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Thursday 20 September 2018

Captain aiming for top 'Dec'

All-Ireland dreams won't deflect final focus of Hannon

Declan Hannon charges on to the Croke Park pitch before the All-Ireland semi-final match between Cork and Limerick
Declan Hannon charges on to the Croke Park pitch before the All-Ireland semi-final match between Cork and Limerick

In the midst of a lengthy chat about all things hurling, Declan Hannon says something that makes you realise history may be a burden for a county but not necessarily for this Limerick dressing-room.

Hannon is captain of a young, upwardly-mobile team seeking a first senior All-Ireland title in 45 years for the long-suffering Shannonsiders.

Some might argue that they're here ahead of schedule; that it might all be a little too much, too fast, especially against a Galway rival that has been there, won that.

Galway know how to handle the big day. But do Limerick?

Slaying

Hannon is asked to reflect on their quarter-final win - a first SHC slaying of the Cats since Limerick's last All-Ireland final victory, in 1973 - and whether it was the making of John Kiely's team.

"I don't think so. We were happy with our performance that day and to get the win," he states, all matter-of-fact.

But were Kilkenny not a symbolic team to beat?

"They are if you want it to be like that. But the boys are clued-in and down-to-earth, and are just working really hard and trying to win as many games as possible," says Hannon.

"We don't really talk about it being a symbolic team to beat, or the history of not beating Kilkenny in a long time, or getting to an All-Ireland final in a long time.

"This is a totally different group of players and a different year. We have taken this year as a year on its own, and not really comparing it to anything else."

And look where it's got them: a first final in 11 years.

There are some echoes of 2007 in that Limerick, then, had advanced from left-field to face the reigning champions.

But there are differences too. Firstly, this particular Limerick side look to be around for the long haul. Secondly, whereas the Kilkenny of '07 had an aura of invincibility, Galway (for all their prowess) have yet to earn that status. Maybe they will ... or maybe the young pretenders are ready to steal their thunder.

So has Hannon his speech written, just in case?

"I have thought about it," the 25-year-old confirms.

"You have to get these things out of the way and tick a few boxes. The last thing I want to be doing is trying to think of who to thank on the day of the match. But my focus is on training and being ready for the 19th."

This son of Adare has been earmarked as a special talent since bursting onto the Limerick senior team in 2011. Back then he was their forward totem, not the No 6 fulcrum of Kiely's resolute defence.

He was still only 18 when he shot 0-11 (five from play) against Dublin in that year's quarter-final in Thurles; but for Ryan O'Dwyer's hat-trick at the far end, he would have been Man of the Match and on his way to a semi-final.

Hannon did make the last-four in 2013, when his free-taking woes against Clare were one of many factors in a meltdown from the Munster champions. He did so again in 2014, when his dazzling 0-5 from play couldn't prevent Kilkenny from edging a titanic battle in the rain.

Reflecting on 2013, when the breakthrough of winning Munster was followed by total deflation, he says: "We let ourselves down Looking back, I don't think we were ready. Or in 2014 - I don't think we were ready either for the All-Ireland semi-final.

Animal

"This year is just a bit different. Everyone is really, really tuned in and knows their job. We are just a slightly different animal this year."

Which explains why he finally gets to play in a senior All-Ireland. Far better than watching them in the flesh, as he's done only sporadically.

"I went to last year's one. Other than that, I hadn't been to one in a few years," he reveals. "Sometimes it's hard to watch them. In 2013 and 2014 they were hard to watch because we had been in All-Ireland semi-finals and you don't want to be there unless you are playing."

He was there in '07, above on the Hill, 14 and carefree. Even the crushing reality of those first 10 minutes didn't ruin it all. "A great occasion," he recalls. "We enjoyed the day, as my family and friends will enjoy the day on the 19th.

"But us, as players, have a bigger job on our hands than trying to have a bit of craic. We are just focusing on everything that happens inside the four lines on the field."

That focus, in adversity, is one of the reasons they have arrived at this juncture. Six down against Cork, they looked beaten but they weren't broken. But for Nicky Quaid's incredible flick to pickpocket Séamus Harnedy in injury-time, it would have been game over.

Amid the goalmouth frenzy, Hannon didn't realise just how good it was. "I remember looking at it side on. I remember he saved it. The ball was out and you were trying to get back and clear it, if you get near it at all. But, sure, Nicky does that the whole time in training."

Cramp

Five minutes into extra-time, his leg started to cramp; he battled on until the 87th minute.

"Nobody wants to leave the field in those kind of games. But for a finish there were bodies everywhere. That's why you need a strong panel," he says. "The difference was the impact of our bench - that's what won the game in the end."

Now, just one victory separates Limerick's ultimate dream from ecstatic deliverance.

"My mind has wandered like that since I was four years of age and dreamt of it happening," Hannon admits.

"But dreams are different to reality. We have a massive job ahead of us before we have to worry about that. It is where every inter-county player wants to be. We have put ourselves in the position to give us that opportunity. If we bring a performance, we will be close enough to it."

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