John Duggan writes that he never would have believed Limerick would be chasing a third All-Ireland in four years, with Clare in disarray...
I walked out of Croke Park in August 2009 feeling like everyone else that Limerick hurling had reached its nadir.
The Shannonsiders were humiliated in the All-Ireland semi-final, crushed on a scoreline of 6-19 to 2-7 by Tipperary, a 24 point annihilation.
Under the management of Justin McCarthy, a disconnect grew between McCarthy and some of the players. The county board backed McCarthy and over 20 players were gone for the 2010 season, some of them culled, some of them withdrawing their services in solidarity with their team-mates. It was an absolute s***show, reflective of a county that was moored to infighting and defeat. Limerick would lose all of their League games in 2010 and find themselves relegated. The Championship was over before it even began, with defeats to Cork and Offaly.
In my mind at the time, Limerick was a county that didn't have it. My teenage self had left Croke Park dazed and confused in 1994, as Offaly swallowed them up inside the last five minutes in the All-Ireland final. The promise of their Under-21 sides around the turn of the century fizzled out. They reached an All-Ireland final in 2007, but that was a consequence of catching Waterford cold in an All-Ireland semi-final. They were miles off it in challenging Kilkenny. They were living in 1973.
Then Joe McKenna and JP McManus got behind the idea of a Saturday morning Academy at UL. This Academy nurtured hurlers from Under-14 up. Limerick brought in the likes of Anthony Daly as coaches, and the work bore fruit with All-Ireland minor final appearances and All-Ireland Under-21 titles in 2015 and 2017. The structure was finally right and the seeds were being planted for future success.
One could see the culture changing from the outside. In that period at the beginning of the last decade, Clare were the county with the sparkle, winning a hat-trick of national Under-21 crowns from 2012 to 2014 and the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2013. The Banner were set for a decade of dominance - people were talking of them as natural successors to Kilkenny. It never happened.
Limerick's schools such as Ardscoil Rís began to do well and their colleges won four Fitzgibbon Cups in a row from 2015 to 2018. The raw materials were there and all the county needed to do was properly harvest them.
John Kiely was the glue that copper-fastened this progression, serving as a selector with John Allen in the Munster winning year of 2013, managing the Under-21s and then taking over the seniors. A symbol of the changing environment was Paul Kinnerk leaving Clare to coach Limerick.
Kiely's team are fine hurlers, skillful, physically strong, tall, powerful. Most importantly though, the culture is right.
When you listen to Declan Hannon, or Gearoid Hegarty, or Cian Lynch, you notice the humility of these players. They are winners and they have been the best hurling team in Ireland since 2018.
My late father was from Clare. The mother is from Limerick. I'll always be a Clare fan, but I can't but help but admire how Limerick have turned it around. Limerick city was always a rugby city, but Na Piarsaigh have won four Munster clubs and an All-Ireland club in the last decade.
What's gone wrong with Clare?
There is no black and white answer to that, but the buck should always stop with the County Board. If Limerick can sort their affairs out, why can't Clare?
People could point to the fact Limerick have a generous benefactor, but I don't buy that. There are plenty of people with deep pockets who have the interest of Clare hurling at heart. The Kerry County Board raised over a million euro in American fundraisers a few years ago.
Stories of social media abuse aimed at long-serving Secretary Pat Fitzgerald are disturbing. That's the first thing to point out. There is a Garda investigation ongoing.
There's the matter of the cool relations between Fitzgerald's son, Davy, and the current senior hurling boss Brian Lohan. Davy Fitzgerald, the manager of Wexford, was recently put forward as one of many names to review hurling in Clare. Davy may not have wanted his name to be proposed, but it's a conflict of interest all the same. Meanwhile, Davy Fitzgerald and Niall Romer, a member of Lohan's backroom team, clashed at last year's Clare - Wexford game, prompting a complaint from Fitzgerald.
The Eire Óg club has had its proposals for a strategic review rubber-stamped by the County Board. A number of high-profile businessmen in the county have signed up to independently assess the state of finance, fundraising, coaching and games development and the county's Centre of Excellence at Caherlohan. This facility has cost nearly €5 million.
The Sunday Times recently reported that the Caherlohan pitch was unsuitable for hurling last year and that the senior hurling squad jettisoned its use.
They also reported that Brian Lohan sent 29 e-mails to Pat Fitzgerald pertaining to team affairs which were left unanswered, before being dealt with at a subsequent face-to-face meeting. I was tearing my hair out after reading that. If it's true, it's absolutely ridiculous. Would this happen to John Kiely in Limerick? There's the rub.
Will the Clare County Board water down the independent committee's review? Are the county board and the clubs united or is there too much politics at play? To me, it seems that the dreaded humans are getting in the way of each other in Clare, to the detriment of their hurling teams.
What's for certain is that Clare hurling is in the wilderness. No Munster senior title since 1998, no minor Munster title since 2011, no wins provincially at Under-20 level in the last five years. The promise of a golden era has come and gone. Limerick beat Clare by 0-36 points to 1-23 in last year's Championship. Only for Tony Kelly's brilliance, the defeat would have been heavier.
This isn't good enough.
It's imperative for all parties to put the personality clashes behind them and sort it out. Limerick did the same. There needs to be dynamic governance. Clare requires investment and a unified approach from the bottom up, starting with young hurlers. The example of Limerick is that it takes years to get to the top. If Clare don't get a move on quickly, Banner folk be looking enviously across the Shannon at their neighbours for a long time to come.