Shaun Kelly can still remember the sombre mood in the away dressing room at Finn Park in the minutes after Finn Harps clinched promotion to the Premier Division last November.
On a night of memorable celebration for Harps, Kelly, the Limerick defender, said the defeat was probably the hardest night in his career.
“We had nobody else to blame but ourselves,” the Killybegs man said this week.
“It was us, the players, who had got the club into that situation. We knew it was only us who could get us out of it. We decided there and then to stick together and give it a real go the next season.”
Nine months later, and amazingly with six league games still to play, Kelly and Limerick are back in the big time. They clinched the First Division title in style on Sunday with a 3-2 win at UCD.
To say Limerick won the title at a canter would be an understatement. They’ve played 22 games this season, winning 20 and drawing only two.
“We were lucky that we only lost two or three players from last year’s squad,” he said.
“The rest of us were still there and we got two or three others in. We had a good start and managed to keep it going, but I think what was most pleasing was the fact that we beat St. Pat’s and Wexford Youths in the League Cup and then went up and beat Derry in the Brandywell (in the semi-final). Those games showed that we were able to mix it with the top sides.”
Limerick celebrated their win over UCD on Sunday night and took in last night’s friendly international at the Aviva between the Republic of Ireland and Oman.
They have one eye on their EA Sports Cup final with St. Patrick’s Athletic which takes place in Limerick on Saturday, September 17th, but Kelly said their next game against Waterford at the weekend, is top of their agenda for now.
“We’ll train at Abbotstown before the Ireland game to get us focused again for our next match,” he said.
“We want to keep our unbeaten run going,” Kelly added. “Even though the league is won now, we want to go the season without losing a game.”
It’s Kelly’s second time to win the First Division with Limerick. And it’s been another good season in a career that started in the League of Ireland at Dundalk. Kelly had spent over three years at Hearts but was signed for Dundalk where Sean Connor was manager.
He then played with Galway United (under Connor again), Limerick and Derry City, before returning to Limerick last season.
His goal in the first leg of the promotion/relegation play-off final against Harps was one of the stand-out moments of an otherwise disappointing season.
“It was just one of those where I caught it well, but it could have gone anywhere,” he said.
“Thankfully it went in. Ciaran Gallagher was in goal for Harps and we’re good friends, and he’s still talking about that goal!”.
Kelly though, said the goal mattered for little when Limerick went on to lose over the two legs.
“I think, looking back, the feeling after the first leg was that we’d missed too many chances,” he said.
“Okay, we won the game, but we should have won by more. Even in the second leg in Ballybofey, we missed chances, but we always knew it was going to be difficult.”
Despite not scoring since - Kelly is one of only two outfield players not to score for Limerick this season - the Killybegs man has enjoyed his year.
Married to Niamh Leonard from Mountcharles, the couple have a 2-year-old son (Luca) and have made Limerick their home.
The 27-year-old also keeps in touch with Killybegs’ other famous right back and got a text on Sunday to congratulate him on Limerick’s league win.
“We’re still good friends,” Kelly said of Seamus Coleman.
“I’ve grown up with him and even though I left Killybegs at 16, we’ve always kept in touch.”
Kelly said he was thrilled to watch Coleman wear the captain’s armband for Ireland during the Euro Finals in France.
“After Robbie Keane and John O’Shea, he was the perfect choice for captain,” he said.
“It was great to see him do so well at the Euros and he took on the captain's role without any bother.
“Hopefully now he’ll get to be the first choice captain. He’s made for it.”