He may have a bulging medal cabinet but Limerick's Seán Finn has reached his pinnacle

Seán Finn

Sean McGoldrick

Seán Finn's trophy cabinet in Bruff is already overflowing - and he's only 26.

There are four All-Star awards on the spin; three All-Ireland medals and the same number from Munster; two National League, two All-Ireland Under-21, and a Fitzgibbon Cup medal.

Dubbed the nonpareil of corner-backs in modern hurling, the Limerick number two is synonymous with their rise to the summit.

But he remembers when everything wasn't so rosy.

His whole life has revolved around Gaelic games. His father Brian won a Munster medal with Limerick in 1994 and was later involved with the county's Under-16 team. Seán recalls travelling with him on the team bus to matches.

Family trips to Thurles, along with his parents, twin sister Sarah and brothers Brian (jnr) and Patrick, to support Limerick in Munster championship matches were part of the summer ritual in the Finn household.

"We didn't get too many opportunities in those days to go to Croke Park. But we did go to the 2007 All-Ireland final.

"I remember we stayed in a hotel in Smithfield and I was bawling crying up in the Hogan Stand when Limerick lost."

His next big disappointment was more personal. In his second season on the Limerick minor team in 2014 they were tipped to win the All-Ireland.

The previous year they lost to Galway after extra time in the semi-final.

But in normal time a Hawk-eye malfunction resulted in a point from Barry Nash being incorrectly chalked off as a wide.

Ultimately, the pre-All-Ireland final hype in Limerick was too much for the youngsters.

They underperformed against Kilkenny and lost.

Finn thought his whole world had crumbled. But what he remembers now was what Eamon Cregan, a selector on the team and a legend in his native county, told him afterwards in the Cusack Stand.

"He said: 'don't worry about it, there will be bigger days ahead'. I was up in a heap and obviously you are not thinking about the future at the time. But how right he was."

Six graduates from that team, - Cian Lynch, Tom Morrissey, Seamus Flanagan, Peter Casey, Nash and Finn - now backbone the senior side.

By 2014 the county's now famed underage hurling academy, founded by Joe McKenna and financed by JP McManus, had been up and running for a number of years.

Finn, Lynch and Morrisey were among the first graduates.

"We started off at Under-14 level," recalls Finn. "Initially there were two training sessions a week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in Rathkeale," Sean remembers.

"Later we moved to the University of Limerick campus where he were taught how to use the gym equipment properly and how to lift weights in a safe way. It was all very basic stuff, but it was very important."

At the end of each session the players devoured chicken, bread rolls and cartons of milk. "It was perfect nutrition at that age."

Finn secured his first All-Ireland medal when Limerick hammered Wexford in the 2015 All-Ireland Under-21 final. It was obvious the county had assembled a special bunch of players.

But having been burned previously when their three-in-row All-Ireland Under-21 side of the early 2000s failed to follow on at senior level everybody was cautious.

Finn had more personal issues to deal with after severing his cruciate ligament in early 2016 while playing for the University of Limerick in the Fitzgibbon Cup.

It was a sensitive time in his senior career - he had just been called into the squad by the then manager TJ Ryan. But he had no option but to write off the rest of the season.

"It was a big deal to get into the senior panel and initially I was upset.

"But I had the attitude that if I did the rehabilitation properly I would fully recover and get back playing for Limerick.

"A lot of the work is down to yourself with an ACL, but the recovery programme is very structured with targets every few months."

Seán Finn lifts the Liam MacCarthy Cup for Limerick in 2020

Finn didn't mope about that summer feeling sorry for himself. He headed off for a trip to south east Asia. "It was a great opportunity to travel."

He hasn't had a free summer since. He made his senior championship debut in 2017 and secured a second All-Ireland Under-21 medal when Limerick avenged their minor defeat with a victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland decider.

In John Kiely's second season in charge in 2018 there were was still little sign that a revolution was in the making.

Limerick had consistently struggled to secure a place in the top-flight of the hurling league since the turn of the decade.

Even one year they did actually secure promotion - only for the GAA to change the structure and put them back down.

It looked to be more of the same when they trailed by eight points to Galway at half time in Pearse Stadium in the decisive match in Division 1B in March of that year.

"I actually still remember what Paul (Kinnerk, the team coach) said to us at half time. Paul just said: 'really you are are well in this game'. He saw from the stats that we were doing ok.

"He told us we needed to win more breaking ball, basically the secondary possession or dirty ball. We did that and won the game. That match was definitely a turning point."

There was a 10-point turnaround in the second half with Limerick winning by two points (2-18; 1-19).

In the intervening four years, bar their All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny in 2019, they haven't lost a game that truly mattered.

Their revival coincided with the introduction of the round robin format in the hurling championship, which Finn believes helped them build confidence.

Interestingly, in the 2018 Munster campaign Limerick won only two of their games against Tipperary and Waterford; they drew with Cork and lost to Clare.

But they squeezed into the All-Ireland series as the third placed finishers and less than three months later had secured the county's first All-Ireland since 1973.

Finn didn't dream of being a corner-back when he was growing up. When he was in secondary school in Kilmallock his hero was Limerick captain Declan Hannon, who was starring in the Harty Cup for Ardscoil Rís at the time.

"He is still my hero. In a minor challenge match against Dublin I was moved to corner-back and basically I've being there since."

Despite his stellar rating he never takes his place on the team as a given.

"I'm always trying to do better because I think there are other players on the squad who are at the same level. So, I'm always competing for my place."

He knows the perils of being a corner-back, too, how one mistake can be fatal.

"I have learned to accept that the fella I'm marking is going get scores," he says from experience. "At times you have to hedge your bets. Don't always dive in because if a forward turns you the chances are he will have a goal chance."

The introduction of the sin-bin in hurling has cut down the number of cynical fouls in the game.

There was a classic example in the early moments of last year's All-Ireland final when Cork's Shane Kingston got past Finn and scored a goal.

"Actually, it didn't even occur to me to pull him back. I thought I should have been able to get the ball away with a flick. I was disappointed in my skill execution."

Next Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh the pair are likely to come face to face again as the 2022 Munster and All-Ireland series begins.

The road to MacCarthy IV for Limerick will be hazardous but Finn and his colleagues are ready for the challenge.

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