The rise of Clare hurling can be traced back to the last Under 21 meeting between Clare and Cork, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who speaks to those centrally involved in the 2008 Munster semi-final clash in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Reflections on a revolution in Clare
MOST people raged and in the heat of the battle just passed they vented their anger and dumped on officialdom in a way that makes Davy Fitzgerald’s complaints about referees seem like nothing.
“I think I speak for all of county Clare when saying what happened was a disgrace,” blasted Clare senior manager Mike McNamara. “In 50 years following Clare hurling I’ve never seen anything like it.
“There is absolutely no justification for making a decision like that. It’s an affront to the game of hurling, but Clare hurling won’t go down. Things like that won’t put us away. We have a foundation left down for Clare hurling. We have a bunch of boys who played under 21 who showed courage and bravery. Clare will go on fighting. I can tell you that. Clare hurling has survived a lot of things and will survive this,” he added.
His county board chairman Michael O’Neill was equally vocal as GUBU came to Cusack Park on 30 July, 2008 – it was grotesque, unusual, bizarre and unprecedented. And more.
“We had hard luck stories in the past, but what happened tonight just shouldn’t have happened. We were the better team, we had the game won and I’m devastated for the lads. It’s terrible, a terrrible injustice,” said O’Neill demanding justice.
Strong words, but it was no wonder emotions ran so high as everyone in saffron and blue struggled to take in the breathtaking injustice of it all.
Meanwhile, Clare manager John Minogue stood infield, with coach Cyril Lyons not too far away – shell-shocked wasn’t the word. In the moment and tempest, they were disbelieving, incredulous, speechless.
Did that just happen? Could something like that even happen? What happened?
“We had it,” says Minogue six years on. “Nicky O’Connell was shaping up to put the ball over the bar and we were within touching distance – we had one hand, almost two on the cup……
“Then it was a 65 to Tipp and it was over the bar and that was that.”
It was over. Heartbreak house for Clare. Again. Clare’s 12th final at under 21 level; Clare’s 12th final defeat. The breakthrough as far away as it ever was.
Or maybe not!
Had it already begun? Had the uprising that would yield Munster titles at minor, under 21 and intermediate All-Ireland titles at under 21, intermediate and senior begun.
Had the first blows in Clare hurling’s greatest ever run of successes been struck?
Yes says Colin Ryan, who played in that Munster final in 2008.
FIVE years on from GUBU, Ryan is sitting in the Temple Gate Hotel the week before the 2013 All-Ireland final talking through his Clare senior career that’s already six years young even though he’s yet to turn 24.
Along the way he singles out one game for special mention – not the night referee Justin O’Mahony and his umpire were inducted into Clare’s hall of infamy for pulling up Dónal Tuohy for putting a foot outside the square when pucking out the ball; not the redemption the following year down in Fraher Field when Clare finally won the Munster title; not the epic semi-final win over Joe Canning; not even Cormac O’Donovan point of Clare age that would only be usurped by his twin Domhnall a few days later.
No, it’s a Monday night in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The Munster Under 21 semi-final when Clare crossed the rubicon – in mind as much as hurling – and in the words of captain Conor Cooney started “growing up overnight”.
“Winning that game below in Cork was probably one of the biggest game I ever won as a Clare player,” said Ryan.
“I had never won a minor game of substance – I had played two years and two years of Under 21 then previous to ’08 where I had never won an Under 21 game. Going down to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, putting together a performance and coming out with a result was a massive confidence boost,” he added.
And it was the beginning. The start of the revolution that still rumbles.
TO say it same from nowhere – out of the saffron and blue, is putting it mildly. Clare’s record at minor and under 21 level since the turn of the millennium wasn’t just bad – it was abysmal.
Not only Clare teams not making finals, worse than that they struggled to win any games. A couple of wins over Kerry in 2000 and 2003 is all the Under 21s had to show for eight years of toil.
Until everything changed that night, albeit against a backdrop that was anything but positive. “I remember we played Tipperary the week before and it was lashing rain,” recalls captain Conor Cooney, “and they had their second team out but they gave us an unmerciful beating the same night.
“I remember Caimin Morey scored 1-1 at the end, but they beat us something like 3-18 to 1-3. We came out thinking ‘their second team did this to us, what are Cork going to do’,” he adds.
“We played Cork in a challenge down in Páirc Uí Rinn earlier on in the year and they gave us a bit of a trimming,” reveals John Minogue. “We realized they had the likes of Pa Cronin, Patrick Horgan and these guys. It was a valuable lesson for us – Horgan and Cronin destroyed us that evening and our eyes were wide open as to what to expect from them.”
The sides had also clashed in the previous year’s semi-final in Thurles, with the Rebels winning in the end by a 2-14 to 1-11 scoreline that flattered them. Clare had shown enough that night to convince Minogue and Lyons that something was stirring.
“That game was close,” remembers Minogue, “and we could have won, because I remember Bernard Gaffney hit the crossbar and the upright. It meant we would have travelled to Cork with a fair degree of confidence as a both teams were fairly similar, with only four or five missing from each team from 2007.”
“All I remember going down,” says Cyril Lyons, “was that Clare were going to put in a performance – we were certain of that, there was going to be a performance given.”
“You had a lot of lads at that age-group who had won an All-Ireland Colleges title in 2005,” says Minogue. “Jamesie O’Connor and Con Woods were over that St Flannan’s team and it was played before a league final involving Clare.
“The backbone of the team came out of that, while there was a scattering of individual players from different clubs who were strong players. We had strong physical hurlers and were able to stand up to Cork, while we had some very skillful hurlers too,” he adds.
“We had experience straight up along the spine,” says Cooney. “I was full-back, Aidan Quilligan was centre-back, Damian Browne was midfield and Ger Arthur was at centre-forward and Caimin Morey was full-forward. Then we had great young hurlers around us.”
And then they just hurled Cork off the park.
A 20th minute goal by Caimin Morey, who finished with 1-8 over the hour, helped Clare into a 1-9 to 0-5 half-time lead as they restricted Cork to just one point from play form corner-forward Stephen Moylan.
“The team grew in confidence as the game went on,” says Lyons. “I remember Nicky O’Connell and Damian Browne were midfield and were very good, while Ger Arthur played as a roving centre-forward was particularly effective.”
“Nicky O’Connell was only 18/19,” says Cooney “and was marking Pa Cronin at midfield and hurled him off the field, while Gary O’Connell was on Cathal Naughton and had a savage game.
“I think it was that challenge against Tipperary that really woke us up too,” continues Cooney. “It gave us a no fear factor that ‘we have nothing to lose going down here’ and gave us the attitude of ‘we might as well just go for it’. We did that and players just grew up overnight,” he adds.
“Conor Cooney was a great captain and lifted that whole team,” says Minogue. “He became captain because he was a great leader, was a great motivator and had a great influence around his own players. In terms of leadership he was very much ahead of lads at that age.”
Like Clare were ahead of Cork on the night – building on that first half advantage as they raced into a 1-15 to 0-9 lead entering the final quarter on the back of Dónal Tuohy brilliant penalty save from Patrick Horgan.
“And when Eamon Glynn darted out of defence after the penalty to find Arthur,” wrote Therese O’Callaghan in The Evening Echo, “you could sense something special was about to happen.”
It happened as Clare won pulling up by 1-20 to 1-11, with Cork’s consolation goal from Patrick Horgan coming with virtually the last puck of the game.
“It was a performance, not only of energy, effort and determination but there was also quality hurling in it and we put up a big score,” says Lyons.
“What happened around then was that a confidence developed within the group. There was a confidence between management and players, confidence in each other.
“You can talk all you like beforehand but it’s the performances that gives you confidence. You can have great training and you can set your targets, but it’s the performance of the team on the day that gives belief to everybody – we had it that night. It set a foundation.
“The confidence came from that,” says Cooney, “and it gave everything a bit of a buzz. The players were always there but it gave them the bit of confidence that they needed.
“When you look back on it, it was that 2009 final that kick-started another era of Clare hurling. It opened everyone’s eyes to what could be achieved and drove on young players,” he adds.
“And it gave underage a bit of status,” says Lyons, “because for a number of years Clare hadn’t even been winning matches. The confidence wasn’t there and the ambition to play Under 21 for Clare wasn’t as strong as it should have been.
“You see it nowadays and young lads would give everything to play for Clare – at minor, under 21 or at any level. That’s what success has done.”
And you could say it started with that victory over Cork six years ago.
Donal Touhy (Crusheen), Eamon Glynn (Inagh/Kilnamona), Conor Cooney (O’Callaghan’s Mills) (Capt), Ciaran O’Doherty (Crusheen), Gary O’Connell (Wolfe Tones), Aidan Quilligan (Sixmilebridge), James McInerney (Newmarket-on-Fergus), Damian Browne (Cratloe) (0-2), Nicky O’Connell (Clonlara), John Conlon (Clonlara) (0-2), Ger Arthur (Inagh/Kilnamona) (0-4), Sean Collins (Cratloe) (0-2), Colm Madden (Bodyke), Caimin Morey (Sixmilebridge) (1-8), Colin Ryan (Newmarket-on-Fergus) (0-1). Subs Conor Tierney (Inagh/Kilnamona) (0-1) for Madden (24), Darach Honan (Clonlara) for Ryan (55).
R O’Keeffe; J O’Callaghan, E Dillon, C O’Driscoll, B Moylan, R Cashman, S White; L Desmond, P Cronin (Capt) (0-1), P Horgan (1-5, 4 f, 0-1 65m), B Corry, E Murphy; S Moylan (0-1), P O’Sullivan (0-3), C Naughton (0-1). Subs J Jordan for L Desmond (38), P O’Brien for S Moylan, J Halbert for R Cashman (both 49).