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John Kiely profile: ‘The thing about John, he’d be the last fellah I’d cross. He can be scary at times, he really can.’

An honest, authentic hurling man with a burning passion for Limerick, the Galbally native has led Limerick to an era of unprecedented success

On the Wednesday after Limerick won their first All-Ireland in 45 years the victory tour reached Galbally, John Kiely’s home.

Carrying the Liam MacCarthy Cup in his raised left hand he stepped off the bus, and as he walked through a human alley of well-wishers, they played his party piece over the public address: Piano Man, by Billy Joel.

On stage, everybody else had been introduced to the crowd before the master of ceremonies reached Kiely. The cheering for their neighbour lasted 62 seconds, wave after wave of tumultuous acclaim and fondness. In a village, nobody lives with the trappings of fame; nobody is elevated by glory, or showered with roses, like a soprano. Everybody knows too much.

They liked him already. They liked him anyway.


Leaving Croke Park three days earlier, Kiely took the microphone at the front of the team bus and gave a pep talk that doubled as a design for life.

“We will be judged as we go forward as people,” he said. “On how we carry this victory. As people. I want to be the same man as I was two years ago, a year ago . . . I don’t want to be thought of as John Kiely who managed the Limerick team to an All-Ireland in 2018.

“I want to be remembered for who I am, the person I am. Not an ounce different. That’s the way it’s got to be.”

Everyone changes, though. On life’s drop-down menu, “same as ever” is not an option. So, who was he? Who is he now?


Time has many telescopes. In the mid-1990s Kiely was a student in UCC. He shared a house in Minerva Terrace with Damien Quigley and Gerry Maguire, beginning lifelong friendships; when Kiely got married, Maguire was his best man.

“They were the core of the Fitzgibbon team, the three of them” says Dr Paddy Crowley, president of UCC GAA club now, and a selector back then.

Their status in the group, though, was slightly different. Quigley and Maguire both captained UCC, but not Kiely.

“He was basically a footballer from Galbally,” says Crowley. “Hurling wasn’t the first game there. A good player. Feisty as bejesus. Regularly in trouble with the authorities [referees]. He was short-tempered, and well known for that.

“He was your vintage, no-holds barred student in UCC. If there was something going on, he was at it. Wherever the action was. A really, really decent, fine fellow.”

Around that time, Limerick called him up. Back then, Fitzgibbon Cup players on intercounty panels used to be afforded some latitude in their training schedules. But once Limerick signalled their interest, Kiely waived any allowances.

Crowley remembers Kiely training with UCC at lunchtime and driving to Limerick for a training session that evening. His stamina, said Quigley years later, was staggering.

His intercounty career, though, never took off. When Limerick reached the 1994 All-Ireland final against Offaly he didn’t make the match-day panel; two years later he was number 24, though no closer to the team. He had pushed the boulder to this point on the hill and now he was stuck behind it, deadlocked against the slope.

During the following winter Kiely was culled from the squad. Mark Foley, the former Limerick captain, remembers meeting Kiely at a funeral early in 1997 and being struck by how “put out” he was about being dropped. In those days, there were no soft landings either; selection decisions were delivered by guillotine.

Elements of that experience must have shaped his behaviour as a manager. Tom Condon and Paul Browne both speak about the phone call they received from Kiely when their intercounty careers were ended. The message was delivered clearly, but with tenderness, and at length. Browne said they were “both upset” on the call. It was like a teenage break-up.

Tom Condon’s last day in the squad was the 2020 All-Ireland final, at the height of the pandemic. Condon wasn’t one of the 26 names being given to the referee, and on the day of the game Kiely asked him to go for a walk, to explain his decision.

“He always made more of an effort with fellas who weren’t on the starting team or the match day panel,” says Condon. “Fellas buy into that. He’d say, ‘You’ve still a massive part in this,’ and every fellah bought into that belief. Whoever wasn’t on the match day panel would have a training session on the morning of the game and fellas would be driving each other on. John built up that bond – that family bond.”

Kiely’s capacity for leadership is underwritten by his talent for relationships. In other managers those elements are not always married. Paul Foley has held various roles in the Limerick County Board over the last nine years and has worked closely with Kiely.

“The first word that comes to mind about him is empathy,” he says. “He has a very high level of emotional intelligence.”

“He’s a New Age manager,” says Barry Hennessy, who was understudy to Nickie Quaid on the Limerick panel for over a decade.

“He’s not a dictator. Very holistic about lads off the field. His man management is incredible. He was always keen to highlight that better people make better players.

“A trademark of the Limerick team at the moment is that there are no egos, no individuals. That starts at the top, with John. John doesn’t have an ego. That’s the culture he has set.”

None of this is a bar to directness. In a high-performance environment there is no fluff. The players have learned to expect honesty, flash-fried and served hot off the pan.

“He’s a good communicator and he’s not beating about the bush,” says Condon. “He’d look you straight in the eye. It’s like a death stare – he’d be looking through you. He’d give it to you straight.”

“There’s none of this, ‘You’re going well, keep going,’” says Hennessy. “Lads won’t be engaged if that’s the feedback. They can smell shite. John has a good grasp of that.”

“He would genuinely care for you,” says Browne, “and if you had a problem he would help you deal with it. But at the same time, he would challenge you incredibly hard. Either you’re doing the work, or you’re not.”

He needed to learn on the job. By the time he was appointed senior manager, Kiely had managed the Limerick intermediates and performed two successful stints with the U-21s; under John Allen he had been a senior selector for two seasons. In all those roles, though, he was an undergraduate.

“The first year [2017] was a real, steep learning curve,” says Browne. “It didn’t look like the project was going to get off the ground. But I definitely found he became more ruthless as time went on. From 2017 to ‘18 there was more of a ruthless streak. You could see the decisions that he made about players who were moved on or not brought back.”

Jim Gavin once likened intercounty managers to HR directors. “As a manager,” he said, “it was your job to get the right people on the bus.”

Without the recruitment decisions Kiely made for his inner cabinet, there would be no All-Irelands. In Paul Kinnerk as coach, Caroline Currid as sports psychologist, and Sean O’Donnell as performance analyst, Kiely surrounded himself with innovators and leaders in their respective field.

Once they were in place, he understood his role: he deferred, and delegated, and afforded them space. Though he was clearly the manager, it was an ensemble cast.

“Whatever they said [to the group] John would back it up,” says Browne. “But you knew everything had been discussed and decided before it was said.”

“He lets other people lead,” says Hennessy. “That’s a trademark of a leader.”

Kinnerk and O’Donnell are still in place; Currid, though, stepped away this season, just as she had done in 2019 – the only year in the last six that didn’t finish with Limerick as champions. Currid made a profound impact on the players, but her influence shaped Kiely too. She was his sounding board and his helpline.

“I’d nearly say Caroline did more with John than she did with the players,” says Browne. “I’d say she definitely tidied up stuff about how he managed people.”

“She would have been water for the fire too,” says Condon, “cooling off John a few times.”

Over the years Kiely’s flaming passion for Limerick was expressed in different ways. When John Allen took charge, 12 years ago, they didn’t have a goalkeeping coach and he asked Kiely if he would do it, directing him to some helpful YouTube videos.

“He said he had no experience,” says Allen. “But he did it.” He was there in a spirit of service.

Clare “hockeyed” them by 14 points in their first league game in the Gaelic Grounds and in those days it still wasn’t common practice for intercounty hurling teams to have a video analyst embedded in the set-up. Limerick were no exception.

“I remember John came to training on the following Tuesday night with a detailed breakdown of the game, as he saw it,” says Allen. “He was willing to go to that level of analysis to say, ‘Okay, what can we do to get better?’ I could see after six months that John could easily do the job I was doing.”

Everybody recognised his intense feelings for the jersey, and sometimes the simmer would come to a boil and the lid would blow off the pot. Browne remembers a training session in Na Piarsaigh before a championship match against Tipperary in 2019, when the hurling and belting were ferocious – “blood and thunder stuff”.

“That night John was gone cracked. He lost the head altogether. I remember I showered after training, had my dinner, was going home and John was still walking around the field outside. The training was unreal and he was just completely fired up to play Tipp.

“The thing about John, he’d be the last fellah I’d cross. He can be scary at times, he really can. At the end of the day he’s from Galbally – there’s a madness in all of them [laughs]. I can say that now because I’ve worked with a few of them.”

Over the years internal disciplinary issues occasionally flared up. Kiely never discussed them in public and didn’t shirk them in private. Players were sanctioned and sometimes removed from the panel for a spell.

“He met those situations face-on and addressed them,” says Condon. “You’d have to admire him for that.”

His decision to appear in court as a character witness for Kyle Hayes – after his conviction on two counts of violent disorder – was bound to generate blowback. Some of what he said in court was questioned by the prosecution and, in a much gentler tone, by the judge. Everything he said was queried in the court of public opinion.

Kiely made it clear in the witness box, and in subsequent interviews, that his support was for the person in this case, and not his actions. Nobody in the squad, or in Kiely’s circle, would have been surprised by the position he took. He was never going to abandon the person. It brought to mind something that Quigley said in 2018, shortly after the All-Ireland.

“He has looked after people all his life,” he said. “He was a teacher, now a principal. He’s a parent himself. There’s a father-figure in him anyway. He’s a terribly loyal bloke. Very loyal. His Mum and Dad are the very same, Breda and Tom. Smashing people – terribly loyal and protective people.

“That’s a great trait for any man to have if he’s in charge of people. He’s just very protective of his own. That’s one of the traits I’d really admire about him. He’s a fantastic friend.”

As a manager and as a person Kiely’s authenticity is attractive. There is no mask. In his circle, nobody is wondering what he really thinks.

“There’s no bullshit with him,” says Browne. “It’s all coming from the right place. There’s no facade. He’s never trying to put on a different face. He’s never trying to paint a picture or sell you something that he’s not. He’s John Kiely from Galbally, a normal Joe Soap with a family and a passion for Limerick.”

None of that has ever changed.