Banner folk basking in the glow of unexpected glory
All-Ireland triumphs are a rare event in Clare and the mood in the county has been transformed by a famous victory
Clare supporters mob Shane O’Donnell after the GOAL challenge game at Sixmilebridge. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald with the Liam MacCarthy cup at his home town of Sixmilebridge. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
In Sixmilebridge, there is a row of houses so close to the GAA pitch people can keep one eye on the television and another on the match outside their living-room window. So on Wednesday night, a handful of people could watch the new All-Ireland champions from their arm chairs if they so wished. The Clare team were playing on their doorstep.
The GOAL challenge is a ritual that has somehow survived the bedlam which grips all counties in the days after an All-Ireland win. “Ecstatic,” said Pat Donnellan, the Clare captain when asked how he felt before the challenge game. “ Never seen the lads looking so fresh.” The rain held off and the place was teeming with youngsters lost in the new thrill of it all. But Clare people who recall the period in the 1990s, when their team was the best and easily the most compelling team in Ireland, must have been stunned by the suddenness with which this feeling – of magic somehow captured – has come back to them.
For too many years, there was a sense Clare hurling had had its moment. Someone put up a You Tube post six years ago entitled Clare hurling 1995-1999 set to A Beautiful Affair by Stockton’s Wing, as if the possibilities for the Banner game were trapped within that period. Even Davy Fitzgerald, in a remarkable interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ this week, admitted the scenes transported him back to 1995 and ’97, when he was a skinny bundle of nervous energy and defiance keeping goal for a great team.
But Saturday last felt brand new. It was the most bewitching conclusion to any All-Ireland championship, hurling or football. The wisdom of holding the game on a Saturday evening was forgotten as the evening, more by accident than design, became perfect. “That is just sinking in over the last day or two,” admitted Louis Mulqueen on Wednesday night. The selector was wearing Conor McGrath’s number 15 jersey having lined out in the GOAL match. He leaned against a van near the dressingrooms and noted that he hasn’t had a chance to watch the match yet.
“I’m looking forward to putting it on and sitting back and enjoying it. Because only when Darach (Honan) got the goal was the game put to bed. It has been a great year’s hurling and to win a very good game with excellent hurling which youngsters will want to emulate – the speed of movement and eight goals in a final – to come out on top of that was terrific.”
Mulqueen seems to have been around the Clare hurling scene forever. He was a selector with the All-Ireland minor winning side of 1997. The new All-Ireland champions are surrounded by hundreds of youngsters, signing autographs and shirts and hurls. It is 9pm and as Pat Donnellan assured people beforehand, nobody was in any rush away. Near the dressingrooms, people were lining up to get their picture taken with the MacCarthy Cup. There was no preciousness or any big deal.
When the Guardian newspaper ran its editorial in praise of the spirit and amateurism of the GAA and the All-Ireland hurling final as the best of sport, its readers could have had little clue as to what happens when then contest is won. It is one thing to see the Clare captain hold the cup aloft in a magnificent stadium with bunting falling, a scene redolent of any of the great world sporting events. But it is another to see the same cup being passed between two five-year-old children just four nights later.
Just like that, being All-Ireland champions becomes an intensely local thing. These scenes are familiar to Clare hurling lifers like Mulqueen who recall the happiness of their last All-Ireland. The big question is: what now? “Look, it has been brilliant to see it building slowly and then exploding once we got to the quarter-final. Just to see the bunting and young kids responding, it has been electric. I have been teaching the past few days and the buzz it has given people is incredible. And that is one of the things Davy and ourselves sat down and wanted to bring to Clare hurling.
“Now, how do you keep that? We have gotten to the top very quickly. But you are looking to keep it with young lads. There are a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds out there. They are back playing championship at the weekend. The celebrations ended tonight. Our job is to see if we can strengthen our panel and bring in players who can play the pattern we like. We want to keep players on their toes and keep the panel fresh.
“There is second-season syndrome but I can’t see the hunger going. We waited 11 years just to get back to a final. We had no senior medal on our team. I think the hunger and enthusiasm will be there but they will be a more confident team.”
Last year, Clare were beaten 3-18 to 1-20 by Limerick in phase three of the qualifiers. Two years ago Tipperary bounced them out of the Munster championship with three goals to spare and they headed to Salthill where Galway beat them by 4-25 to 0-20. Donnellan, John Conlon, Brendan Bugler, Conor McGrath, Cian Dillon, Liam Markham and Nicky O’Connell all featured that day. Clare’s progress this season has been incredible, something Padraic Collins reflected on after last Saturday night’s win.
Little over a year ago, the Doonbeg man was more associated with the senior football team than hurling team and he recalled playing a football match for the county against University of Limerick in January 2012 while the hurlers were meeting in a boxing ring in Ennis. “In February of last year I got sick and I was on the football at the time and I couldn’t get back into it when I came back – the physicality of the football the way it’s gone. I got a chance to come into the hurling and was lucky enough to get my place.”
Collins has been a phenomenally busy and positive force for Clare this summer. As Donnellan acknowledged during the week, the arrival of Clare’s U-21 players transformed the set- up.
“The young lads have shown us the way to a certain degree and its flooding through to the senior team and it’s brilliant for the county. When Davy came in he put great belief in us – we knew there was quality there with the lads coming from the 21s.There’s no one looking for perfection out there, you’re just trying to do your best – get on the ball, block a fella or do something like that and the little things add up.”
It didn’t fall into place overnight. In his post-match press conference, Fitzgerald referred to the blunt criticism the management had received over the summer when Clare’s short, precise passing game was not yielding the results in the Munster championship. As Mulqueen sees it now, it was a matter of maintaining their nerve.
“The blueprint Davy put together was based on a three- or four-year period and it began to come good for us in the qualifiers. We saw flashes for 20 or 25 minutes and it would go again. It was there more consistently against Limerick and again against Cork in the final. But we were learning all the time. We went out of it for 20 minutes and again in the replay when we didn’t score for 18 minutes and Cork drew level. But we learned in the replay how to finish off the game. It has been a learning curve.
“I think it helped that the younger players were winners at minor and under-21 and had beaten Kilkenny and the big names. But many counties have had underage teams and haven’t fulfilled. I was there with the minor team in 1997 – John Reddan was a centre-back of phenomenal skill. Yet not many made the breakthrough. And now they are feeding into a developing team and made their place. Tony Kelly has the 11, Colm Galvin the eight shirt.”
When Davy Fitzgerald made his entrance to keep goal during Wednesday night’s game, his forwards welcomed him by firing two quick shots past him. “Trying to give them a bit of confidence,” Fitzgerald said to the crowd. The crowd laughed as Fitzgerald manned the goalmouth, the place where he had stood for 18 seasons with Clare. He was joking but the line summed up what has happened in Clare. The confidence has flooded back into their game.
Time and again on Wednesday evening, people in the crowd told one another that what they had witnessed in the past few weeks was “unbelievable”. That is what happens when you come from a county that has been All-Ireland champions just four times in 123 years. You can easily presume that you just won’t live to see it again.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Fitzgerald in the revival. From his first days in the Clare colours, he has always been a force of nature. Since he started coaching, he has gained a reputation for running innovative training sessions, for having perfectionist’s obsession with tiny details and most of all for communicating his unique, slow-burning passion.
The championship has become a “results business”. Already, questions await this Clare team. Can they win it again? Can they win a Munster title now? What of Kilkenny, where the idea of Nowlan Park padlocked and dark on a GOAL All-Ireland night is strange to think about. But these are questions for later. It is important to remember why so many players and managers devote themselves to the competition winter after winter. It is for the outside chance to have nights like they had in Sixmilebridge, where team and fans alike felt as if they were on top of the world.
The players stayed on the pitch for up to an hour signing autographs. Shane O’Donnell, whose replay heroics have seen him eclipse the cast of One Direction as the ideal pin-up for youngsters in Clare was trapped on the field by a cordon of determined young girls wielding pens and autographs. Afterwards, he was trapped in the dressingroom as young fans refused to leave. Eventually, it took a Garda escort to get him from the ground to the team bus. This weekend, he will be back to hurling with his club and some kind of normality.
“What I found unreal is the reaction from all over the country,” Fitzgerald told RTÉ radio as he sat in his parents’ house. “We were playing that for counties that never get a chance or don’t get there too often. Did it remind me of the 90s and that? It did. They were tough days in between and you are always saying: can we have one more day?”
See all the doors swing open.