As I made my way up the Ennis Road towards the LIT Gaelic Grounds on Saturday, it felt a bit like old times.
The sun shining. The sight of supporters with jerseys and flags. The sound of the stadium announcer echoing around. It had a real Championship feel to it.
And the anticipation of what might lay ahead only added to the experience. That nervous energy you really get as a player when you know that you have put yourself in a position of achieving something special, while also battling those demons in your mind that point to all the things that might stop you reaching that goal.
As a supporter those emotions can be amplified even more!
I always hated warm ups. It was probably the time where I was at my most doubtful. Have I the work put in to be able to live with the pace of the game? And if so, why do I feel so tired right now? Usually a few handy kick passes would help with that.
I still vividly remember coming out onto the pitch in Portlaoise in 2012 before we played Kildare and being greeted by a sea of white jerseys. It was daunting to say the least. But then I went kicking ball with John O’Riordan and that safe space, grounded feeling of being comfortable just settled me. Something as simple as that can really help. And watching on as Adrian O’Brien put Limerick through their pre-match routine on Saturday, they looked like a team that were ready.
Physically and mentally.
And the start of the game was ideal. A point on the board inside the opening thirty seconds. They looked combative. Aggressive. Purposeful. And when they forced an early turnover you could feel the crowd getting into it. It was a real Limerick start to a game, if that makes sense. Riding a wave almost.
But a lot of that early momentum was quenched after a matter of minutes when they had to deal with the double blow of conceding a goal and losing goalkeeper Donal O’Sullivan in the same incident. Thankfully Donal was okay after the game. But it must have been tough to take for him. A guy that is so diligent and committed in his preparation for this moment, and for it to be taken away before a ball was even kicked. I have no doubt it will only add fuel to his fire going forward.
It was also a major jolt for the rest of the group, losing such an influential player at an early stage. But the reaction to this early setback was very impressive. In 2019, the early concession of a goal resulted in the floodgates opening. On Saturday, lads didn’t skip a beat.
The performance of Aaron O’Sullivan helped with that. I’m not sure when he was eating his porridge that morning if he had mentally prepared himself for being flung into the fray a couple of hours later. But he looked confident in everything he was asked to do.
And up until injury time at the end of the half Limerick would have been happy with where they were. Forcing turnovers. Winning their own kickout. Creating enough opportunities, albeit not taking enough of them.
I looked up at the scoreboard clock as it was ticking towards the thirty five minute mark and it read Cork 1-3 Limerick 0-4. “Touching distance at half time. Ideal after that start.” But by the short whistle, that gap had increased out to a significant five points. Possibly as a result of fatigue causing some lapses of concentration during that period. Or a drop in energy levels as a result of missed chances.
Whatever it was, it gave Cork that cushion at halftime that allowed them to plan for keep ball and a “bend but don’t break” approach to their defensive set up.
To their credit, Limerick continued to force turnovers consistently in the second half. But it was one of the those days though where the bounce of the ball was not favouring the men in green.
An example of this occurred twice in a row, where Limerick players aggressively hunted in a pack and forced the ball loose, only for it to dribble out to a waiting red jersey on both occasions. Energy sappers. And still, Limerick were within four points heading into the last quarter.
A goal was needed, with the most likely provider being the fleet footed Danny Neville, who caused the Cork defenders a lot of trouble throughout. He almost delivered the much needed 3-pointer in the 55th minute, the ball being drilled inches wide of the left hand post. His look to the sky after said it all.
The game drifted away from Limerick in the games dying embers, as the search for more goal opportunities meant passes were being forced and Cork were able to tack on some scores on the counter attack. The final eight point margin was in no way a reflection on the competiveness of the game. But you would have to say on the day, Limerick just didn’t do enough to get the win they had hoped for.
The stats will point to the fact that Limerick (25) had more shots than Cork (22) but the execution wasn’t there to convert enough of them.
Limerick might also lament the fact that they did not get enough pressure on the Cork kickout. Only once in the game did a Cork restart end up with possession for Billy Lee’s men. This meant that even after a score, Limerick weren’t able to keep the pressure on in the Cork half.
On the flip side, Cork gave an example of the cuteness that Limerick need to adapt to, as they continually slowed up Limerick attacks with some “tactical” fouls. A foul count to yellow card ratio of 30:2 would suggest that they did that very well. (I thought the referee had a good game to be fair).
And while Limerick worked very hard and effectively for the majority of the game to force Cork into turnovers, they never really got that energy boost, crowd lifting score off the back of one of those possessions. Cork on the other hand were able to punish any sloppy turnovers.
There was no doubt disappointment in the group at how the day turned out in the end. For some more than others, as is always the case. The review of the season can wait for another day. As will a Munster final appearance for this group.
But just like Andy Dufresne and his letter writing, the ability to be consistent in what you do will get you there eventually. But hopefully it won’t take 312 attempts!