The general shock that jolted the GAA world at the news that Liam Kearns had died suddenly last Sunday partly reflected his stature, as a well-known and distinguished football manager, especially at intercounty level.
Yet in a way that familiarity obscured his status as a genuinely groundbreaking coach.
In a few short weeks, it will be the 20th anniversary of his first big statement. Although he had already attracted attention for his work with Limerick’s under-21 footballers, the annihilation of senior Munster champions Cork caught everyone slightly off balance.
Limerick had little football history and that had to go a long way back. Into that unpromising terrain walked Liam Kearns. He enjoyed success around Limerick where he led Na Piarsaigh to an under-21 title in 1997 and especially with Dromcollogher-Broadford, up until then primarily a hurling club.
In the Garda College Templemore, where he was a PE instructor, he became involved with the team’s first steps into the Sigerson Cup.
In 1996, they created a stir by defeating a galactico UUJ in the semi-final and being doggedly competitive against an excellent UCD team featuring the talents of future All-Ireland winners Trevor Giles and Brian Dooher among others.
Engineering breakthrough achievements is the hardest thing to do in Gaelic games. The virtual caste system of traditional hierarchies conditions players and teams to be aware of their place and nowhere is that sense of predestination more keenly felt than in Munster football.
Ironically, Liam Kearns could be said to have come from footballing privilege, having won a minor All-Ireland with Kerry in 1980 and being reared, as his daughter Laura pointed out at Thursday’s funeral, in close proximity to one of the county’s great clubs.
“Dad’s childhood home overlooked Austin Stacks club ground where his love of football grew from strength to strength, often hopping the garden wall with his gear in hand to join training sessions,”
His overriding football instinct was to make the best of what you had and that developed out of his own experiences.
In a wide-ranging interview with Damien Stack in The Kerryman three years ago, he said that both in Stacks and with the Kerry under-21s he felt good teams became an afterthought because of the dazzling success of Mick O’Dwyer’s golden age.
“There was a generation of footballers lost around that period in Kerry because we won so many All-Irelands at senior. I learned in both intercounty and club what not to do if you want to be successful in management,” he said.
That attitude informed another interview, in this newspaper when he gave his views four years ago, as Tipperary manager, on the prospect of a Tier 2 championship. His response appeared shaped by a view that no team should be considered beyond the reach of making an impact at the very top level.
He had already demonstrated as much in 2016 when taking Tipperary to a first senior All-Ireland football semi-final since 1935, having also beaten Cork for the first time in 72 years and, on an exhilarating afternoon in July, they defeated Connacht champions Galway.
“I know when we barely survived in Division Three of the league,” he said. “We lost four or five [players] to Australia, and they weren’t talking about beating Cork in Munster that year , and then we did. We lost to Kerry, then we beat Derry, and we beat Galway, and held our own against Mayo.
“So it can be done, and that was done only three years ago. And we only used 16 or 17 players.”
Limerick, however, remains the exemplar of this ability to bring a team to prominence from effectively nowhere. Liam Kearns took over the county in the autumn of 1999 – the under-21s as well as the seniors.
Not that he was turning sow’s ears into silk purses. Limerick had a talented cohort, who were winning under-21 hurling All-Irelands at the turn of the century and a number of them were dual players.
It was testament to his influence here – of all counties – that when the gun was put to players’ heads by senior hurling manager Pad Joe Whelahan in 2004 to choose between the games, they opted for football out of chagrin at the ultimatum, certainly, but also out of loyalty to Kearns.
That loyalty was earned by firstly winning a Munster under-21 title, a huge breakthrough as Cork and Kerry had shared the first 38 championships up until 2000.
The template for the Limerick seniors was simple. They were a big team and the manager wanted them to use their physical attributes as well as their skills. Twenty years ago, they dominated Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to win by 10 points. It was just their third championship win in the fixture in a provincial rivalry stretching over three centuries and 17 matches.
It wasn’t just strength and running. Liam Kearns was exceptionally clever tactically and had excellent communication skills. His briefings to his team on match-ups and opposition vulnerabilities were crystal clear and so analytically precise that players were convinced, “they were there to exploit Kerry opponents,” according to one.
Notably, two of the Limerick players in interviews this week, Stephen Lavin and Muiris Gavin, team captain and the manager’s on-field general, both used similar phrases that they would “go through walls” or “run through brick walls” for him.
This also reflected how fiercely he stood over his footballers and their interests even in such a dyed-in-the-wool hurling county.
It haunted him that that Limerick team of 2003 and ‘04 had the beating of Kerry, especially the latter year when only Darragh Ó Sé fetching a series of balls on his own goal line denied them a win and it took extra-time in the replay to separate the teams.
Dara Ó Cinnéide said that after that Munster final, he was talking to the Limerick players, emphasising that Kerry fancied themselves to win that year’s All-Ireland, which they duly did, and yet they had been brought to the precipice.
The Kerry captain’s message was essentially not to let up at that stage but to go for it in the qualifiers.
The draw however was not kind either in 2003 when champions Armagh came out of the hat or in ‘04 when another Ulster side, Derry, were drawn against them.
For all those who argue vehemently and not unreasonably against the provincial championships, there are also counties, like Limerick, who would really value one.
Thrown into a knockout match six days later, after such a huge disappointment, they didn’t have quite the energy or motivation and lost by three points to Derry.
Liam Kearns was as shattered as his players by the finely-margined reversals of fortune and how close they came to defeating the eventual All-Ireland champions.
After spells with Laois and a coaching role in Roscommon as well as the highlights of Tipperary, he told county chair Michael Duignan that Offaly would be his last role in intercounty management.
The poignancy of those words resonated among all of those who had enjoyed the convivial company of someone who could talk about the game so compellingly and had time for everyone.
Liam Kearns made an outstanding contribution to football. Bittersweet that it took such terrible circumstances to highlight it.