WHEN the Under 21 class of 2012 came to the West County Hotel at the fall of the year to receive their Munster and All-Ireland medals the professor emeritus of Clare hurling Ger Loughnane came to praise them.
They were the present on the back of their stunning All-Ireland success over Kilkenny, but while glorying in that victory the challenge set by Loughnane was crystal clear: they were the future, winning one Under 21 title could never be enough and it had to be followed up with an All-Ireland senior title.
“Now comes the next test. Have you got the character needed to bring Liam McCarthy back to Clare? Now, can you do that. Can you make that your goal? An All-Ireland senior title. That must be your ambition now. To win that takes something extra. Do you have it? Do you have the character? Because we need you. We need to bring Liam McCarthy back to Clare.”
That Clare did it so soon and were back in the West County Hotel within a year and with the Liam McCarthy Cup in tow, having fulfilled a prophesy of then county board chairman Michael O’Neill after the 2010 All-Ireland minor final defeat – that there’d be an All-Ireland in three years – now gives their continued hegemony at Under 21 level even a greater lustre.
They’ve been there and done that at senior level and will do so again, with Clare’s domination of the Under 21 grade being looked on more than ever as that conveyor belt moving towards further senior success.
And, everything about the culture that the management team of Dónal Moloney, Gerry O’Connor, Jimmy Browne and Paul Kinnerk have built around their team is about success – an uber-confidence about their ability to get the job done.
The Munster semi-final against Tipperary was a case in point – the game looked like slipping away for a few minutes of that second half, but the juggernaut that has been created in Under 21 teams over the past three years finally cranked to life and eventually steamrolled to victory in extra-time.
That ability to find a way has been the hallmark of all the Under 21 teams these past three years – Waterford put in up to them down in Walsh Park last year, but they dogged it out; it was Tipperary again back in the 2012 Munster final, but again Clare’s resolve saw them home.
It’s that resolve, that battle-hardened edge built up over a number of years, from minor through to Under 21, not to mind the All-Ireland senior final experienced by many of the squad last year, is what will give Clare huge comfort going into their latest big day.
Wexford will represent formidable opposition, but no better team that Clare to meet that challenge head-on.
Wexford will come to Thurles in confidence – the feelgood factor that has once more wrapped itself around their hurling once more on the back of those two championship jousts against Clare can not be underestimated.
“We have a hurling team again,” exclaimed 1996 All-Ireland winning manager Liam Griffin out on the Cusack Park pitch after the drawn game. “I told you we have a hurling team,” he said after the victory in Wexford Park.
For Clare, you couldn’t ask for better.
All because, for Wexford doing it all over again against Clare – albeit at a different level with many different changes in personnel – will be very hard. When great expectations are there, as was the case for the seniors when they played Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final, it’s very hard to deliver.
And make no mistake about it – with Wexford out of the All-Ireland winners enclosure at Under 21 level since 1965, the weight of very heavy expectation is there and just might weigh very heavily on their shoulders.
Against that backdrop, dark clouds could descend over the sunny south east pretty quickly in this final as they face the onslaught of a Clare team chasing down some history.
Expect Clare to try and do what they did against Cork in the Munster final – strike early and often to take the sting out of Wexford’s early enthusiasm. It will be one way to silence what is expected to be a huge Wexford crowd in Thurles.
Clare’s experience can be key. Apart from the fact that they’ve five players in captain Tony Kelly, Aaron Cunningham, Séadna Morey, Colm Galvin and Cathal O’Connell going for their third All-Ireland Under 21 on the field of play, it’s the shared experiences of squad and management over much of the past five years that has welded them into something of an unstoppable force.
And those shared experiences have shaped them – the losing of the All-Ireland minor final to Kilkenny in 2010 and then the semi-final to Galway the following year – have made them.
And it’s why their march to a third All-Ireland title in a row, something as ‘annamh’ as it is ‘iontach’ at this level outside the exploits of Cork in the late ’60 and early ‘70s, Tipperary from ’79 to ’81 and Limerick in the early millennium has had an ominous and inevitable look about it all season.
Yes, Wexford might look at the match programme, see the amount of All-Ireland medallists at Under 21 and senior level are among the Clare players and be inspired by it all.
After all, Liam Dunne’s senior were certainly so, but there’s an equal chance that they’ll be intimidated by the sheer weight of All-Ireland gold that’s there.
The knowledge that’s there among the Clare players – they’ve been there, done that and fully expect to do it again will count for a lot on Saturday night. Indeed, when measured up against the way things used to be at Under 21 level for – those 12 Munster final defeats before the big breakthrough in the final down in Fraher Field in 2009 – Clare couldn’t be in a better place.
With an All-Ireland on the line, with the shot of an historic three-in-a-row on the line this vast reservoir of past achievement and experience that Clare will be drawing from is what will make the difference coming down the stretch.
They will win this All-Ireland – defeat just isn’t part of the lexicon of this team and the men behind it. It’s the imposter that that has been faced down belligerently over the past couple of years and will be again on Saturday.
Then it will be onwards and upwards towards those senior All-Irelands that Ger Loughnane spoke of at the medal ceremony back in 2012.

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