BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
CORK footballers’ championship campaign starts this Saturday in a ground and a county I have fond memories of.
For the four years I attended the University of Limerick in the late 1990s, I lined out with the college. We had great times. Sigerson Cup runs, including a final in ’97. County senior championship campaigns, title wins, and controversy.
I grabbed onto the coattails of a talented group of footballers who happened to be a couple of years ahead of me in their studies. They had won an All-Ireland Freshers title and had serious eyes on the Sigerson Cup at the time. Like the club and inter-county scenes in Limerick back then, at UL the Fitzgibbon Cup was held in higher regard and it was rare that the college's footballers would be in the mix for a Sigerson Cup title. Hurling first, football second.
My years playing football at UL had a huge bearing on my development as a young footballer. Colleges’ football is the next step below inter-county and is a real shop window for any aspiring young talents. I was lucky enough to play in the Sigerson Cup all four years I attended but 1997 was the standout year.
On a journey that contained victories over CIT, UCC and the Garda College, we found ourselves at the Sigerson Cup weekend in Coleraine, Co Antrim. We had a very talented and balanced team, all of whom had inter-county experience at some level. The team featured players from the length and breadth of the country, but when you had a forward line that featured Dara Ó Cinnéide and Mike Frank Russell, you had a chance of going places. We took care of Coleraine in the semi-final but went down fighting to a loaded Tralee Institute of Technology team in the final. Among their starting 15 were Barry O’Shea, Seamus Moynihan, William Kirby and Genie Farrell. They dominated colleges’ football for a period back then. They won the three in a row (97-99).
However, this UL group was not finished and wanted something to show for the amount of time we had put into football in Limerick. It was decided that we would enter the Limerick county senior football championship. We won the title in 1997 and ’98, both finals were played in the Gaelic Grounds.
Like the colleges’ teams here in Cork, fixtures were made and had to be fulfilled regardless of players' club commitments. So for two summers Denis Lyons from Dunmanway and myself travelled to Limerick for the club championship, often having played a game the night before or that morning. For our manager at the time Fergus Clifford (uncle to current Kerry footballer David) it was the old adage of looking out the dressing-room door hoping that we would make the fifteen for some of the games.
The standard of club football in Limerick was poor at the time and the welcome we got from teams across the county was mixed, to say the least. This angst grew as the championship progressed. If you look at the Limerick roll of honour you will notice that Galbally are recorded as champions in 1997. After a tempestuous final, where we emerged victorious and were presented with the cup, an objection emerged from the opposing club in the aftermath. The result was overturned due to the non-declaration of a home ground. Petty, I know, but we re-doubled our efforts and won it in 1998. We weren’t allowed to enter after that.
I would like to think if nothing else that the colleges’ sojourn into the county championship helped raise the standards of club football in Limerick at the time. There was no shortage of good footballers but they needed to get fitter, faster and stronger. Billy Lee, the current Limerick manager, certainly has this current group progressing nicely and is an extremely dangerous opponent for Cork in Saturday’s provincial semi-final.
Limerick had their biggest championship win (4-18 to 0-12) in the modern era in their Munster SFC first-round victory over Waterford a few weeks ago. They had a very good league campaign in Division 3 with victories over Wicklow and Tipperary taking them to a league semi-final versus an emerging Derry side where they lost by four points after a dogged display.
Limerick have a full-forward line of the Burke brothers, Hugh and Robbie, and a very dangerous and free-scoring Danny Neville. They have two big powerful midfielders in Tommy Childs and Darragh Treacy along with a dangerous attacking half-back line, the best of whom is Ian Corbett. They are patient and work the ball into the scoring zone before getting the aforementioned shooters on the ball. Cork will have men back and need to condense this area while being aggressive yet disciplined in the tackle in order to starve Limerick’s potent inside three.
Limerick will have plenty of men back themselves and will look to break hard and fast on the turnover. If Cork are off form and sloppy we only have to look back to the Division 2 relegation play-off against Westmeath to see what a hard-running attack can do to the Cork defence. The game will hinge on the performance of Cork's middle eight to deliver a regular supply of ball to a purring forward line.
Cork will go into this game as favourites. Limerick will be on home turf with a little form to show going into this game and they will tear into Cork with ferocity and physicality. If Cork don’t get out of the blocks and if their attitude and approach is in any way flawed, Limerick have enough footballers to punish them. I will be watching Cork's body language and attitude closely during the warm-up and before throw-in because if there are any lapses or chinks we could be in for a very uncomfortable afternoon.