Pa Ranahan | It’s a free swing in these early games, why not swing for the fences!

“Be careful what you wish for.”

Those were the words of former manager Billy Lee in an interview post the promotion clinching win against Fermanagh in late March 2022. Having been asked about the prospect of playing top tier football against the likes of Derry and Dublin, he smiled as he described them as “headaches for another day.”

Well, that day is almost upon us. And while Billy and his management are no longer on the scene to face that “headache”, the Limerick Senior Footballers have spent the last few weeks putting the finishing touches on their preparation for the daunting but welcome challenge of Division 2 football for 2023. It will be a baptism of fire to say the least, with a trip to Owenbeg today to face reigning Ulster champions Derry to begin with.

While the juggernaut that is the Dublin football machine will be rolling into town next week. Both teams could easily have been operating in Division 1 for 2023, so it really will be a huge test for the players and the new management team. But that is where you learn the most.

14 January 2023; Limerick Manager Ray Dempsey during the McGrath Cup Group B match between between Tipperary and Limerick at Fethard Community Astroturf Pitch, Fethard in Tipperary. Photo by Tom Beary/Sportsfile

It is a big ask for Ray Dempsey and his management to come in and keep the momentum provided by the previous management, especially when it has been a complete overhaul. The positive is that there is still a solid base of players involved who should help to keep the ship steady. But even those players will be put to the test like they never have been before. As a player, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

That pressure is a privilege, which they have earned. It’s the first time since 2007 that Limerick will be operating in the top half of the national league. This in itself is a fantastic achievement. Maintaining that for 2024 would be an even bigger landmark.

The odds would say that this is unlikely but getting to this point also looked to be a pipedream a few short years ago. Whatever the final standings, the players involved must make the most of this opportunity. There will be days that you are left questioning your place at this level.

When I think back to 2007, I had plenty of those moments of doubt. Whether it was gasping for air trying to chase after Ger Brady in Castlebar or Conor McCarthy in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, or picking myself off the ground after being swarmed by a barrage of Tyrone players in the Gaelic Grounds, there will be times where your best at that moment won’t be good enough. But you take the learnings from it, and you work towards getting better.

But there were other moments too. Against Christy Toye of Donegal. Scoring against Dublin and the Brogans. Walking off the pitch in Clones after winning. There will be days when you will realise that you can live with these household names. The confidence that you can take from that can bring players to a level they doubted existed. And those moments can be found in every game. Every minute offers that opportunity to grow. And I’m sure it is exactly what the players would have wished for.

National Football League 1/4/2007 Limerick vs Donegal Limerick’s Pa Ranahan gathers possession ahead of Christy Toye of Donegal Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Personnel wise, Limerick begin the league minus the services of a number of players who would have featured regularly last year. Josh Ryan, the top scorer in the successful league campaign, is missing with a long-term injury. Brian Donovan, who I think was Limericks star performer throughout the league, is also out. And Hugh Bourke is only just back training after a long layoff. Whether seasoned midfielder Darragh Treacy will commit for another year remains unclear. The absence of these pivotal players in the attacking half will place a lot of the onus for scores at the feet of Cian Sheehan, Cillian Fahy and Adrian Enright, while a new face named in the starting forwards is that of Cathal Downes. Having benefitted physically from being involved in the under 20 hurling set ups in recent years, he has added a different type of scoring threat in the games to date.

An experienced Limerick defence also has the name Barry Coleman added to it. His second year involved in the panel, the ball-playing Rathkeale native has impressed in the McGrath Cup. This will be a huge step up from that but he will be surrounded by players who have been key to Limericks recent success.

How Limerick can integrate more of these players from the under 20 football level into the senior set up and support these players on that pathway is something that needs addressing. The interest and
football ability is there, but too many are being left to their own devices, and it is too much to expect them to make that leap on their own.

If you look around the division, the fact that Limerick are even competing with some of these teams, given the structures they have in place, is nothing short of incredible. They are punching way above their weight. And huge credit must go to the people who have been involved for years for sticking at it long enough to be able to take those punches and deliver some knockout blows of their own.

I would say Limerick is the only county in the division who do not have players competing at the top level in post primary school football. As a comparison, Cork had over 200 players across 7 teams competing at Corn Ui Mhuirí this year. And Limerick are the only county in the division still without a stand-alone Football Games Development Admin/Officer. These are things that have been recommended since 2019 in the excellent Football Review document and pushed for but have not yet been put in place by those overseeing them.

Barry Coleman on the run for Rathkeale in their 2022 Limerick IFC clash with Mungret St Pauls. Credit: Mungret St Pauls Facebook

Football in Limerick had an historic year in 2022, from Senior Intercounty to under 17 to the clubs competing in Munster. Is that the ceiling though?

How can it be when you aren’t yet even making the most of what potential you have. Look at what has been achieved without those advantages that other counties have. It is testament to the players and managements involved with the Limerick Seniors to be in a position where they are now rubbing shoulders with the calibre of teams they will be in the next couple of months. They have proven people wrong again and again. Punched above their weight. Refused to accept the limitations placed in their way. They have done their bit and more.

It’s a free swing in these early games. Why not swing for the fences!

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