Ok, so picture the scene. You’re a Limerick hurling fan, making the long and lonely trip up from Kilmallock or Patrickswell, or wherever else you might fancy, to Galway, to see your team’s all or nothing promotion clash against the All-Ireland champions. You’ve been waiting 8 long years for your team to gain elevation to the top tier, but thankfully things seem to be on a bit of an upswing. They’ve won their last four games by comfortable margins to put themselves top of the table. They’re playing with a style and confidence you haven’t seen in years. So all things seem la di da, fine and dandy and then all of a sudden….your team loses the plot.
Or so you think anyway. It starts like an armageddon. Cathal Mannion scores a scrappy goal against you in the first few minutes. Points are being fired over from all angles and sidelines. You’re being outmuscled and outplayed all across the park. Galway look exactly like a team who won an All-Ireland last year. Your team looks like one that hasn’t won one in 45. Your goalkeeper almost throws one in. 27 minutes gone. 9 points down. Same as it ever was Limerick. Same as it ever was.
But then something magical happens. Out of the deepest recesses of their spirit, the Treaty men manage to find something that they’ve been missing for years: a backbone. Inch by inch, point by point, they somehow manage to claw their way back into the game. Seamus Flanagan hurls up a storm at full forward. Kyle Hayes somehow squeezes in a goal to give you belief, they level for the first time with 10 minutes to go and then finally, joyously, Cian Lynch and Pat Ryan, set the seal on a sensational victory. It was such a display of exceptional character you almost had to do a double take to see it was a team wearing green that was showing it. As the esteemed Limerick hurling writer Henry Martin wrote on Twitter: “If ever a Limerick team showed balls when it was needed this was it”
Now I’ve argued that there seemed something aimless about the county’s hurling strategy before. Last year on these pages in fact (http://sportstalk.ie/whats-done-limerick-hurling-anyone-even-care/). But it may just be that what looked like a dormant duck from the outside, was actually paddling furiously beneath the surface. Because it just so happened, that the county managed to produce their best underage side in aeons last annum, in the form of the triumphant under 21 team. And the side wasn’t just the best one in the country, it was comfortably so.
Now of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. The underage starlets that produced a 3 in a row of under 21 All-Ireland successes in the 00’s, never so much as registered one senior All-Ireland. But still it’s a start. And promotion to Division 1A is another few steps up the ladder. And it’s another thing doing it without 10 of your panel who are playing in an All-Ireland club hurling final next week for Na Piarsigh. Which, by the way, is another boon for the county’s hurling fortunes.
So maybe I was a little hasty in writing off Limerick as yesterday’s men in that piece I did last year, but then I didn’t actually see the tsunami coming. And it’s nice for once, that rather than get promoted and find, well actually, you haven’t been promoted at all, next year Limerick will be in a 6 team Division 1A on merit. And to win all your matches by a combined total of 58 points, to come back from 9 points down to the All-Ireland champions away and eke out a last minute victory, well, if that’s not a definition of a merited success, I really don’t know what is.
But if everything is coming up in green in Limerick’s garden then what of Galway. Well obviously there’s no good way to lose a game but you would imagine going from 8 points up at half time to being overturned at the death would have to rank pretty highly among the worst ways. Here’s the thing though. They did pretty much the exact same thing last year against Wexford in the same sort of promotion decider.
6 points up with 15 minutes to go they someone contrived to lose it in the last minute. And predictably the knives were out. “Here we go again” they said. “Typical Galway” they said. But it wasn’t. And the chokers of February managed not to lose another game from the 11 they played in the rest of the year. Teams can change. That’s what Galway did. That’s what Limerick are trying to do. So judge Galway not by what they do in February and March for there’s a good chance what happens in July and August will be different.
So Galway’s disappointment is understandable but it need not be terminal. In terms of hurling, there wasn’t much difference between the sides today. But mentally at least, there was a big difference between the sides today. Because Galway wanted to win this game but Limerick NEEDED to win it. And if you’re only a couple of years removed from sitting at the top table you can still imagine what it’s like to dine there. But if you’ve waited 8 long years to get back, that memory is a lot vaguer.
So as Limerick hurling days go, this was a particularly good one. Maybe in future this will go down, along with the 1996 Munster Final, as one of their all time great hurling comebacks. But if that’s to be the case, then what they do from now on is paramount. No one quite does false dawns like Limerick do. Things don’t necessarily get easier from here. They’ve got a league quarter final on the horizon against their next door neighbours, and after that they’re facing into one of the most cuthroat Munster Championships that’s likely to be played in years.
So it’s not going to be easy from here but then it never is. Being a Limerick hurling fan is a burden few would wish to shoulder. But still, for today at least, they can dream. 45 years of hurt. It never stopped them dreaming