THE harsh reality of sport could not have been any clearer in Croke Park.
It was almost 20 minutes after the final whistle and the minor teams had returned to their respective dressing rooms beneath the Cusack stand.
Just cold concrete walls divided the teams but at that moment in time they could not have been further apart - celebratory song bellowed out the open Kilkenny door, while behind closed doors Limerick sat in silence.
The empty feeling of defeat was shared by players, management and supporters alike.
Limerick had gone to Croke Park as 1/2 favourites to end a 30-year wait to lift the Irish Press Cup for just a fourth time.
But alas defeat was the lot for Brian Ryan’s team.
The biggest regret for all is that Limerick didn’t reach their full potential.
Yes, they were beaten by a fine Kilkenny side.
But ultimately Limerick weren’t able or allowed to find the rhythm that saw them beat Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and Galway enroute to the final. At no point did Limerick really take the game to Kilkenny and set the tempo as they had done in all other games.
Selector Steve McDonogh was honest when admitting he felt Limerick were playing catch-up for most of the game.
I don’t think there can be any arguments but that Kilkenny won the sideline battle and that is despite the vast experience among the Limerick set-up.
Pat Hoban’s Kilkenny exposed any perceived weaknesses in Limerick while also nullifying the strengths.
But they got a helping hand from Limerick.
The pre-match positional swicthes didn’t work and the players looked uncertain of their roles in the early minutes. Limerick had started many games this year in impressive fashion but this time round they were 0-6 to 0-3 down after 14 minutes.
Throughout the game Limerick afforded too much space to the Kilkenny forwards, while never managing to create space for what is a talented attack.
By the time Limerick returned for the second half three substitutions had been made but still Limerick’s couldn’t find the spark to launch their usual swash-buckling free-flowing style.
Aside from positional changes, much has been made of the continuous personnel changes to the team and subs throughout the year. Certainly a fair question, but it must be remembered that Kilkenny brought John Walsh into the team for the final and he scored 2-5!
Ultimately it was the Walsh goals that proved the difference.
Limerick’s last All-Ireland minor title was 1984 and a look through the roll of honour for the last 30 years will show that just three titles were won without scoring a goal.
To be fair a little bit of luck did desert Limerick because chances were created.
In the opening half the Conor Fitzgerald chance stands out but Tom Morrissey and Cian Lynch both scored points that on another day could have crashed in under the crossbar.
Twice Peter Casey was denied midway through the second half and then there was the late Ronan Lynch 21m free and the Barry Nash shot that flew just wide.
Such are the margins between defeat and victory.
In his two years at the helm Brian Ryan continuously stressed the importance of development and the benefits will be seen in 2015.
Of the 34-man panel last Sunday, 15 will be underage next season. Six were on the starting team - Eoghan McNamara, Paddy O’Loughlin, Thomas Grimes, Conor Byrnes, Seamus Flanagan and Peter Casey. Another two were used as subs; Conor Fitzgerald and Barry Murphy. Conor McSweeney, Adam O’Brien, Thomas Hayes and Conor Houlihan will also be underage while Brian Ryan, Conor Boylan and Darragh Carroll are eligible for another two years.
Who will be guiding their fortunes should be known within the coming weeks.
Brian Ryan’s term is completed and he hasn’t signalled any intentions.
But what is paramount is that the hugely professional levels of preparation must be maintained.
Four Limerick schools will play in the Harty Cup starting on October 1 and that will signal the start of the quest to return the minors to Croke Park.
The aspirations of the underage academy are such that Croke Park will hopefully continue to be the annual target.