All-Ireland U21 Final: Gerry O’Connor’s cause worth fighting for

Past experience seems to have shaped Clare’s Under 21 experiences over the past few years, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who in conversation with joint-manager Gerry O’Connor draws parallels between the Banner County and Kerry’s ‘Golden Years’.

WHEN Mick O’Dwyer was commander-in-chief through the Kerry ‘Golden Years’ the biggest thing he tasked himself with every year was finding a cause to hitch the cavalcade to once more. That something worth fighting for, the constant thing over the team, the reference point for everything the team was about in that particular year.
And, bar Seamus Darby’s intervention, it nearly always worked.
In ‘80 against Roscommon the flames were stoked by the loss of the four-in-a-row at Under 21 level in ‘78 when the Rossies ambushed them in the final played at The Hyde.
In ‘81 it was the four-in-a-row – the team from ‘29 to ‘32 had done it; the team from ‘39 to ‘42 should have done it; the team of ‘78 to ‘81 were always going to do it.
In ‘82 it was the drive for five that ultimately suffocated them, but in a strange kind of way it only served to fuel a hunger for more causes.
Causes like the challenge of winning the Centenary Year All-Ireland, which would be the coronation of their blueblood status; the cause celebre of Páidí Ó Sé’s year of captaincy – he had a new pub with an in-built plinth for Sam Maguire, so who were the rest of the Kerry players to deny the Ventry sentry his storybook ending.
Mick O’Dwyer and the motivational tools he used to drag more and more from his players certainly come to mind when you think of Clare’s underage management gurus.
Theirs is a hard station – they’ve done it all at underage level in the last few years, but in what is a job of journeywork as much as O’Dwyer’s was with Kerry, one is never enough and they want more, hitching their cause onto something new as they go about their business.
Take 2012 and the All-Ireland final joust with Kilkenny. You sense there wasn’t need for many dressing room words before that one, with the Cats having pilfered an All-Ireland title from their grasp two years previously with second half goals from Michael Brennan and Paul Buggy.
It was no wonder that O’Connor said ahead of that All-Ireland showdown in Thurles: “These guys feel that they have a lot of unfinished business from minor level”.
“There was the All-Ireland final,” said Dónal Moloney name-checking that previous experience against Kilkenny. “We were crestfallen, and while it’s still about producing players at that level, we also want to win an All-Ireland along the way,” he added. They did just that.
It was the same in 2013, the whole thing driving the team that year was 2010 again.
“The minor team we had in 2010,” said O’Connor, “this is their final year at Under 21 and their chance to do it in their year,” he added.
And, so it is that once 2014 came around and when Gerry O’Connor, Dónal Moloney et al gathered for the first time and plotted their path for the year, the plucked another cause from their scrapbook of past battles.
“The minor team of three years ago,” O’Connor, “was a team we always felt was the most talented minor team we had. The most skilful, the most talented group at that age group we had ever come across.
“But talented and all as they were, we there was one question that we were never sure that they had. It was this – when Galway came at us with ten minutes to go in that All-Ireland minor semi-final (in 2011) we felt that maybe the very, very skillful players weren’t really strong leaders at that time,” he adds.
That was then.
Clare didn’t close out that game when it came to withstanding Galway’s dying kick that day, got caught and visibly deflated by that experience they were beaten in extra-time.
This is now.
Leadership unquestioned, instead just a given and omni-present to go with all the talent, skill and raw natural ability throughout the squad.
“The challenge for us was to see them grow into leaders,” says O’Connor. “I think that question was unceremoniously answered in the second half against Tipperary in the Munster semi-final. That was when we knew what this group was made of.
“We always knew we had the skill. We had the pace and we had the application and we had the players, but we didn’t really know for sure if the leaders were in that group.
“When we went four points down with 15 minutes to go. Tipperary were winning possession all over the field and were on top of us. That’s when the leaders stood up. And they were in every line on the field.
“We’re far more confident now than we were at the start of the year. We knew the skill was there, we just wanted to be sure that they had developed into real leaders and they certainly did that.”
Now, it’s just a case of more of the same to bookend yet another year to September.
“We had very ambitious plans at the start of the season and that season involved setting out our goals. We achieved all those goals – get back into a Munster final, get back into an All-Ireland final and win it,” says O’Connor.
“We feel it’s going to be a hugely competitive challenge from Wexford. We’ve studied them to death on DVDs and seen them live in Thurles. They have strengths and weaknesses.
“The one thing that sticks out is defensively they’ve only conceded one goal over four games – that’s a sign of a fairly good defence. They have a strong full-forward line of McDonald, Nolan and Rhys Clarke.
“The big advantage Wexford have over Clare is their aerial ability. It was very evident against the seniors, on both days, that physically and aerially Wexford dominated Clare and they did the same to Galway in the 21 semi-final. Their half-back line were outstanding against Galway, even under the threat of Johnny Glynn. And, in Jack Guiney and Nolan on the other wing they have a very formidable half-forward line as well. We have to put a plan in place to combat their aerial ability.
“But the thing that we think really stands to them is that we felt two or three times in the second half against Galway that they were dead and buried ñ that Galway were going to take over, particularly the time when they went four points up. Wexford just never, ever gave in. They have savage spirit within the group and that’s something that’s going to be a significant challenge for us to break down.”
But as ever with Clare, the fact that Wexford represent something completely different to what’s gone before is the thing that makes it all the more appealling and special even – that extra cause within the greater cause.
“It’s another game, of course it’s hugely important, but always done it in the past that you play the game, not the occasion. It’s another game and it’s an opportunity for us to answer some serious questions that will be posed to us on the day. It’s a huge, huge, huge challenge.
“It’s a test. We love tests. The bigger the occasion and the bigger the test the more these guys relish it all. It will ultimately come down to these guys performing to the very limits of their ability. That’s what it’s all about.”
They’ve always done that.
You sense they’re not about to change the habit of their lifetime as Under 21s now.

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