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Eight Years After Debut, Limerick 'Powerhouse' One Of Football's Best Half-Backs

Eight Years After Debut, Limerick 'Powerhouse' One Of Football's Best Half-Backs
By PJ Browne Updated
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Pa Ranahan clearly recalls one of Cian Sheehan's first nights training with the Limerick footballers. It was 2014 and the teenager with raw potential made an impression, mentally and physically. The two were paired against each other, "a young fella against an old fella", half-forward against half-back.

"Straight away you could see physically that he was cut out for inter-county football," Ranahan, who was in his early 30s at the time, tells Balls.

"He was quite strong. He'd rather go through something than around it. He was a big boy, full of running, and very eager to take the ball on.

"Upper body wise, you could see that he was ready for road. He wasn't shy about trying to use it as well. You could see potential from the very first night. You see some fellas coming in, and you have question marks about whether they're going to be up to it, but you never had that doubt about Cian."

One of those to recognise the young player's promise had been Declan Brouder. A Newcastle West man like Sheehan, Brouder was "clinging" to the cliff face of his club career in the early years of the last decade when a 17-year-old Sheehan began training with the senior panel.

In 2013, Brouder played with Sheehan as the club won a junior B county title, and coached him with Newcastle West's U21s. Later that year, Brouder was named as part of John Broudair's Limerick backroom team. "We took a punt on Cian," says Brouder. "We felt, 'This fella really has something. Can we nurture something out of him at inter-county level?'"

The shoots Brouder and Brudair saw have borne flowers. Last month, Sheehan was nominated for a PwC All-Star award. He's the second Newcastle West and Limerick player, the other being Iain Corbett, to make the long list in the last three seasons.

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12 June 2022; Cian Sheehan of Limerick in action against Cathail O'Mahony of Cork during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 2 match between Cork and Limerick at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Sheehan began his inter-county career as a half-forward, but this season moved to the half-back line. "He was always a very powerful ball carrier, he had a good step on him," says Ranahan.

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"He was confident enough, a bubbly enough fella, well able to mind his own corner. I remember one or two times that the inside line might have been asking for a certain type of ball to be played in, and he was well able to give his own reasons why it mightn't have happened, or let you know what he saw differently.

"We'd be laughing here sometimes... Newcastle West, they're townies, and there would be that confidence there in a lot of them anyway."

After 23 years without a senior football title, Newcastle West claimed what was their first of three in the last six seasons with victory in 2015. Sheehan and Corbett was the midfield partnership.

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The following year, Sheehan was part of the UL team which reached the university's first ever Sigerson Cup semi-final. They lost out to UCD in the last-four, the same side which defeated them at the same stage in 2017.

In between then and now, Sheehan spent time travelling, and suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury. Last year, he bounced back, and was the star player for Newcastle West as they won the county title.

This season, Billy Lee and his now departed Limerick management team pulled off what Brouder calls a "masterstoke" by moving Sheehan to wing-back. He was superb as Limerick won promotion to Division 2, reached the Munster final, and the second round of the qualifiers.

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1 November 2015; Cian Sheehan, Newcastle West, in action against Kevin Harney, Clonmel Commercials. AIB Munster GAA Senior Club Football Championship Quarter-Final, Clonmel Commercials v Newcastle West. Clonmel Sportsfield, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

"It was the absolute making of him," says Brouder. "That was where he really flourished under Billy Lee and Maurice Horan. It's probably the best I've ever seen him play. That wasn't a position he'd played in a whole pile.

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"He can kick comfortably off both legs. He's good on the ball. He's very skilful. Not every player in Limerick will kick comfortably off both feet. He's become more than a powerhouse as time has gone on.

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"I saw him in the last round of the league against Fermanagh - they won and got promoted. He was outstanding that day at wing-back."

In the Munster final against Kerry, a game which the eventual All-Ireland champions won by 23 points, Sheehan was one of the few shining lights for Limerick. He kicked three points in the second half against a Kerry side which, unbothered by the price of petrol, didn't take its foot off the gas.

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"His athleticism is now high inter-county standard," says Ranahan.

"He had it from the off, but he's taken it to a new level with ability to get up and down the field. Half-back is a great position to attack from.

"He's able to build up a head of steam, and get the ball in open play. He's definitely one of those players that the more space you give him out the field, he can make use of it.

"It was a great move from the lads. I wouldn't say it was a complete shock but certainly people weren't looking at the panel, and saying he was one of the half-back options."

In his early career, Sheehan was a fully charged battery ready to plug into every play. That has changed. He still has that energy, but now it's combined with greater composure and decision-making. Give it time, and he'll be appearing in Green Party pamphlets as an example of energy conservation.

"He's picking his moments in games," says Ranahan.

"He's waiting for the right opportunities to come on those hard lines. He's not wasting energy flying around the place the whole time.

"Even watching him for the club recently, you could see there was patience to what he was doing. He was waiting for the right opportunity to go. He's always had that finish in him.

"A lot of players would have that ability to get forward into a good position, but then to be able to get scores is the cherry on top."

Billy Lee transformed the Limerick footballers during his six seasons in charge. He hands the reins to Ray Dempsey with the team in a far better place than it was when he took over in 2017. They've risen from Division 4 to 2, played in their first Munster final since 2010, and in Sheehan, Dempsey will have one of the best half-backs in the country.

"Billy would often talk about players maturing at different times," says Ranahan.

"That's something I would have said about Cian: He's a different player now psychologically, mentally. His approach to playing Gaelic games and inter-county is professional.

"At the start, in an environment when things weren't going great [with Limerick], Billy helped Cian along and said, 'Look, keep the head down, here's what you need to work on'. Him being a Newcastle West man as well would have helped. He'd have known Cian from a very young age, and would have seen in him things that others might not have seen.

"Billy had a big influence on a lot of lads, and Cian would be high on that list. He might have headed away for a summer or two to America. I'm not sure if many inter-county managers would welcome someone back into the fold after they came home. It was Billy seeing that lads need to live their lives, and they could come back and pay him back in spades."

See Also: How A Limerick Hurler And His Sister Created A Nationwide Brand

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