Being the first Tubber man ever to captain Clare into championship, 2017’s appointment should have been a just reward for Patrick O’Connor’s consistency over the past few seasons. An ever-present in Clare’s last 18 championship ties and appearing in all but one of the Banner’s 23 championship outings since his debut against Tipperary in 2011, that undoubted honour has been tainted slightly by the fact that due to injury, he hasn’t featured in Clare’s ten matches in the Munster and National Leagues under the new managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney.
Following Tubber’s Intermediate Championship Semi-Final exit to Broadford, his decision to correct a shoulder complaint actually turned out to be a more complicated surgery that initially expected and as a result, it’s been a relatively frustrating recuperation process to get back into the reckoning.
“It was a hugely difficult time, something that was very hard to adjust to. I mean you normally train during the week to play at weekends but not being able to do that or even tog out made it a very difficult time. There were times watching matches that you’d have just loved to have been out on the field but I suppose it’s just part and parcel of sport these days, you’re going to get injuries as sport is so fast and attritional now.
“Look, overall I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to date that I’ve never really had a long term injury so hopefully I have this one out of the way and that’s my quota filled for a while.
“The injury was a weird one as I don’t even remember getting a bang on my shoulder or anything like that but when the surgeon operated, she found that there was quite a bit of damage done and it was probably just wear and tear over a length of time more than anything else. She said there were three small things wrong with it so it just took a bit of time and thanks be to God, with the brilliant help from the people in Santry, it’s as right as rain now and ready to go.”
Whether this Sunday’s Munster Championship bow has just come too soon for O’Connor to have fully impressed his new management team is still unknown but with any injury concerns now behind him, the Tubber man is at least back in contention for a starting place after a seemingly interminable period on the sidelines.
“One thing that kind of stood to me was that I had done all the conditional work with the lads from the early stages, it’s just the hurling I couldn’t do so any running I was able to do.
“It’s funny, I was probably doing more training really than I’d usually do because when you didn’t have to be fresh for the weekend and playing matches, you could train in consecutive days no problem and could train really hard.
“I think that helped in getting up to speed initially when I came back into full training but the contact and the hurling did take time to get used to again. I think my first game was a Clare Cup match and I was thinking to myself, ‘will I ever be able for full hurling again?‘ but it does come back and the standard of training we have inside is excellent too so that really helps. “Players demand a very high quality off each other in training so that helped a lot. Now i’m not saying I am up to speed, if I get game time on Sunday we’ll know where I stand but I’m very happy with the training I’ve done since I came back.”
Without O’Connor, Conor McGrath, Patrick Donnellan, Shane O’Donnell, David McInerney, Colm Galvin, Oisin O’Brien and Conor Ryan along with the five strong Ballyea contingent of Tony Kelly, Gearoid O’Connell, Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne and Niall Deasy for varying periods of the season, Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor were forced to delve into their squad to find new ‘soldiers’ to lead the line, a development that has only enhanced the competition for places according to the Clare skipper.
“Allied to the injuries and the Ballyea boys doing well with the club, you had guys that played really, really well that wouldn’t have had a whole lot of game-time up to this year. Lads like Jason McCarthy, David Fitz is just in his second year and Ian Galvin as well, they all really showed up as being at this standard and not players for the future at all but are well capable of playing now.
“So ultimately when you look at the health of the squad, that’s a good thing but I suppose for someone like me trying to break back in, it’s not great. But I suppose that’s the situation that is put in front of someone who has missed so many games that you didn’t get the game-time to see what you can do and see where you fit in.
“I’ve kind of played in a couple of positions now so you don’t really know have you left yourself too versatile or can fit into too many holes. But I can’t really think about that, it’s just about getting myself in the best condition possible for the game against Limerick.”
Being Clare’s first Munster Championship meeting with their neighbours since 2015’s agonising minimum quarter-final defeat, O’Connor is also eager to end a topsy-turvy derby record with Limerick, having overcome the Shannonsiders in last year’s All-Ireland Qualifiers.
“You’d have seen so many Clare v Limerick games down the years and the result is never heavily in any of the team’s favour. They’re always close games and it will be no different on Sunday. Clare and Limerick has probably never been more interesting as it is now because the guys Joe [O’Connor] and Paul [Kinnerk] are in with Limerick now and there’s so many guys playing Fitzgibbon together and know each other so well. So along with the great tradition of the fixture, there’s a couple of more aspects to it.
“It should be a great game and hopefully the two sides can serve up something like the Cork v Tipp game because it was an absolutely brilliant start to the Munster Championship and it’s kind of put an extra pep in every hurling man’s step to see the game being played like that.”
And with the added incentive of redressing Clare’s paltry record at provincial level with only one victory in their last ten championship matches, O’Connor feels that Clare are now ready to finally take the direct route to the All-Ireland series.
“It’s something that rankles with us that we haven’t won enough at all in the Munster Championship and it has kind of meant that our year every year has got off to a standing or stuttering start because you first of all have the disappointment of losing a big game that you have been working towards and then you have to go and tackle the qualifier route.
“So certainly the number one focus for us since we’ve come back this year was Limerick on the fourth of June. The prize at stake is massive, a ticket into a Munster final and we were all children of the ’95, ‘97 and ’98 teams so to be putting ourselves in the position of contesting Munster Finals like the guys did back in the 90’s, would be like a dream come true for a lot of us.
“So we’re just really, really focused on a good performance against Limerick, putting to bed the reputation we have in Munster and really putting our best foot forward and seeing where that takes us.”