Thursday 18 January 2018

The quiet democrat who made Limerick believe

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Shane Dowling turned to Seamus Hickey at the end of one of Limerick's last training sessions prior to Sunday's thrilling Munster hurling semi-final win and nodded towards the empty main stand in the Gaelic Grounds.

"All we want is one win and they'll get behind us," Dowling said to one of the few Limerick players to experience a Munster championship win before.

The "they" was of course the Limerick crowd, absent on the night of training but very much present as the Treaty men battened down the hatches in a frantic conclusion to only their second win in 17 Munster championship games since 2001.

Limerick supporters, by their nature, need only an inch from their team to take a mile, and Sunday's victory will give them the fuel to take them on that journey.

In an instant, the landscape of the Munster hurling championship changed dramatically: a Munster final not involving either Tipperary or Waterford for the first time since 1999 (when Cork beat Clare); the prospect of a first Limerick/Clare Munster final since 1995; and the prospect of an even bigger crease being ironed out with the potential of a first Munster final between Cork and Limerick since 1994.

Hickey has found it a little bemusing how one Limerick win can have such an effect on the landscape.

"To think we haven't played Cork in Munster since 2001 (when they won in Pairc Ui Chaoimh)," he mused.

For Hickey, it was only a second ever Munster championship win, following on from the 2007 success over Tipperary after three games; and when he sounded out his fellow 'veterans' on the team, Donal O'Grady and Niall Moran, and discovered it was only their second too, the scale of Limerick's barren provincial run hit him.

"They've been around longer than I have. They told me they have the same number of championship wins that I have. It's hard to put a finger on how that has been our lot and that's what we have to put with," he said.

At the centre of it all is arguably the most soft-spoken and invariably relaxed manager in the inter-county game, the ultimate dressing-room democrat.

Hickey can see where Donal Og Cusack was coming from on 'The Sunday Game' when he described Allen as the best man to prepare a team mentally that he had come across.

In the book 'Blood Brothers' that celebrated the Cork hurling team from 1996 to 2008, Cusack recalled how Allen could routinely have players with tears in their eyes on the morning of a match without ever having to raise his voice. "When it comes to getting our minds focused and knowing what the tack is and what way to approach things, he's brilliant in that sense," said Hickey.

"And it's done with such an even disposition, 99pc of the time. At times he has to address the bold class!"

Allen's democracy in the dressing-room has always extended to empowering players with decision-making, allowing them to dictate game plans and styles of play.

Maybe it stems from the level at which he first entered the Cork dressing-room, as masseur in 1999. He was their friend first and that's essentially how the relationship has stayed, even to a degree in Limerick.

"I wouldn't so much describe him as our manager but our facilitator, a fantastic one at that," said Hickey.

"He doesn't like to be seen as captain of the ship, more one of a group. He hands the reins over to us to drive it all the time."

The head prefect to the schoolmaster approach taken by his predecessor in Cork and now Limerick, Donal O'Grady?

"That sounds like it alright," Hickey laughed.

"We were just getting into Donal O'Grady's coaching style. He is a fantastic coach. He coached the way he wanted the game played and he stuck to it.


"Unfortunately, we came unstuck to a last-minute John Mullane goal in his year.

"But John has allowed us, the players, to decide how we want to play and to let lads hurl away and decide what's most comfortable and more natural, a more direct style where the ball does the work."

That was also Allen's modus operandi in Cork, where senior players would offers suggestions and ideas, a situation that led to concerns among suspicious county board officials that the same group of young men who had faced them down in the first players' strike were dictating to the manager too.

It was an illusion Allen cared little about, appreciating instead the feedback that arrived with such clarity.

Ultimately, the man who felt the need to whip off a player of Brian Corcoran's stature to help win an All-Ireland semi-final in 2005 and dropped nine players from his first squad within a few days of taking the Limerick job is as steely and unequivocal as any of his counterparts.

So leaving Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes, Niall Moran and Conor Allis on the bench last Sunday was never going to cost him sleep if he felt it was the right decision.

Having these players to draw upon for the last 20 minutes was, in hindsight, a vital piece of armoury and the right call.

Instilling the belief into brow-beaten and mentally battered Limerick players to finally win a Munster championship match, beating the second favourites for the All-Ireland title in the process, ranks high among any other achievement.

Hickey acknowledged the scale of what was achieved.

"I think it's important to enjoy these things when they happen because since 2007 if you told me that I would never win another Munster championship match until yesterday, I just wouldn't have believed it," he said.

"It was a big moment for us. We were genuine in our belief that this year we could do it. We should believe we can win these games. It's a culture we're trying to develop within the team, it's an attitude that has changed.

"And believing you can win it, as opposed to accepting your lot – especially when you are four points down with 20 minutes to go – is part of that.

"It's changing how you see the game and how you see your participation in it. If you want to be a participant, that's how you'll see yourself; if you want to be a winner, you need to change your outlook."

The facilitator with the whispered tones and iron fist has overseen that transition.

Irish Independent

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