Joe McKenna: ‘I felt this was our time because everything was right’

By John Fogarty
GAA Correspondent

As he did earlier in the year, John Kiely spoke last Monday about his eureka moment. It was more painful than enlightening.

Joe McKenna
August 19, 2009: Tipperary 6-19 Limerick 2-7. So enraged with the result and the performance of his county in that All-Ireland semi-final that Kiely phoned then county chairman Liam Lenihan the following day and asked to be given a role. From intermediate manager to U21 selector to U21 manager to senior manager, Kiely progressively harnessed his fury.

Joe McKenna can’t say his action was born of anger but is certain it was triggered by utter frustration. Deciding to oversee an academy that produced so much of what Limerick had to offer last Sunday came by way of a visit to his hardware shop.

“It just went on for too long, getting the beatings over the years. It hurts. I had a situation not too long ago when a man came into my shop at 8.50 on a Monday morning after we had been hammered in the Championship and he asked me if I would get involved in something at senior level. His actual words were, ‘Would yourself and JP (McManus) turn things around for Limerick senior hurling? I wanna see Limerick win an All-Ireland before I die’.

This man was about 70 years of age and when you have that passion among the Limerick supporters you try and do something for them and that was the idea of the academy. You didn’t think then you would see it happen so soon but it was done so that Limerick supporters could go to games and see the team being consistently competitive and not have more of the hard luck stories over the years. You saw it on Sunday that this was the fruition of it all.

Established in early 2011 following a season where senior players had downed tools against senior manager Justin McCarthy, the academy would have been an unequivocal success regardless of last Sunday but now it can held up as a beacon. Featuring the likes of McKenna, Liam Hayes and Eibhear O’Dea and with the backing of the McManus brothers, there was enough pulling power to convince the county board not just that this was the way forward for Limerick GAA but Saturdays should be given up to it too.

Development squads are the bane of a lot of clubs and GAA president John Horan has declared that he aims to tackle the excessive power they have in counties. “I think all the way from U13 to U20 has to be looked at,” he said at Congress earlier this year. “We need to create a proper player pathway. I don’t think people are acting out of malice but some are getting carried away with their own self-importance (judging) by the number of training sessions. Young players should be dipping in and out of county squads.

No young lad should be deemed a success or failure and I think young lads going to county development squad training should actually go in their club colours and keep it in their head that they’re still a club player.

But where Limerick’s academy differs is the holistic approach it takes. The person comes first, the player second. As former Limerick academy director of hurling Anthony Daly wrote in this newspaper last week, winning was the end but it has never been the means for the initiative.

“We never had a structure in Limerick,” says McKenna. “Ever. I don’t know why but those are the actual facts. When we started the academy in the early years, you could see the lads responding and becoming more mature.

“You talk about winning when we started out with the academy our target was to win a match. We did that against Cork in the first year and we built from there. Back then, they didn’t know what nutrition was all about. They just weren’t educated enough and the academy brought the education and the lads bought into everything from that side of things. They learned from it, they wanted to be a part of it.

“They could see what winning could do for them and they wanted to be a part of it. They’re just seriously good guys both on and off the field. We can be very proud of them.”

McKenna can say with authority no player was left behind. That is evident in the number of non-hurling strongholds like Kildimo-Pallaskenry (Kyle Hayes), Feohanagh-Castlemahon (Seamus Flanagan), Pallasgreen (Colin Ryan) and Askeaton-Ballysteen (William O’Meara) who were represented on the 36-man panel. The net was cast far and wide.

“So many people are involved in the academy and the key in the early days that at the ages of 14, 15 and 16 it was solely development.

We missed no player. We didn’t win our tournaments but we just wanted to perform at minor level and get into Croke Park.

“Our aim was always to get to Croke Park and that started to happen. Some other counties might have missed that point because there was too much pressure on winning. We just took a wider view that the players had to be developed and be allowed to grow the type of mindset and develop physically so that they could end up playing senior hurling for Limerick. That’s the product we saw out there on Sunday.

“You’re seeing commitment and work-rate. Even in academies, guys with ability realise it’s not all about ability. You see Dan Morrissey, the way he’s improved and improved. He’s the typical example for us this year in particular. That’s what the academy is all about. There are players out there who are disappointed they didn’t make it onto the team or the squad and you feel sorry for them but there has to be a standard you have to aspire to and that takes massive commitment.

“The players, for showing that, have to be given huge credit too because there are all these social aspects of young adult life and life is tough now and it’s tough on young people. The stresses and the strains. To give the commitment they’ve given, it’s just phenomenal and it’s a great credit to them, their families and their clubs.”

Smiling and chatting with fellow supporters in the Citywest Hotel Monday morning, McKenna’s emotions after the victory were more reserved than he thought they might have been. Maybe it was the expectation he had going into the summer – “I strongly felt that we had a special bunch of lads coming through and they needed looking after. I was on the committee that picked the current management team and we had to make sure that we got a top-class group of individuals to look after these players and we were lucky enough to do that.

“We have a seriously good management team from John right down and it couldn’t have worked out any better. Leading up to this, I felt this was our time because everything was right. The county board were brilliant this year, the management was good, the players were good, there was nothing wrong and everyone worked together.”

It was a case of a job well done McKenna, all those involved in getting the players to this point including the most altruistic of sponsors. “For me, I was really excited after beating Kilkenny, really excited after beating Cork but I wasn’t all excited after beating Galway or the morning after. I was just trying to take it all in. Everybody involved, they know what’s gone into it and there is a sense of fulfillment in it.

Also, we have been very lucky in having two great sponsors in JP and Gerry McManus who are so easy to work with. They’re good friends of mine and their only aim was for Limerick to compete and to compete with honesty. When you have sponsors like that who give so much and don’t want anything out of it other than that, it sets the tone.

“When things are really bad, that’s when they would have been really behind you. They would have a good word and say ‘we can do this or we can do that to make things better’. We were talking about the function after the game and JP was saying he would be there regardless of the result but that it was more important he be there if Limerick lost.

“That’s the wisdom of the man.”

JP McManus was there with McKenna in 1973 as he was on Sunday, beaming from ear to ear. History, though, was not going to be a problem on this occasion. Caroline Currid’s advice dripped from Tom Morrissey’s words following the win over Kilkenny when he spoke of the past being no baggage.

If that was a memo, it was read by former players who did not want to, as Eamonn Rea put it last month, “haunt” the current crew. Further pronouncements by Shane Dowling and Kiely about keeping matters in check also worked wonders.

“I never look back, I just look to the present and the future and I suppose working with academies I only see potential and I love working with young people,” McKenna remarks.

They are obviously the future and there was no point in former players talking about their time to newspapers. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s now that matters and young people need their chance too.

“With all due respect to the media and I wouldn’t have anything against them – although I don’t give too many interviews – All-Ireland finals are difficult and they’re a lot of things you have to manage around it.

“I think that’s something we did very well this time without being disrespectful to the media. We saw the build-up before the game and how the lads handled themselves going out onto the field, their respect for the President, their respect for the Galway team, their respect to the parade – they were the last to leave it. I thought that was a real sign of a mature bunch of fellas. Massive credit goes to the management for that.”

McKenna’s spell as a senior manager in 2005-2006 came at a time when the talk of Limerick suffering from a drinking culture was rampant. So for Dowling to speak earlier this week about how refreshing it has been for Kiely to allow players to socialise after Championship games is quite the turnaround in how much trust is placed in them.

“When you see the lads day-in, day-out and what they’re putting into it, it’s better off having that release after the big games,” McKenna feels. “John realised that. When you go into work under Paul Kinnerk and Joe O’Connor, you work and you have to be honest with yourself and they have to be honest with them. For big hurling matches, if you don’t have that trust… it’s vital.”

McKenna is very much of the Kiely philosophy that beating Galway was not the end but the beginning of something. Limerick must now retain ambitions to be perennial All-Ireland contenders. “I hope everybody in positions in the county board and all the key roles do proper jobs going forward.

“I already spoke to (county chairman) John Cregan to make sure that happens because the academy is more important than ever. If we produce the same type of player to help these guys… like, we’re only looking for one a year now going forward. Do that and we’ll be in the mix every year.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to win it but we’ll be competing and our objective should always be to get to the last four. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do that but it’s up to all the stakeholders in Limerick hurling now to do their jobs and if they do them properly it will happen. Sometimes, different people come in and they take their eye off the ball and things fall apart. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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