Justin McCarthy’s place in Clare hurling hearts

Justin McCarthy with Fr. Harry Bohan.

It may have ended badly for Justin McCarthy in Waterford and Limerick, but the Corkman remains one of the great hurling missionaries with great memories of the four years he spent in Clare, recalls Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

THE Banner County and Justin McCarthy go back a long way – further back than the mid-1970s when he first joined the goodship Clare under Fr Harry Bohan and played a huge role in the development of what Ger Loughnane called “a great team, with tremendous individuals who gave their all every day they went out”.
Go to the summer of ’66. Cork haven’t won an All-Ireland since Johnny Clifford’s goal beat Wexford in ’54, but the famine ends with a victory over Kilkenny with Justin McCarthy, who won an Under 21 All-Ireland the same year, manning one of the midfield spots.
Clare comes into the story and not because it was McCarthy’s last minute goal that earned the Rebels a reprieve against Clare in the first round of the championship, after which the replay was won by 16 points to begin the road to September.
“Because of Kilrush,” McCarthy told this writer. “It’s Kilrush because of the hurleys Cork used. They were St Lua Hurleys, made in Kilrush, County Clare. That hurley was my first link to Clare – they were great hurleys and we all had them that year in what was a great year.”

THE St Lua hurleys from Kilrush are no more, even though McCarthy still has one at home in Passage, the same one that got the equalising goal against Clare and brought him all the way to the All-Ireland win over Kilkenny and the three games it took to beat Wexford in the Under 21 final later in the year.
The hurley is his workshop to act as a reminder to his playing days, just as much as the shots of pain he has always felt at various intervals in his leg that was shattered when he was in his prime as a hurler.
It was the week before the 1969 All-Ireland against Kilkenny – the myth being that the tearaway midfielder was motorbiking his way to Cork training before succumbing to a high speed crash.
The truth of course was different, far from the image of McCarthy with his St Lua hurleys and a few sliothars in a bag over his back and on the open road like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, which was filmed that same year.
“I was a pillion passenger on a motorbike being driven by Joe Murphy who was a sub on the team,” he recalled. “A car backed out onto the main road – I was knocked off and my leg was shattered in three places. It was a terrible experience. I went to Croke Park afterwards in a wheelchair on the sideline to see Cork getting beaten.
“But, it taught me a different side of life that made me a better person. I’d got to think a bit deeper and I got to know myself that bit more. It opened up a lot of new avenues and got me into coaching.”
Coaching that eventually brought him to Clare….
A journey, via the accident, a re-launched Cork playing career, coaching Cork in 1975 and then Clare. “Coming up to ‘75 I was playing great hurling with my club and divisional team Seandun. I was right back on form again to get back on to the county team, but in the month of May the chairman of the county board asked me would I take over the Cork hurlers.
“I had to make up my mind in ‘75 whether I’d go for my place on the team or try and help out Cork and manage the team. I decided on management. We had been down for a few years but won Munster well that year.
“But the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway was a traumatic day for the team and for me in particular. I knew it was an exceptional team but unfortunately for me I was thrown out after ‘75 and in the following three years they went on to win three All-Irelands with almost the same team.
“I was sore. At that time, because I was a young player coming up – I was only 30 – I had a new emphasis into the coaching scene. The media was taking over at the time and there was a lot of publicity and limelight placed on me and that didn’t suit an awful lot of people in Cork. They felt ‘this guy is taking over, the team is there and this guy is going to be capitalising on it’. I was ousted, other guys came in and won three All-Irelands.”
So began McCarthy’s frosty relationship with Cork GAA that never really went away, even though he coached them to All-Ireland success in 1984.
There was always a distance there, a state that contrasted with the respect and reverence he always commanded in Clare, where’s he has always been on a pedestal since answering the county’s call in 1976.
“Coming to Clare was a blessing in disguise for me. A great moment. Looking back on that, coming to Clare changed a lot of things. It was the best move I ever made. I would say that. I was asked one Autumn day – I got a phone call in work from Fr Harry Bohan. He felt they had the makings of a good team but maybe needed an extra bit of a push – if I could tie in with the existing management there could be something in the team.
“My biggest consideration was the time and the distance. I was two and a half hours away from Tulla – 98 miles away on bad roads at that time. I’ll never forget Fr Harry Bohan for giving me the opportunity. It opened up whole new avenues for me – on the business side, jobs wise, getting to know myself when driving longer hours. It stood to me a lot in later years. It was a great opportunity.”
An opportunity to give his own Harvey Smith signal to Cork hurling maybe?
“Cork people always like to prove themselves. I was trying to prove something, but not as people might see it and perceive it to be trying to prove something against Cork.
“For me it was helping a county that I had a grá for and a county I felt needed an extra push. I was available – I was young and able and had the energy and enthusiasm and experience and I fell in with the people in Clare.
“I felt my main task was to try and help Clare. People saw it otherwise, like trying to get my own back on Cork, but I genuinely wanted to help Clare, to see them develop into a better team and play my part if I could and to give them an insight into what winning was all about and being successful. They deserved success as much as anyone else.”
And so it started. The 98-mile treks to Tulla. The blank canvas in front of him – his knowledge of Clare extending not much beyond being on a Cork team that whipped them by 22 points in ’the 72 Munster final and seeing them taken for 15 points in the league final replay in ’76.
Therein lay Justin’s greatest challenge, as he saw it.
“We had a different approach in Cork. We were reared on success – Clare were reared on defeats. There was that negative aspect to Clare hurling, that losing aspect about it.
“Then we played the game a little bit faster – club games were played at a faster pace. There was more intensity and it was a quicker type of game. My first job as coach was to try and quicken the pace of the game in Clare to try and bring the standard up to a higher level.
“Fr Bohan was the key man. In actual fact, looking back on it, he was ahead of his time. He was a father figure – he left me do my job on the coaching side of it. He was manager, I was a coach and we had Colm Flynn as trainer. We worked great together, we communicated on a great wavelength with one another. It was an ideal set-up – we had good selectors, we had people who were very genuine, that always would be there.”
“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.
“He had all the finer points we weren’t used to,” noted Jackie O’Gorman. “The flicks, the ball control. He looked after hurleys, shortened them. It was revolutinary. We weren’t used to that.”
“In the end, we went up to Harry and said, ‘Look, never mind about him coaching us, get him to transfer to Clare, for God’s sake. Get him to play.’ That was how good he was,” sdded Callinan.
“We achieved an awful lot, we got over an awful lot of obstacles in a small space of time,” said 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.”
That’s Justin’s take on his four years – a success in terms of raising Clare’s standards, winning the two leagues titles, the camaraderie and craic, but like everyone else involved the tinge of regret is hanging there.
“We wanted the championship, but we all know it just didn’t occur,” he says ruefully. “We had tremendous players – I suppose, if anything, they were too genuine and too honest. But they were tremendous and would do anything for you. Maybe at the time, looking back on it, there could have been too much physical training done – I would certainly have cut that down and I have with teams afterwards. I learned from that experience.
“I’m not a great believer in doing too much training. I think quality is more important than quantity. At the end of the day, Clare probably thought they had to be twice as fast and twice as fit as Cork or some other team. But where they were getting caught was in their hurling, the speed of their play, their speed of thought and movement, and executing the different skills and strokes and having the confidence to carry out the training that was done.”
Of course it was a matter of inches, those two Munster finals that were lost in 1977 and ’78 could and possibly should have been won. Strange as it may seem, but McCarthy always poked some blame at himself.
“One aspect, which people mightn’t like to admit, but because I was a Corkman involved with Clare, it had a downside to it too,” he said. “It was a spur to the Cork players and the Cork mentors to try and beat a Clare team coached by a Corkman.
“We were very close in ‘77, but I felt in ‘78 we were going to win. I often spoke to Cork players afterwards – I coached some of them as well – people like Jimmy Barry Murphy, John Horgan, Gerald McCarthy and Charlie McCarthy. They felt that that day they thought they were beaten, but things just happened. A free over the bar, us missing a few chances. I think that day we left it behind us. We were the better team that day.
“It was traumatic for me, because I was convinced we were good enough to win. It was a hard one to accept. That team was good enough to go on and win an All-Ireland – Kilkenny were the only stumbling block and we would have beaten them. I remember Christy Ring coming into the dressing room afterwards, coming over to me and shaking hands. ‘Hard luck,’ he said, ‘we were just lucky to win it’.
“Things went well for Cork that day. Don’t forget – they were an exceptional bunch of players. I knew how good they were – they were very balanced and very steady. It was a very complete team – to beat a complete team like that who were right bang on form would take an exceptional team. There’s no doubt Cork had the confidence to snatch a score, a long-range point and things went for him. Good teams can do that – things just happen for them.”
That those defeats cut to the heart of McCarthy was reflected even more graphically in his outstanding biography, Hooked, that was written in conjunction with Kieran Shannon.
“I hadn’t wanted Clare to win for Justin,” he wrote about the 1977 Munster final that turned on the sending off of Jim Power. “I wanted them to win so I could see the gleam in Ger Loughnane’s eyes, the tears in Fr Harry’s.”
“Loughnane was on his knees fisting the ground in anger,” he said of 1978. “The whistle was like a dagger to the heart. I couldn’t believe it when it was all over. I felt as if the game never started.
“No one could speak in our dressing room afterwards. No one could look up. Hardly anyone could move. I’d never been in a more sombre dressing room. I don’t think Christy Ring was either. When he walked through the door he seemed un-nerved by the desolation around him.”
It’s been desolation row for Clare at senior championship level against Cork for 15 years now. The last victory was in 1998, while the last final victory against the Rebels was in 1932.
Justin McCarthy will be in the Cork corner on Sunday, but he’s always been loved in Clare and you sense he’s one Corkman who wouldn’t begrudge a first final victory comes over the Rebels after 81 years of waiting.


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