We must become cheetahs to catch 'big cats'
WATCHING a wildlife documentary recently got Declan Hannon thinking about the hurling kingdom's pecking order and Limerick's place in it. Cheetahs, he reckons, that's what Limerick have to become.
Okay, so they mightn't have the size or strength of hurling's 'big cats' (and we're not just talking Kilkenny here), but take a look at cheetahs, he suggests.
The world's fastest land animal can take down far bigger and stronger prey by using their speed, agility and tactical nous and that, he reckons, will be the key to Limerick ascension up the hurling ladder.
They're pretty far down at present; without a win in the Munster Championship since their famous trilogy with Tipperary in 2007, when Hannon, a wide-eyed 14-year-old, watched them go all the way to the All-Ireland final.
The county was subsequently sundered with a player strike during Justin McCarthy's tenure and needed the intervention of Donal O'Grady to put them back on a firm footing in 2011.
Hannon, not 21 until November, mercifully comes from a generation unaffected by that schism, but, and not for the first time, one that is also heavily burdened with local expectations.
Limerick's three All-Ireland U-21 titles in a row from 2000-02 promised future senior glory that never transpired and Hannon is emblematic of the latest seam of underage talent that has still to prove itself.
While the county was mired in a hurling crisis in 2010, he was a pivotal player on the Ardscoil Ris team that made history, the first Limerick school to win the Harty Cup (Munster 'A' schools) title since 1993, following an epic three-game battle with reigning All-Ireland champions Thurles CBS.
When he started in Ardscoil, it was still a rugby stronghold (Paul O'Connell is a past pupil), but an influx of hurling-obsessed teachers, including Limerick's Niall Moran, changed that, and a year later they retained their Harty title, no mean feat.
Those teams featured some talented kids from across the border (like Cathal McInerney and Jamie Shanahan) but were largely home-grown and Hannon, Kevin Downes and Shane Dowling, in particular, were quickly thrown into senior service with Limerick.
When John Mullane's late second goal pipped Limerick in the 2011 Munster semi-final he was at home, gnawing his Irish books in frustration.
O'Grady had used him in two league games, but insisted he concentrated on his Leaving Cert that summer.
Once it was over he rejoined them for their back-door run to the quarter-finals, where a Ryan O'Dwyer hat-trick for Dublin finally did for them.
His quick promotion to the senior ranks meant he ended up playing alongside his schoolteacher Moran – so, what was the protocol there?
"I called him Rooster because that's his nickname!" Hannon chuckles. "But in the school of course it was all 'Mr Moran'.
"I wasn't the only one. Kevin Downes, Shane Dowling, Mark Carmody and Alan Dempsey were all in school too under Niall and he was a great help to us. He definitely got the best out of us in school and was the first coach I really looked up to."
But those halcyon days were still imperfect because they lost both of those All-Ireland schools finals to Kilkenny nursery St Kieran's.
"The Harty was the be-all and end-all for us until we realised the All-Ireland was possible as well," Hannon reflects. "We should have won the second year, lost by two points with a last-minute goal. Cillian Buckley was playing for them."
In truth, Hannon's young hurling career since has been a litany of lost opportunities which his laid-back personality and boyish enthusiasm belies. He was only 16 when he was part of the Adare team, managed by Ger O'Loughlin, who won a Limerick senior title and reached a Munster club semi-final against Newtownshandrum.
"I thought it would be all rosy in the garden after that," he admits. "Ger was excellent, he brought a lot of young lads into that team and brought everyone in Adare on a lot. But we haven't won since. We got to the county final again last year and lost to Kilmallock, but were lucky really."
He has lost two more finals, of greater status.
John Allen's previously unbeaten side lost this year's Division IB final and promotion, when eight first-half wides cost them dearly against Dublin. After losing to Clare at the same stage last year and being denied promotion in 2010 after the league was restructured when they were Division 2 champions, they still haven't got back to hurling's top tier.
A student teacher in Mary Immaculate, Hannon was also part of the college team, managed by Eamonn Cregan, who made history by reaching their first Fitzgibbon Cup final this year, which they lost to UCC. It included Clare's Colm Galvin, Galway's Conor Cooney and Waterford's Brian O'Halloran, and he was at centre-back.
Hannon may demonstrate the typical joie de vivre of a student, but a groin injury sidelined him for the whole of NHL last year, a wear-and- tear legacy of his busy underage career.
He is still living at home in Adare with his parents and two younger brothers. "It's an all-boys, all-hurling house, the mother would be giving out sometimes," he jokes, though his mum is credited with some of his hurling genes as she is a Stakelum from Thurles.
When you put it to him that Limerick hurlers are viewed as serial underachievers who won't get any sympathy unless they start winning things – an opinion strongly voiced by Cregan this week – Hannon doesn't take umbrage.
"Every time I go out to play with Limerick I think I'm going to win and that is the mentality in the group, but, for some reason, it just doesn't seem to happen," he says.
"We had a training match last week and the intensity was ridiculous. It's just trying to translate that from the training ground onto the field.
"But we're definitely going in the right direction, the gap is definitely closing.
"We could have beaten Tipperary last year, we just fell away in the last 15 minutes. We put it up to Kilkenny for 50 minutes, but, as they do, they got a few goals then and it was over in the space of three minutes."
He is happy to play wherever he's sited (currently and somewhat controversially, at full-forward) and eyebrows have been raised that he is the only one of their U-21 forwards that Allen is starting against Tipp at the Gaelic Grounds today. But Hannon is adamant that the expec-tations heaped on Limerick's latest young guns are not inhibiting them.
"There'd be optimism there. We beat Cork in the Munster U-21 final two years ago and our minors were very unlucky against Clare last summer," he says.
"It just hasn't translated to senior yet, but I don't think it's far off. All our forwards, bar Niall, are under 25. We'll just keep working away and try to get to the level of Kilkenny and Tipp.
"I think there's a bit of luck involved as well, which we haven't had. A bit of momentum at all could set your year up. One win could make our season."
THE ALTERNATIVE INTERVIEW . . .
Declan Hannon away from the GAA fields
Non-GAA sports event you'd most like to attend as a fan?
"The Cheltenham Festival. Dad and his brother used to own two horses which ran in handicaps and we used to go along to the races. I've never been to Cheltenham, but I'd pay all the money I had to go there some time."
Favourite people to follow on Twitter?
"I'd follow most of the GAA guys really, the Donegal footballers are very funny."
What other sports do you like to play?
"I used to play a bit of everything. If I could get time, I'd like to go for a round of golf with the lads. We play on the old course in Adare. I had a handicap of nine, but I wouldn't play off that these days."
What music are you listening to at present?
"I like Mumford & Sons, I'm going to see them in July. But before a match I like something like David Guetta, something that gets you energised. I'd be hopping off the walls!"
Best thing a fan has said to you after a match?
"Nothing really stands out, but Niall Moran had a great saying whenever we lost, that when other teams are "cock-a-hoop" that's when they're ready to be knocked off their pedestal."
If hurlers started customising their helmets with images and logos, what would you chose?
"Two words – 'No Fear' – and a cheetah and a lion, or a David versus Goliath kind of image. That's how I see us in most games."