Clare’s first All-Ireland senior final appearance since 2002 is all down to a revolution at underage level that was kickstarted that same year when the
Development Squad structure was put in place, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
THERE’S a picture that’s now turning sepia with age that was taken at the junction of the Canal End and Hogan Stand of Croke Park and it shows the Clare minor team of ’97 on their way to the dressing room.
The picture that tells a thousand words of hoopla, high fives and hollering to make the throat run dry – there’s even a bit of Gangnam Style a couple of generations before its time as Clare’s greatest day in the minor grade is celebrated raucously.
Captain John Reddan leads the way in one big rolling maul of players and a few selectors thrown in – among them Sean O’Halloran, with his smile giving off an aura that looked as if it would last a lifetime.
Why not! Clare had finally landed an All-Ireland minor title and the senior would follow within a couple of hours and within the space of a glorious afternoon in Dublin 3 Clare hurling never had it so good.
Galway in the minor; Tipperary in the senior; bluebloods to both grades and it seemed in the first flush of the two victories that every day would be like this.
Clare, without an All-Ireland in any grade between the senior and junior wins of ’14 had now won four in five years since ’93 – a junior, a minor, two senior. This was empire building and it wouldn’t be left there.
Yeah there was a hiatus of a few years, but Clare Hurling Future was established a few years later with the imprimatur of no less a figure than Ger Loughnane and a slew of former county players as the county board looked to build on the successes of ’95 and ’97 . But by then, the smiling Sean O’Halloran admits that things had started to turn sour.
The minors did get back to Croke Park in ’98 and play in a quarter-final, as they did the following year when they were in a Munster final, but the slide had already begun and would last the guts of a decade.
“In my first couple of years there didn’t seem to be much happening,” says O’Halloran, who came in as Bord na nÓg Iomáint chairman in 2000, “and we didn’t win a first round in Munster for many years”.
He’s slightly wrong – they beat Kerry a couple of times but the message stays the same, with Clare’s failure to beat any of the major powers in Munster from 2000 until 2008 when they beat Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh showing how far things had fallen.
Still, out of the darkest hour comes the dawn and all that….because in the middle of that slump the wheels of what would be a slow burning, bottom up and velvet revolution were turning.
“We realised something had to be done,” says O’Halloran, “so in 2002 we started the Development Squad system at Bord na nÓg level.
“To try and get things going I would have gone to Kilkenny and Tipperary and spoken to the key people there to see how they were doing their business, so we could set up a model in Clare to follow.
“We were welcomed and there was never a problem in getting information – they laid it on the table, they told us how they were doing their business and I structured it on those counties.
“In Tipp and Kilkenny they regionalised things and every player that had potential got the opportunity. The key was we always emphasised that it was open ended – some fellas mature at 14, others at minor, others at 20. That means the key was to keep the eyes open for players, while we decided we’d try broaden the influx of players coming in to play for their county at all levels – from under 14 level up to minor.
“The thinking behind it was that we’d try to attract more players from every club – one, two, three players or more, players who had the potential to develop into county standard,” he adds.
And so began the revolution, with the first Under 14 team in 2002 including, among others the likes of Domhnall O’Donvan, Cormac O’Donovan, Ciaran O’Doherty, Cian Dillon and Darach Honan, all of whom went on to win Munster and Under 21 All-Irelands seven years later.
Along the way there were no Forristal Cup, Under 16 or minor successes, but what O’Halloran describes as his ‘Eureka Moment’ did come and with that Clare had turned a big corner.
Páirc Uí Chaoimh on a Monday night in July 2008 and a Clare team that had done nothing three years earlier as minors exploded as a force at Under 21 level, beating Cork by 1-20 to 1-10.
“That was the group coming through from the first squads and I saw something that evening,” says O’Halloran, who was a selector on that side managed by John Minogue and coached by Cyril Lyons. “We were finally going places.”
The county hasn’t stopped since, with an underage title coming to the county every year since 2009. That’s unprecedented, unchartered territory in the most times forlorn history of Clare hurling, so much so that the moniker of the ‘Golden Generation’ is an easy and natural fit.
However, the difference with this run of success as compared with the salad years at senior level between 1995 and ’98 is that new foundations are being laid all the time.
“Initially,” says O’Halloran, “when I went to Kilkenny and Tipp I was on my own, but the year I left Bord na nÓg I would have brought in the services of Seanie McMahon, Jamesie O’Connor, Brian Quinn and Jim McInerney.
“They came into it in 2010 and it was fantastic – they are totally dedicated to the cause and with no agendas, just to put something back into the promotion and development of the game.
“You couldn’t meet people who were more enthusiastic about underage hurling and really wanted to see it improve. They’re the inspiration and with the system that’s in place now we’re going deeper into it all the time.
“When the Development Squad started in 2002 it was from Under 12 up. Now, we’ve eight, nine, ten-year-olds brought in. Coaches like Peter Casey, Ronan Keane and those lads are doing great work.
“The players are being identified at the younger age with the coaches going into the schools and we would probably have 50 coaches working at some level or other.
“The key is to implement the plans – get the coaches that are going to do the work with them, while trying to broaden the net all the time. For example at under 14 level we’d be brining in 120/130 players. In the early stages we’d only be bringing in 50 or 60, so we’ve doubled the numbers who were coming in.”
That’s real empire building. At last.