Richie Bennis Book Extract: ‘The idea of managing Limerick was a dream of mine’

Ciaran Kennedy

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Ciaran Kennedy

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sport@limerickleader.ie

Richie Bennis Book Extract: ‘The idea of managing Limerick was a dream of mine’

I couldn’t say that I woke up one morning and decided that I’d like to give management a go. It was something that I just sort of fell into through the club. I had done alright managing at junior level and a few of the underage grades, but I thought that was where my management career, if you could even call it that, would end.

Phil (my brother) was managing the senior team out in the club and winning trophies consistently. He wasn’t going to budge, so I felt there was no room for me to step in anyway. When it came to management, I figured that one Bennis was enough.

I never really bothered to chase any senior manager roles. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it.

I loved it, particularly in the earlier years. When you aren’t married, and don’t have any real family commitments, you can allow hurling to be your life. In from work, and out to the pitch every night, training with your own team and trying to help young lads improve their game. What more could a man want?

I would have bitten your hand off to manage the county team.

The idea of managing Limerick was a dream of mine, but I never really felt I had a chance of getting it. There were always other candidates who had much more experience floating around any time the county job became vacant.

I had a change of heart in 1996.

Tom Ryan had been over the team between 1993 and ’95, and his term was up the following year. I knew that either he wouldn’t look to stay on, or that the Limerick county board wouldn’t keep him. Limerick had a good team, losing the 1994 and ’96 finals, and had always been there or thereabouts since 1991.

I saw huge potential in them.

I thought that maybe I might have something to offer, and could help get them over the line. I let the idea fester in my mind for a few weeks and increasingly felt that maybe it was worth putting my name in the hat. I discussed it with my family, and we agreed that I’d go for it.

I put my name forward, and was beaten by one vote.

Éamonn Cregan got the job; not the first time I’d lost out in a head-to-head with him. It was disappointing not to get it, but it wasn’t earth-shattering. I kind of felt that I wasn’t what the county board wanted, and I knew they felt I didn’t have the necessary experience.

At that stage, I said that was that, and I wouldn’t ever apply for the job again. The experience had more or less confirmed a few doubts that had stopped me from applying previously.

From then on, I just went back to being a supporter, and a good supporter at that.

Limerick games were a real family outing. Myself, Mary, my two daughters and my sons, all out supporting the team. We went to all the games, home and away, rain or shine, league or championship.

We’d never miss a match, and over the years my daughters in particular became fanatical about Limerick hurling.

I loved watching Limerick purely as a supporter. It’s a very different experience to being involved in the team. You can still enjoy the highs, but also the lows don’t hurt as much. There is no time spent thinking what you could have done differently.

No 'what ifs’ on your behalf.

You can watch a player do something wrong and get frustrated or annoyed, call him a ‘fecking eejit’ or worse, then pack up, head home, and get on with your life. It’s not as easy to live with when you’re the player in question, doubting your performance or the decisions you made. Likewise, if you’re a manager, thinking that you played the wrong fella or took the wrong approach.

I made the most of sitting in the stands, supporting my county and following Limerick without any feeling of pressure attached. As the years rolled by, and as Limerick rose and faded without ever delivering that elusive All-Ireland, I never would have guessed that I would one day throw myself right back into the thick of that mayhem.

There was nothing remarkable about the day either.

Limerick were heading to Ennis to play Clare in a play-off. Joe McKenna was the Limerick manager, and was doing a grand job. The previous year he had taken Limerick to a league semi-final, where they were beaten by a great Kilkenny team.

There weren’t many complaints about the way he was doing things.

It quickly came apart for Joe, however. He tried a few things in a challenge match against Dublin, which basically involved shifting the team around a bit, and it had come up trumps. He played that same set-up against Clare in the play-off game and it didn’t work. They got a right beating.

It wasn’t pleasant to watch.

We were sitting in the stand as usual, and a lady turned back around towards us near the end of the game and shouted up at me.

It wasn’t unusual for that to happen.

‘You should take over Richie!’

I told her there wasn’t a hope in hell. I meant it, too. I went home and thought nothing of it. I was just recovering from my dance with septicaemia at the time. Inter-county management wasn’t recommended on any of the recovery programmes I had seen.

Hurling was the least of my concerns.

The following Wednesday I was out supervising a job on a septic tank, and got a call from a friend of mine, PJ Guinane around lunchtime. He’d often ring up for an auld chat about the match, so again, nothing new there.

McKenna had resigned the day after the Clare game.

‘Would you not take over, Richie?’

Jokingly, I said I would… if the money was right.

He asked again. ‘Would you though?’

‘Ah, I would… if they were stuck,’ I replied.

I wasn’t thinking seriously about it at all. As far as I was concerned, this was just a casual chat between two friends. That was that, and I went on with my day.

The phone rang again at around 6.0 pm.

This time it was the chairman of the county board. He certainly wasn’t one for ringing up to chat about the game. He sounded like a man in a hurry. It turned out PJ had rung him up after our earlier conversation and told him I was keen to take the job.

Limerick were back out the following Sunday, and they didn’t have a manager. He told me the job was mine, if I wanted it. At first I thought he was winding me up. He told me he was being honest with me, and asked again if I would take it?

I told him what I had told PJ earlier.

‘If you really are stuck…, then I’ll do it,’ I said.

‘We are!’

You wouldn’t have called it a ringing endorsement. The next step was to meet up and discuss things properly. He wanted to meet somewhere where we wouldn’t be spotted, in case either party had a change of heart.

A location was set, and before I knew it, I was hopping into a car to go and discuss getting my dream job.

I was sitting in his car in the carpark of the Kilmurry Lodge.

Less than an hour had passed since taking the chairman’s call.

I was told that Tony Hickey, who was managing the U21 team, would help me out. That was fine by me. I told him I needed to ask ‘the boss’ first.

This was a big decision, and Mary had been my guiding light all my life.

I knew that if she said to go for it, then it was the right thing to do. If she had any reservations or didn’t think that the timing was right, then I’d have trusted her on that too, one hundred percent.

I went home and told her the situation.

She just laughed. This was only a couple of years after I had been on death’s door, told to take it easy, and now here I was looking to step back into the ring and take on the biggest challenge of my life.

She had her reservations, but she also knew what it meant to me.

I’m sure it had hurt her to see me lose so much of my life after my illness. I was dying to get involved in something again, and this was only going to be a short-term arrangement. I knew what my doctor would say, but my opinion was that things like that energise you.

I was mad to do it.

My two daughters were there, too and they were much more excited by the idea than Mary was. It didn’t take long for us all to agree that I should be the next Limerick hurling manager.

The following day I called into my nephew, Gary Kirby and explained the whole situation again. He was just as surprised as anyone. I wanted him to come on board with me, but he had absolutely no interest.

There was no convincing him.

I decided that was fair enough, as it is a massive commitment. I was disappointed, but I fully understood his decision.

An hour later he rang me and said that he’d do it.

One down. Then I rang up Bernie Hartigan and got him in. Tony brought in Ger O'Connell. Ger was the jersey man. He drove the van around and did countless other jobs that I still probably don’t know about. Ger was a brilliant operator, which is why he’s still there working with Limerick now.

Just like that, our little backroom team was complete.

Now it was time to focus on the hurling.

First up, Offaly in Tullamore.

GAME

Our first night training together was a Wednesday night, and I can admit that I was bold enough with the players. I was the new man in charge, and I knew that I was only going to be there for two matches.

I had decided that I didn’t give a dog’s dinner about anything and I would just go in and lay down the law.

I didn’t need to care what they thought about me.

I also wasn’t going to try and revolutionise the way they played across two matches, so the session was all very traditional.

I got them to do a bit of ground hurling, and you would swear that half of them had never hit a ball on the ground in their lives. They were absolutely disastrous at it.

There was no point continuing with it, so I pulled the plug on it and just got them to play a match instead. I didn’t feel there was any real point in getting them to do any drills or anything like that. I just needed to get a good look at them playing before the Offaly game. We were on a tight schedule.

Dave Mahedy was the trainer under Joe McKenna, and he assured me they were as fit as they needed to be. We also brought in Pat Murnane, who had won a Minor All-Ireland in 1984, to do some training with them.

From the little bit I saw of the lads, I was happy enough, although I hadn’t had enough time to form a real opinion of what the expectation should be.

I didn’t think about any sort of long-term plan. I just wanted to get the lads through these two matches and come out the other side in decent enough shape.

The Offaly game arrived quickly.

You could tell the interest in the team was fading. There wasn’t a great Limerick crowd at the game. We didn’t start well, and the few supporters that made the journey down were probably regretting their decision. We found ourselves six points down with about seven or eight minutes to go before half-time. Offaly were all over us.

The game was rapidly getting away from us, so we decided that we needed to make some moves. We brought off some established fellas, who wouldn’t have been too used to coming off in games. It was clear that they weren’t best pleased.

I was getting the impression that some of those lads more or less did what they liked in the previous set-up. I had the luxury of knowing that we had nothing to lose, so didn’t need to keep anyone onside.

About five minutes before half-time Offaly hit the bar.

They would have moved 10 points clear if they scored that goal. As it happened, we went back down the field, scored a goal ourselves, and pulled it level by half-time.

The dressing-room was absolutely buzzing.

The lads could sense that we had all the momentum now, and they were dying to get back out there. It was wonderful to see. We went out and hurled them off the pitch in the second-half. Everything went right for us. We hurled really well and won by 10 points.

That second-half performance reaffirmed my own belief in the group. Any short term thinking I had restricted myself to went out the window. I was convinced that the potential was there and that they could achieve something special. We had only one night of training before that game, so I hadn’t had the time to make any real judgements on lads.

I only knew their talent from following them so closely as a supporter.

There were a few things that I felt needed to change.

Stephen Lucey had been used at centre-forward, while TJ Ryan was in at full-back. I felt both were out of position, so I swapped them around.

We played Dublin next, and beat them by six points.

It was a good result, but we were lucky to get the win. That was a good Dublin team. Their manager, Tommy Naughton was an absolute gentleman and was very good to us in terms of challenge games afterwards.

Beating Dublin put us into the All-Ireland quarter-finals. I don’t think any of us expected to be there. I certainly hadn’t when I took the job.

This was the point when things started to get interesting.

This is a chapter from the book ‘Richie Bennis, a game that smiles’ which was written by Ciaran Kennedy and is available in all leading book stores.

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