It would be unfair to simplify the upheaval in Limerick hurling as evidence of Justin McCarthy’s ability to make enemies and alienate people but even his staunchest supporters couldn’t concur with the way he went about rebuilding the Shannonsiders’ squad ahead of 2010.
The Corkman says it was time for “new blood”, though there’s a body of opinion out there that he simply decided that those agitating against him since last season should be shown the door before they pulled the short-lived red carpet from under his feet.
McCarthy’s old school stubbornness and Limerick’s need for an ultra-professional, progressive management structure never looked a natural fit for me. Hurt by what happened here, he was desperate to get back into top-level coaching; they wanted rid of Richie Bennis. It was mutually convenient, that’s all.
McCarthy, one felt, needed to re-energise himself with a younger group of players, fearless and impressionable to his coaching methods (and I don’t buy this ‘too old’ stuff, though his training techniques could do with updating by all accounts). Instead he took over a slightly weary and inevitably cynical collection of hurlers who’d recently reached an All-Ireland final, mugging McCarthy’s Waterford along the way.
More than anything the man whose stint on Suirside yielded rich and at-times-dazzling rewards but fell short of the ultimate objective all too often, needed to absorb and learn from the shortcomings that saw that tenure end so badly. The wounds from the way it all went wrong will never heal. The fact McCarthy’s children remain fervent followers of Waterford fortunes must tear at the heartstrings.
Instead of adapting, his suspicions that players were best kept at arm’s length, and that he knew more than they ever would, seemed to have been reinforced over the past year; his failure/unwillingness/inability to communicate and reciprocate — a critical attention deficit during his latter days as Déise boss — putting established players on the back foot within months of his arrival in Limerick.
Though a clear-out of sorts was probably called for, his justification of the crude culling of up to a dozen members of the senior set-up, including the likes of Niall Moran and Andrew O’Shaughnessy (the army man whose loss of form has taken on a different and sad light with the news that he has been diagnosed with MS), on the grounds that the panel was lacking in discipline, was cackhanded, but unfortunately hardly out of character.
As any number of their colleagues attested to, these are lads who’ve dedicated years to the green jersey and deserved to be jettisoned with a bit of dignity at the very least. Ollie Moran, an All Star in 2007 and now retired, said: “I’m seething and shocked at the insinuation in there that those guys lacked commitment. To infer now that they were lacking in commitment to Limerick, that they were somehow dishonest, distracted, broke a code of discipline really rankles.”
A simple explanation of the direction McCarthy wanted to take things would have sufficed in most instances. But, unless it’s to do with a stick, Justin — a man with “a massive ego” according to John Kiely — doesn’t do explaining very well.
Indiscipline wasn’t what caused the galling capitulation against Tipperary last year. Limerick’s Liverpool-like zonal marking gameplan that afternoon was mindboggling, and anathema to the players’ ‘mano-a-mano’ traditions. Letting lads express themselves worked wonders with Waterford, up to a point. He was never going to have the same raw talent and spontaneity to play with in Limerick, but trying to make them something they weren’t was a serious mistake.
But not as disastrous a misjudgment as his sins of omission, and the tar-brushing that compelled county chairman Liam Lenihan – who’d defended McCarthy from the understandable flak that flew after the Tipp shambles – to apologise to those summarily dismissed and needlessly offended.
It’s eight years since Justin brought out his extremely readable but much-too-messianic autobiography ‘Hooked: A Hurling Life’. It’s a hugely incomplete story at this stage, missing the seven seasons he spent with Waterford, and the subsequent, surely short-lived sojourn on Shannonside. As a memoir it’s likely to remain, to use his own phrase, “unfinished business”, with his collaborator on the book, journalist Kieran Shannon revealing in the Sunday Tribune at the weekend that himself and McCarthy are no longer on the best of terms, linking the demise of their once “very close friendship” to his decision to ghostwrite Brian Corcoran’s ‘Every Single Ball’.
“You’re either for him or against him and if you‘re against him then you’re excommunicated,” Shannon surmises, referring to one Waterford player’s “genuine concern” about the 63-year-old McCarthy’s “Learesque tendencies” in recent years.
Or as Vincent Hogan wrote in Monday’s Indo: “Justin has the magisterial air of one of those old colonial types whose wealth has long since evaporated but whose hubris still scrapes the sky. Put simply, his self-worth seems to outstrip all other considerations. Justin may know his hurling, but he needs a few emergency grinds on people.”
One feels it’s too late for the great teacher to learn the error of his ways.