BEFORE THE BRIGHT lights of All-Ireland final day, there are always those moments of hardship.
At the outset of 2017, Limerick were trying to get things going as the John Kiely era began.
Their first afternoon out on their home turf saw Cork arrive to the Gaelic Grounds. It was January hurling, it was a low-key pre-season game but shipping 7-22 still stood out as Limerick fell to a 21-point loss.
Shane O’Neill had managed Na Piarsaigh to the All-Ireland club title the previous year, working closely with Clare native Alan Cunningham.
He knew the quality of coaching Cunningham would bring but still couldn’t resist getting in contact that night.
“He went in as a ‘goalkeeping coach’, that was his title first with Limerick,” laughs O’Neill.
“Cork got seven goals, so I waited until about nine o’clock that night and text him, how’s the goalkeeping coaching going?
“Look Alan’s a fabulous coach, I’m not surprised he’s been part of Limerick’s success.”
Cunningham is one of the adjutants to Kiely as Limerick’s hurling general. He had a role in paving the way for another to be introduced to coaching.
At the end of 2009, Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney faced an uncertain managerial future after an early championship exit with the Clare minor side. They reckoned they needed a change of direction and sought to draft in a new coach. Cunningham was their first port of call.
He resisted, reluctant to get involved for 2010 with his son Aaron set to be involved. O’Connor and Moloney demanded he provide an alternative. Cunningham suggested Paul Kinnerk, a PE and Maths teacher in St Caimin’s, who had done roles with school teams and Sixmilebridge underage sides alongside Sean Stack.
It kickstarted a golden era for Clare hurling. Between 2010 and 2014, an All-Ireland senior, three All-Ireland U21 triumphs and five Munster titles at various grades, arrived in that time frame.
Kinnerk was heavily involved in directing those victories. Now he’s integral to Limerick being on the brink of ending a 45-year wait for All-Ireland glory.
And Cunningham, who has had spells coaching Clare and Offaly senior teams, is alongside him steering Limerick on a remarkable 2018 journey that has one more hurdle to surmount.
“What Paul used to do a lot of time, and I assume what he still does, a big part of the teachings was game-based training, where an awful lot of the drills you do is a compacted game with less numbers and less space to move,” recalls Clare’s 2013 All-Ireland winning captain Pat Donnellan.
“That’s something he did bring in, made us more comfortable on the ball, made us more assured in our own thinking and gave you the confidence that the decisions you were to make on the field were going to be right.
Former Clare hurling trainer Paul Kinnerk.
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
“There’s always a lot going on with Paul. He’s just one of those fellas, he has a love for it. He was very unlucky himself I suppose with injuries in his own playing career.
“I think he just has a natural flair for it too. He puts a huge amount of work into it so I don’t think it comes that easy to him but I think how he applies himself, then it comes easy. It’s more a love for him than a labour.
“He just has a natural grá for it and a personality how to deal with players. He’s a young guy too which helps. He’s a teacher as an awful lot of the top coaches are at the moment, used to dealing with people in groups and small surroundings and younger people.”
When Donnellan first embarked on his Clare career in 2006, it was Cunningham that was tutoring him.
“Another fella I’ve a huge amount of time for. Obviously father of Aaron who I would have played with.
“He would have been doing an awful lot of the things that Paul would, in different stages at the start. A really excellent hurling coach and again another excellent fella to have in the backroom team.”
When Kinnerk was filling his Clare coaching roles, he was juggling an involvement with the Limerick senior footballers under Maurice Horan and winning a couple of county titles with Monaleen.
“Paul played football and actually hurling with us in the school,” remembers Derek Larkin, a teacher and hurling coach in Ardscoil Rís.
“We’d very rarely have had a football team, it’s facilities, it’s manpower and all the rest.
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“But the year that Paul was doing his Leaving Cert, we did enter the Limerick colleges and won both of them, we’d a decent football team.
“We came across Paul in 2009 when he was teaching in St Caimin’s and he was over the team that beat us in the Harty semi-final after a replay. Podge Collins would have been on that team.
“The following year we went and we beat them and we won the Harty Cup. So we knew at that stage, Paul’s credentials as a coach.
“The work that he’s done with Davy Fitz, any of the Clare lads would tell you it’s been phenomenal. Obviously now with Limerick he’s doing a great job. Anyone you talk to has great things to say about him.
“I think Limerick were foolish they didn’t nab him a lot earlier than they did. You can see the respect that the lads have for him.”
When Shane O’Neill took the managerial reins in Na Piarsaigh in 2014, it was a couple of years after he had finished up playing. He knew the pool of talent that was there and just had to figure out a way to tap into it.
Getting the right coach was crucial. He didn’t know Cunningham personally but his father Mick, a Clare native, had informed him about his capabilities.
In 1997 Cunningham guided Wolfe Tones to a St Patrick’s Day decider, where they fell just short against Galway’s Athenry. Almost two decades on, he was celebrating with a group that delivered Limerick’s maiden All-Ireland senior club crown.
Na Piarsaigh players celebrate their 2016 All-Ireland club final victory.
Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO
They nearly claimed a second title in March, losing out after a pulsating replay to Cuala in Portlaoise.
“My father would have known him a lot better that I did but I knew he was a fantastic coach,” says O’Neill.
“There was myself, Kieran Bermingham – who was the captain in 2011 – and Alan and Darragh Droog, that was the management team we started off with and kept for the four years.
“Just felt then after the four years, hitting into a fifth year as a management team is too long. We just felt new boys, new system, new management, the players needed that themselves.
“The boys loved Alan. He’s a real hurling coach. His training was absolutely superb. We just set out as a management team what they needed to deal with, and then Alan would implement it in the trainings. Fantastic and very popular with the lads as well.
“The reason he said to me he wanted to even get involved as ‘a goalkeeping coach’, he wanted to see how inter-county coaching had moved on.
“He still wants to learn. He’s at the other end of his coaching career and brought something new to the boys all the time over the four years.”
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Tomorrow the pair aim to be part of a group that are toasted by the Limerick hurling faithful.
Donnellan is not surprised to see Kinnerk involved with another setup in a decider or that Cunningham continues to coach at an elite level.
Alan Cunningham was involved with Wolfe Tones in the 1997 All-Ireland club final.
Source: © Matt Browne/INPHO
“Anyone that’s relevant in anything, whether it’s sport or business, they have an ability to change themselves or take things on board.
“They definitely have a strong grain going through them of how they want to play and their basic ideas of the game of hurling. When they meet someone else or go to a new team or new age group, they can adapt then very quickly.
“Modern players are coached to really high standard underage and it just follows through to senior. You’re just topping it off, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
“Paul and Alan are very astute guys, very good at what they do and very well liked. I think those qualities make sure the group is tight and have confidence with each other. That’s what Limerick are showing these days.”
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