The 19th with Joe O’Muircheartaigh

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Eddie Brennan, Kilkenny, and Frank Lohan, Clare, go head-to-head in the 2006 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Semi-Final. Ray McManus/Sportsfile

THERE used to be a hill on old Croke Park field you know, and it was the late and great scribes Paddy Downey and Con Houlihan who went stride for stride up the hill with some powerful prose to capture the meaning of it all after Clare’s hurlers reached the mountaintop on that incredible first Sunday in September 18 years ago.
Paddy had left The Irish Times then having reached retirement age, while The Evening Press had left Con, but others weren’t long in acquiring the services of the two best sportswriters of their generation or any generation for that matter.
Con found a new home with The Sunday World, while The Irish Independent snapped up the services of Paddy – two astute moves that allowed them to beautifully capture the import of Clare’s achievements within the economy of a few hundred very carefully chosen words.
I think Paddy got up that hill by a short head in ‘95 when he said after Clare’s win over Offaly: “At that moment when the final whistle sounded time seemed to stand still. There was magic in the air and the grey light of a September evening was transfigured. It shimmered.
“In all its days, storied Croke Park had never seen anything like it. As the glorious scene unfolded, it took many minutes for a sense of reality to sink in. After 81 years, Clare were hurling champions of Ireland again.
“Just think of it. A county steeped in hurling tradition had waited all that time, living with defeat, hoping, yearning for the tide of fortune to turn. Well it turned in a mighty wave and the sweat, tears and above all the loyalty of eight barren decades were rewarded. The wilderness of all those years since the county’s last All-Ireland in 1914 became paradise in Clare’s night.”
Those words were an extension of what Anthony Daly had said in his speech to the masses from Croke Park’s Ard Comhairle after the All-Ireland was won – indeed a few feet away from Daly, Paddy was probably penning his words for the first edition deadline as the Clarecastle man was gathering his thoughts and clearing his throat.
Fast-forwarding nearly two decades and it’s hard to escape that rising tide of confidence that years to September at senior level mightn’t be too far away.
Yeah, it mightn’t be this year, or the next either, but whatever the year, it’s coming down the tracks once more.
Even before the defeats of Galway and Cork this feeling was there, because of the expectation that the natural progression from the minors and under 21s’ achievement of playing in All-Irelands will see will see the seniors do the same – and sooner, rather than later.
Paddy Downey won’t be there to chronicle it, neither will Con Houlihan, while of course, the outpouring of emotion, of the people and the prose, could never be the same as it was in ‘95.
But some things won’t change. They never do.
One of these things will come around this Sunday in Cusack Park. It’s Kilkenny. The All-Ireland champions. The aristocrats. The ‘Top Cats’. The template for Clare.
Remember how it was in ’95. In the National League final that year Kilkenny were the same as they are now, well almost. They weren’t the All-Ireland champions, but had been as recently as 1992 and ’93 and were favourites for the 1995 title.
Remember how they dismembered Clare in that league final. Adrian Ronan who constantly seemed to be resting on the butt of his hurley in between scoring points; Eamonn Morrissey doing rack; DJ Carey the same.
No doubt more of the same will be expected on Sunday, but regardless of what happens – whether Clare take Kilkenny’s scalp for the first time in eight years or whether Kilkenny skin Clare like they did in their last Cusack Park meeting in 2009 – this National League has the potential to be the making of this Clare team.
Already, it can be said that this year’s campaign is the most memorable from Clare’s viewpoint in the best part of a decade.
Here’s why and it’s hugely important.
There seems to be none of the shadow boxing that blighted many a league campaign post-1995. Instead, you have a Clare team that’s going for everything, from whistle to whistle.
Why? This is where Clare have wanted to be over the past four years and now that they’re back in Division 1 they’ve brought some championship intensity to their ‘Spring Series’.
Remember how this wasn’t always the case with Clare team in the National League. Post-1995 the league didn’t matter, because Clare could afford this luxury with Munster and All-Ireland won – more Munsters and more All-Irelands, not league titles were the only gold bullion of interest back then.
However, post the Loughnane years it should have been different, but this wasn’t always the case. In 2001 Clare reached a league final in Cyril Lyons’ first few months in charge but missed a great chance to beat Tipperary in the final in The Gaelic Grounds, while thereafter, the 2005 campaign being the exception when Anthony Daly’s side reached the final, much of Clare’s Division 1 league hurling was more about fulfilling fixtures than trying to win the competition.
What a breath of fresh air this 2013 campaign has been. It’s ’95 all over again. Back then, in Loughnane’s first year, they went after every league game with gusto.
It’s what emerging teams have to do. It’s a case of trying to simulate championship Sundays in the Spring.
That’s why the biggest attendance in Cusack Park for a league game in many years can be expected on Sunday.
It’s a huge game for Clare – not so Kilkenny, despite their slow start to the leauge, because just like Kerry in football whatever goes down in the league will matter little when it comes to championship.
But Clare can’t care about Kilkenny’s mindset – this is about taking a scalp and building on the victories over Galway and Cork.
Taking down Kilkenny at home could be like the victory over Tipperary in Cusack Park back in March 1995.
“That was the day that made the Clare team,” said Loughnane after the All-Ireland was won at the end of the year. “If ever there was a game that was vital for Clare, it was that game. All we asked our fellas that day was to stand up to them. It meant nothing if we didn’t stand up to Tipperary that day. I think we gave a really great display. We won by five points, but could have won by a lot more. After that there was no turning back. We knew we were on the right road,” he added.
Beat Kilkenny and it can be said Clare are on the same road as 18 years ago.

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Joe Ó Muircheartaigh graduated from University College Dublin in 1989 with a degree in history and politics. After completing a Diploma in Journalism at The College of Commerce, Rathmines in 1991, he embarked on a career in journalism. Joe spent four years with Clare FM from 1992 and was with The Clare Champion from 1996 to 2005. He has won two McNamee Awards for GAA journalism and has published two books. Contact Joe on [email protected]

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