out. One by one the players walked away and entrenched themselves on the other side of the fence.

And now here we are; on the day of their first proper game of the season, with the manager still on borrowed time and the team he trained over winter likely to be broken up once they ship a beating or two in the national league.

While a defiant McCarthy remains in charge, the endgame for his stewardship surely appeared around lunchtime last Tuesday when the Limerick board held a conference call with Croke Park top brass. There was never even the slightest possibility of the GAA mediating in this row unless the players were willing to play under McCarthy in some shape or form.

The GAA's executive never had any intention of getting involved because there was never any room for manoeuvre with the players' militant stance. There was another important factor: Croke Park didn't really want to be seen as taking a role in yet another saga where any progress was dependent on the removal of an inter-county manager. It happened in Cork when they intervened without much success and ultimately their involvement in the Limerick situation would have produced the same results.

"Had the GAA got involved, we were basically signing ourselves up to let a manager go," said one well-placed source. "It happened in Cork and it was going to happen again here simply because there was no hint of the players budging. That was the case from day one."

Opinion is divided in the county, except maybe on one issue: the manner in which the board has handled the affair.

For those on McCarthy's side, there's a feeling that after pushing Clare hard in a challenge match last weekend they might just hold their own against Galway this afternoon. And maybe they will. Kilmallock is a tight pitch. It's well used to holding colleges and club games and while it has also staged many inter-county fixtures, its compact confines means that the likelihood of the new-look Limerick side getting exposed are slim.

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Also in their favour is the fact that Galway won't have their Portumna contingent, which means no Joe Canning, giving some hope that Limerick won't get a pasting. But is that what it's come down to? They'll be happy to avoid a thrashing? Happy to come within five or six points of Galway, wave a finger at the protesting players and hope McCarthy can stay on as things improve.

While they may well put in a decent display today, as the campaign unfolds with games against Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Offaly, Kilkenny and Dublin, their young squad will suffer. Teams will expose their lack of experience, physicality and stamina levels. Indeed, it's very possible the team could go seven games without winning a point and end up in Division 2.

There's another wider concern too. What happens if McCarthy steps down after, say, three games in which they've been well beaten? His team will be disbanded and the 2009 lot will come back and may be able to stop the rot. That change in personnel will distort scoring averages in Division 1 of the league for the second year in a row after the Cork saga last year. It's not just Limerick hurling that's in the mire here, it's hurling in general as another league could descend into chaos.

Limerick are due to play the winners of Tipperary and Cork at the end of June. If they move quickly they could appoint selector John Tuohy as an interim manager, or maybe opt for a qualified outsider. There's always the option of installing a former stalwart with the strong reputation of Stephen McDonagh or TJ Ryan and task them with moulding some of last year's squad with the brightest prospects from this year.

There's no doubt that a clear-out from last season was needed and that many wouldn't have featured in 2010 anyway. And there's no denying that McCarthy has done well to blood players like Brian O'Sullivan, Anthony Owens, David Breen, Paudie McNamara, Tom O'Brien and Paul Browne. But bringing 25 young lads onto a team together is too much and it's little wonder that Carlow beat them three weeks ago. The bottom line is that no county, not even Kilkenny, could sustain the loss of 24 established players.

"It's a huge turnover but everyone still feels the same way," one 2009 player said last week. "Out of 24 players who were asked if they wanted to mediate, only four felt anything could be achieved through that. We're all itching to go back hurling but, as a squad, lads are adamant they won't play under Justin again. We said that from day one and nothing has changed really. We're sick of it now, to be honest. We're back with our clubs and doing our bit there but it will be interesting to see what happens if a special meeting is called."

Clearly, things cannot stay the way they are. Former goalkeeper Timmy Houlihan's exit from the squad -- just weeks after he joined -- was the latest in a long line of PR disasters. Incidentally, his place between the posts today is taken by a Kerry native, Tadhg Flynn.

There have been plenty of mistakes and miscalculations in this dispute, including the board not discussing the players' statement at a meeting and McCarthy's decision not to communicate with many of the players who were dropped.

You can also highlight the withdrawal of Eibhear O'Dea from the position of county board development officer last winter as yet another almighty blow. O'Dea is a trusted figure in Limerick GAA circles and had developed a programme called 'Lifting the Treaty' as a blueprint for the future of Limerick hurling. But he left his position before Christmas. And with him went hope of progress.

It leaves Limerick looking at a relegation dogfight in an ultra-competitive division. Dropping out of the championship proper and into the Christy Ring Cup next year is another serious concern. Will this team be allowed to stagger from game to game before getting demolished by either Tipp or Cork later in the summer? What good will that do the current bunch of youngsters, talented kids like Nicky Quaid who would surely prosper with experienced players around him.

There's a way out of this. Call for a special meeting and change the manager. If some of last year's panel aren't up to the required standard anymore, make sure the new boss tells them. For some time now McCarthy's position as manager has been untenable because he failed to do this. Let the new manager pull a panel together comprising of the best talent from last year and this season.

Steadying the ship is the first priority. With a renewed cause and the likes of Seamus Hickey and Damien Reale back in tow, they might stave off relegation. At the very least, they would surely be able to maintain their Liam McCarthy status. But the longer things are left, the chances of staying in the game's premier division will be slimmer. It's some comedown. Little wonder that Blackrock's win lifted the spirits for a day or two.

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