Not all that long ago, bizarre though it may seem, Limerick football was probably in a better place than hurling.
Back-boned by an U-21 Munster winning side in 2000, the mid noughties was a fertile period for football in the county, even if the coveted Munster Senior title was never attained. 2004 was the closest they came, and they came agonisingly close, drawing the opening encounter with kingpins Kerry, before losing out in the replay by 3-10 to 2-09. It’s not unfair to suggest that, around that time, the county’s football purveyors were as well known and recognised, if not more so, than the county’s hurlers. Perhaps it was just a lean spell, or a hangover from reaching such dizzying heights in the 90s, but the football culture was strong, people of both codes bought into the hype and the feeling was that there was potential for the capital of the Mid-West to become a legitimate presence in both codes.
Names like John Galvin, who many feel was unjustly denied an All-Star award during his career, John Quane, Jason Stokes, Muiris Gavin, Stephen Kelly, not to mention the dual stars who represented both codes with pride during a time when it wasn’t unthinkable, such as Stephen Lucey, Mark O’Riordan and Conor Fitzgerald.
More recently, the county has produced some exceptional players. The likes of Ian Ryan, Ger Collins, Johnny McCarthy, Seamus O’Carroll and Iain Corbett come to mind. But it’s been well documented, in many weaker counties, but Limerick in particular, that some of the most talented footballers are unwilling to commit. And, to be completely fair, it’s difficult to blame them.
Gaelic Football is, probably, about the fourth choice for kids these days in Limerick, even in the traditional footballing heartland of West Limerick, as you near the Kerry border. There’s no denying the strong place both rugby and soccer occupy in the hearts of Limerick people, so much so that 2018’s All-Ireland victory will have acted as a weight off the shoulders of hurling people there, as now there will almost certainly be increased participation levels, interest levels and growth in the game. Yet where does football now stand?
It’s pretty much impossible these days to be a competitive dual county in the higher echelons these days. Traditionalists like Cork, Offaly (debatable), Laois, Carlow and Wexford (equally debatable at the moment) are a case in point that it’s doable to hold your own in both, but very tricky to become elite simultaneously. There have been murmurs of fears that the Dublin hurlers will eventually become a similar superpower, like their footballing colleagues, but that would appear to be a bit off just yet.
The Limerick footballers have claimed some scalps in recent years, but overall they have been on a steady decline of late. Two wins from three in Division Four this year provides hazy rays of optimism, but in reality, the game is in a vicious circle where the interest simply isn’t there, and players are not being produced. A long-term plan is needed, albeit perhaps one with more substance than Cork’s most recent “sugary” effort, as some may describe it.
Realistic goals, not just for Limerick, but for that cohort languishing in the depths of Division 4, the likes of Waterford, Wicklow, London and Wexford, is to hold their own, invest in development and, above all else, not become a Kilkenny.
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