It’s 35 years since Clare last brought the Croke Cup across the Shannon as National League champions – it was the team that touched greatness in 1977 and ’78 but at same time never grabbed it by hand for keeps writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
“IT was huge,” recalled Jackie O’Gorman a few years back. “Clare winning two National League titles in a row was like Kerry trying to win five-in-a-row. We have nothing else to compare it to. It was that big for Clare at the time.”
“That was a tremendous Clare team,” said Ger Loughnane. “I think the way the Clare team of that time can be judged is that it captured the imagination of the people – not only in Clare but all over the country.
“It was a great Clare team, with tremendous individuals who gave their all every day they went out and gave great value and entertainment to the people,” he added.
Of this there was little doubt – Loughnane, who was the wing-half-back on that Clare team was right, so to was Jackie O’Gorman who was behind him the corner.
These were the years when Clare were as good as what was in Ireland; these were the years of Dr Tommy Daly Park in Tulla; these were the years of the Tulla band being on tour on the way home from Thurles; these were the years when Michael ‘Nuggy’ Nihill’s on O’Connell Square was Clare’s clubhouse, when supporters didn’t want to have any homes to go to, because home was never this good.
They were days of thunder, days of glory, when Clare produced two performances from the top drawer – the final win of ’77 when they turned a 15-point defeat from the previous year into a five-point win and then the following year franked that form in decisive fashion when winning by 3-10 to 1-10.
What made it all the more impressive was that all of Clare’s 3-10 came from play – a stat which ensured that Clare hurling never had it so good.
And both came against Kilkenny. the aristocrats. Then, as now.
WHAT a far cry it was from two years previously when that defeat to Kilkenny in the league final replay and subsequent Munster championship loss to Limerick led the county board to dispense with the services of a county manager.
The Clare team headed to New York in the Autumn of 1976 to play their part in raising funds to pay for the cost of putting a new roof on Crusheen Church, but by then Fr Harry Bohan was no longer manager of the team.
At the August meeting of the county board delegates voted to put control of the team in the hands of a three-man selection team made up of Gerry Browne (St Joseph’s, Doora-Barefield), Jimmy Corry of (Sixmilebridge) and Noel O’Driscoll (O’Callaghan’s Mills).
Fr Bohan was gone, but with support amongst the players the first attempt to bring him back was made at the September meeting, but a motion demanding his immediate reinstatement didn’t receive the necessary two-thirds majority.
“The trip to New York was crucial, because we bonded there – and that wasn’t a word or a concept that was fashionable at the time,” recalled Johnny Callinan years later.
“I chaired a meeting of all the players in New York,” recalled Seamus Durack, “and it was to try and get a consensus of opinion on whether it had been right that Fr Harry had been shafted.
“Afterwards I remember making a phone call from New York to Bohan’s in Feakle, asking Fr Harry whether he would come back to manage us if I succeeded in getting him back. He said he’d come back.”
That comeback was sealed at the county board meeting on October 29, 1976. This time it wasn’t left to pro-Bohan delegates to win over the board – instead a group of players took to the floor and spoke about the very soul of Clare hurling.
Seamus Durack was one of those who led the way. He put a motion to the meeting that Fr Bohan be given control of team affairs with five selectors – the three selected by delegates in August together with Matt Nugent of St Joseph’s and Jim Woods of Newmarket-on-Fergus.
“We are absolutely disgusted with what has gone on over the last three board meetings,” said Fr Bohan on his return as manager. “Labels such as democracy, structure and system have been abused seriously by people who have used them when it suited a particular stance they were taking but seriously flouted them when it suited another particular stance. All of this discussion has taken place without a word of consultation with us. The board didn’t have the courtesy to tell us we were thrown out,” he added.
“From a very early age, I recognised that there were two GAA’s in Clare,” reflected Fr Bohan years later. “The GAA of the West County Hotel and the GAA of Thurles and Cusack Park. I wanted nothing to do with the GAA of the West County.”
Fr Bohan was true to his word – the team too as they started on a journey that brought them to the league summit, albeit it was still a plateau below Croke Park in September.
THERE were little milestones along the way.
The first day against Tipperary in late ‘76 in Nenagh when a last gasp Pat O’Connor point edged Clare home to a 2-9 to 2-8 victory that was the beginning of an unbeaten campaign; there was the arrival of Justin McCarthy from Cork.
“He introduced dozens of hurling balls. If you saw half a dozen at training before that, you were lucky but with Justin, you had half a dozen each. His emphasis was on speed, speed, speed,” recalled Johnny Callinan.
“We achieved an awful lot, we got over an awful lot of obstacles in a small space of time,” recalled McCarthy. “There was a lot achieved, but you had to change a whole cultural scene, the thinking to the game and how we were going to prepare. You were trying to play all sides in motivating and psyching up players. I told many a lie in the dressing room in Clare, trying to convince players that they were good enough. I knew they could be good enough if they realised it. Clare were good enough.”
“Justin had all the finer points we weren’t used to,” was Jackie O’Gorman’s verdict. “The flicks, the ball control. He looked after hurleys, shortened them,” he added.
“I remember things like hurleys,” confirmed McCarthy. “The boots even. I remember getting boots down in a factory in Cork and bringing boxloads of them up to the lads. Some of them had boots that weren’t in great shape, or maybe had older boots. Doing up all the hurleys for the players. I spent many many nights into the early hours of the morning fixing hurleys – doing them up, even shortening them. Some of them were too long.”
“It was revolutionary,” said O’Gorman, “because in Clare we just weren’t used to that kind of detail, but we got it with Justin”.
But the real revolution came the work of the training ground translated into those two league triumphs.
In ’77 when the first battle was to pick the team for the final – the first 14 picked themselves in minutes. Durack in goal; a full-back line of Johnny McMahon, Jim Power and Jackie O’Gorman; a half-line of Ger Loughnane, Gus Lohan and Sean Stack (Sean Hehir was out through injury); Mick Moroney and Colm Honan in midfield; Jimmy McNamara, Enda O’Connor and Johnny Callinan in half-forward line; Noel Casey and Pat O’Connor in the last line, with one vacancy.
There were two contenders, Tom Crowe from Clonlara and Timmy Ryan from Newmarket. Ryan was a classy hurler, Crowe a grafter.
“I wanted Tom Crowe on my team right or wrong and eventually got my way,” said Fr Bohan. “I said I wouldn’t travel to Thurles unless Tom Crowe was on the team. I had huge belief in Tom Crowe, he would literally put his head where he wouldn’t put his hurley.”
Fr Bohan got his way and his faith in Crowe was more than repaid. Jimmy McNamara got Clare off to a flier with a goal in the first minute, but Crowe’s goal in the 13th minute was the decisive score of the hour.
“It was one of those flukes that happen from time to time,” Crowe revealed in an interview a couple of years before his death.
“Noel Skehan saved the ball and came out to clear it. For some unknown reason he turned back into me. I was off balance and had to dive to one side to block him.
“In diving I hit the ball but fell in the process and was stretched on the ground when I literally got my hurley to the ball, barely touched it and rolled almost in slow motion over the line.”
Another little cameo from the day occurred in the seventh minute, when Seamus Durack went eye-ball to eye-ball with Eddie Keher. “He came through on the Borrisoleigh goal,” recalled Durack, “then rounded corner-back Johnny McMahon and shot from about 12 yards. I faced down Keher and went towards him. There was no turning back.
“He hit the ball and it wound up between my armpit and chest. I went with the sliotar and couldn’t get it from underneath my arm but got it away. After that I felt it was going to be our day.
“Then with about three or four minutes to go, Joe Hennessy came running through with a ball. I was in the town goal and Joe kept coming and took a shot from about 25 yards. It was an absolute screamer.
“I wouldn’t have got to it but it flashed across the goal, skimmed the outside of the post and went wide. I spoke to Joe afterwards and he told me ‘If we got that goal we would have caught ye in the last minute’.”
They didn’t, Clare were champions and the game in the county never had it so good.
There was a pitch invasion and supporters afterwards were slow to leave the field, and ever slower when it came to reaching home.
People had plenty of pit stops and pints along the way. Ryan’s in Newport was the haunt of some; Ryan’s in Dolla was where Dr Bill Loughnane brought some of the Tulla Céilí Band on tour.
IT was the same the following year, even if the campaign was different. There was no unbeaten run to the final, instead more of a stuttering campaign before they finally came out the other side to another final meeting with Kilkenny.
After an impressive opening round win over Galway in Tulla on a 4-13 to 1-5 scoreline, there was a draw against Tipperary and then 11-point defeat to Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that threatened to derail their defence.
However, away wins against Offaly and Kilkenny had them back on track and then a 2-16 to 3-6 semi-final over Limerick ensured they were back in Thurles and 60-minutes away from historic back-to-back titles.
“We had no fear of Kilkenny,” recalled Harry Bohan, “because after beating them in the final in ’77 we then went to Nowlan Park in early ’78 and we beat them. We were better than them and we knew it,” he added.
It didn’t look like it in the first half as the Cats raced into a 0-6 to 0-1 lead. One of Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien’s points in this blistering start came all the way from 95 yards. Clare settled though and had cut the deficit to 0-7 to 0-3 by half-time and then turned around and produced their greatest ever half-hour, outscoring Kilkenny by 3-7 to 1-3 to cruise home to victory.
This command performance that was kickstarted by Noel Casey who hammered home a great goal seven minutes in.
Jimmy McNamara followed up with a point and Clare were on their way. Full-forward Martin McKeogh emerged as the hero of the hour with two goals in the second quarter as Clare’s class shone through.
The only crumb for Kilkenny was a late goal from Mick Brennan.
“It was breathtaking in many ways,” recalled Bohan, “because we wiped them off the field, with every score coming from play. I don’t know the records, I don’t know whether that had been done before or after, but it was a great achievement. We were league champions again and were convinced that the Munster and the All-Ireland was next. We were the best team in Ireland. We were convinced.”
Ah, the Munster and the All-Ireland and the year to September – they could see it, touch it almost. Croke Cup. Munster Cup. Liam McCarthy.
It just wasn’t to be, but it was still a great Clare team.
Clare 2-8 Kilkenny 1-9
Clare Seamus Durack (Feakle), Johnny McMahon (Newmarket-on-Fergus), Jim Power (Tulla), Jackie O’Gorman (Cratloe), Gus Lohan (Newmarket-on-Fergus) Sean Stack (Sixmilebridge), Mick Moroney (Crusheen) (0-1), Colm Honan (Clonlara) (0-4), Jimmy McNamara (Newmarket-on-Fergus) (1-1) Capt., Enda O’Connor (Tubber) (0-1), John Callinan (Clarecastle), Tom Crowe (Clonlara) (1-1), Noel Casey (Sixmilebridge) (0-1), Pat O’Connor (Tubber).
Clare 3-10 Kilkenny 1-10
Clare Seamus Durack (Feakle), Jackie O’Gorman (Cratloe), Jim Power (Tulla), Johnny McMahon (Newmarket-on-Fergus), Ger Loughnane (Feakle), Sean Hehir (O’Callaghan’s Mills), Sean Stack (Sixmilebridge) Capt., Michael Moroney (Crusheen), Johnny Callinan (Clarecastle) (0-1), Jimmy McNamara (Newmarket-on-Fergus) (0-2), Noel Casey (Sixmilebridge) (1-2), Colm Honan (Clonlara) (0-1), Pat O’Connor (Tubber) (0-4), Martin McKeogh (Smith O’Briens) (2-0), Enda O’Connor (Tubber).