Cratloe have never had it so good as it has been in the last few years, but Sunday will be their greatest day, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
CRATLOE clubmen have had great days in the saffron and blue. Track back 67 years to a rare national final day out in Croke Park and a rarer still, a win there. It was the National League final against Dublin in 1946 when PJ Quain and Bob Frost flew the Cratloe flag.
Fast forward three decades and Jackie O’Gorman was one of the greatest backmen of his generation and won back-to-back National League titles in ’77 and ’78. Great days both and great Cratloe days because of Jackie’s stellar contribution to the county set-up in those years.
But still, they’re nothing onto these days. That county senior final win in 2009, 125 years to the day of the founding of the GAA. The All-Ireland Under 21 final in Thurles last year when there were four Cratloe starters; the big breakthrough that was the 2009 All-Ireland win in the same grade when the club had two out of the field of play.
Now, when Sunday comes, it will be the greatest day of all. “You couldn’t even dream about it,” says Jackie O’Gorman. “I never thought I’d see this day, but I didn’t think I’d see a lot of days we’ve had over the past few years.
“Going back many years ago we were intermediate, then when we went senior we couldn’t make any progress for years. Now we’ve won a senior title and have half a dozen in the All-Ireland. It’s incredible,” he adds.
The old corner back, who was a ringer for the great Cuban athlete Alberto Juantorena back in the day, just needs one word to explain away the revolution that has rumbled over the last half a dozen years.
“Dedication,” he says. “In the school. In the minor club, with great people involved.”
The school: It started as far back as far back as 1987 when Jody O’Connor joined the teaching staff. Cratloe had fielded teams in Cumann na mBunscol competitions before that, but had fallen by the wayside for a few years.
“The youngsters themselves were mad for road,” says O’Connor. “I was mad for road because I was from a hurling parish in west Limerick called Kileedy. I had a passionate interest in it trying to drive it on. When I came first there was a place called the Hollow. It was a religion for them every Tuesday and Thursday to go down there – they loved it.”
The Hollow – the same place that Jackie O’Gorman learned to hold and swing a hurley and become one of the best backmen in Ireland; the same place that the famous Quain brothers played and put Cratloe hurling on the map in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The Hollow and then Páirc Michéal O’Hehir that was opened in 1991 became the two great playgrounds for Cratloe’s youth – the default setting every Tuesday and Thursday after school for anyone who wanted to hold a hurley or kick a football.
“If a mother came to me and said, ‘my fella is only six, can he come down’, I’d always say yes,” recalls O’Connor. “I’d never tell a fella to stay away. ‘Come down,’ I’d say. I’d probably be in breach of every child protection procedure because the ratio of myself to the children wasn’t as good as it should be.”
“Jody did fantastic work with them,” says O’Gorman, “and it was the school and the minor club where you had Joe McGrath that made them really. That was the basis for it all.
“A big thing with these lads is that they won a lot of titles at football coming under Colm Collins – that gave them the confidence to drive it on from there. There’s nothing like winning to give you the confidence to go on and do more.
“They’re fabulous young fellas – they never come out of the field. It’s their whole life, they don’t do anything. Even when they were doing their Leaving Cert they’d be training three nights a week. That’s why they’re where they are now,” he adds.
Still though, O’Gorman admits that “from a distance there’s no way you could see what was going to happen to the club and the success and the players we’d produce”.
Until they arrived, or more correctly exploded onto the hurling stratosphere. Locally and nationally. Conor McGrath’s All-Ireland Skills title as an under 14; Cratloe’s status as the best dual club in the county by some distance; the strength in numbers they provide to Sunday’s squad.
Along with Clonlara – a team they amalgamated with under the St Senan’s banner way back in 1972 to reach a county final – Cratloe symbolize the tectonic shift that has taken place in Clare hurling over the last number of years.
Back in the heady days of the ‘70s it was O’Gorman, Colm Honan and Tom Crowe who represented the St Senan’s enclave – now between them they’ll provide seven starters on Sunday as Clare bid to take down Cork in a final for the first time since the 1932 Munster final.
“Cork will favourites and they’ll be arrogant because they’ve been there so often, but it will be a 50/50 game,” says O’Gorman. “Cork are a bit like Kerry football – no matter how bad they’d be they’re always there. They’ve 30 odd All-Irelands and they didn’t pick them off the trees. They went up to a lot of them as underdogs, but came away with trophy,” he adds.
But still, O’Gorman is optimistic that Clare can finally lay the bogey of beating the Rebels in a final, something that was just beyond the reaches of the great side of the ‘70s.
“The Cork team of the ‘70s was a great team,” he recalls “and they proved it by being the last team before the current Kilkenny side to win three-in-a-row. Maybe we weren’t good enough, or maybe we didn’t know how to win.
“It’s different now. These lads know how to win. How many Munsters and All-Irelands have they won at underage level in a short space of time? They have no fears and that’s why I’m very hopeful.
“I know when you’re talking to a Clareman, the heart overrules the head and you only see the one thing, but they can win. It will be a tough one but they can be All-Ireland champions on Sunday.”
On Cratloe’s greatest day.