Back in September, 2010, Clare minor captain Paul Flanagan led his side onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park on All-Ireland final day after a thrilling breakthrough year in which they captured Munster success for the first time in 26 years.

That brave effort ultimately ended in All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny but while it was his last year at minor, it would be only the beginning for Clare’s unprecedented haul of success since. The Banner would retain their Munster crown the following year before embarking on a historic three-in-a-row of Munster and All-Ireland Under 21 crowns, with Flanagan an integral part of the first two and captaining the second in 2013 in what was a remarkable show of redemption against Kilkenny.

And for Flanagan and a large chunk of his 2010 colleagues, there would also be All-Ireland senior and National League honours to come, not to even mention his club exploits that included an Under 21A hurling and football double in 2012 before Ballyea went into overdrive in 2016.

Still, on the eve of All-Ireland Club Final day, it’s hard to believe considering his impressive hurling CV that this is Flanagan’s first appearance in Croke Park since that 2-10 to 0-14 reverse to the Cats almost seven years previously.

“It’s a good while ago alright. At the time, you think that you’re onto a good thing and that this will keep going but it’s a lesson that you really have to seize the opportunities when you get them. We saw that when we were there as minors that on a day like that, there’s no point thinking too much about it, you just go and seize it as much as you can. And that’s something that we will be focusing on this Friday.

“We’re ready now to test ourselves really. It’s been five or six weeks since we got through to the final and even training the last few weeks since the Thomas’ game has been great but at the end of the day, you’re looking forward to testing yourself in a real match, that’s what we all base ourselves on.”

While the evaluations have been thin on the ground since Ballyea’s county and munster breakthrough back in November with only an All-Ireland semi-final in the intervening four months, Flanagan feels that the collective spirit and understanding built up over nine knock-out games since August has only strengthened.

“And it’s funny how that happens with teams. We’ve seen it throughout the years that the eventual All-Ireland champions don’t necessarily start out great and it’s been the same with us.

The year started tough enough with an opening loss to Éire Óg but since then the lads have really rowed in and trained hard and gone after it and a great bond has been formed. And I suppose you just really bounce off that momentum then as the year goes on.

“So that has been great for us that you just go into every game really looking forward to it and wanting to perform rather that playing with any fear.”

“We’re ready now to test ourselves really. It’s been five or six weeks since we got through to the final and even training the last few weeks since the Thomas’ game has been great but at the end of the day, you’re looking forward to testing yourself in a real match, that’s what we all base ourselves on.”

So what was decidedly different in 2016 to previous county championship bids?

“I think it’s a couple of things and like a lot of clubs, first and foremost, we were really wondering how we would get over the line? That is the first thing, you want to try and solve how to get there.

“And the second thing is that we were lucky that we got a group together collectively. After we were beaten with Clare unfortunately, we got the chance to train together and really develop together as a team.

“And it was just that timing of getting to know each other that bit better and getting to play together that bit more that eventually grew as it went on.”

There’s only one more hurdle for Flanagan and Co. to clamber for the perfect year. And having played in three All-Ireland deciders, the versatile defender feels that Ballyea’s leadership is invaluable to the ultimate triumph against Cuala on St Patrick’s Day.

“Across the game, it will happen that some players have a purple patch and be going better than other guys and lads will fill in and row in. And that has been the key thing with this team that even when you’re training, there’s a real collective unit there where lads can really improve themselves right across the board and lads take responsibility then across the board in matches.

“Listen, you might never get the opportunity again, a lot of teams don’t get a run like that again so it’s there to go after and we just can’t wait to be honest.”

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Eoin Brennan is the legendary sports hack who has been known to play around with the caman for his beloved Clarecastle. Eoin is currently PRO of Clarecastle GAA Club. Eoin's other love is spreading the gospel of Hurling and Football through his involvement in www.gogaelic.ie. Contact Eoin on [email protected]

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