Clare’s love triangle with football and hurling comes to a head
The dual county’s weekend of possibility is underlined with a note of caution
Clare’s Patrick O’Connor leads the team during the parade before the Munster senior hurling championship semi-final against Limerick. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
“It is a big evening for Clare football,” says Colm Collins of the arrival of the Mayo footballers for a knockout qualifier in Ennis, even as the hurling fraternity counts down the hours to tomorrow’s Munster hurling final against Cork in Thurles.
It’s big for all of Clare: about as crowded a weekend of excitement and possibility as any one county could hope for. But it is underlined with a note of caution. The footballers are outsiders in their bid to unseat Mayo in what promises to be a fascinating game on prime-time Saturday television, while the Cork hurlers are suddenly ablaze this summer and could well extend Clare’s 19-year wait for a Munster title.
Ger Loughnane’s stinging dismissal of Clare’s exuberant 2013 All-Ireland triumph – “the greatest fluke of all time” – was issued after their underwhelming win over Limerick last month, but it has followed the team in their preparation for Cork, the team they beat in that dreamily open and high-scoring September draw and replay almost four years ago.
Whether that verdict is touching on a harsh truth or is just a classic case of Loughnane kvetching for the fun of it doesn’t matter. What is undeniable is that the young hurlers struggled to fully tap into that ethereal brand in the two years afterwards, regardless of how much Davy Fitzgerald believed in them.
The 2015 Allianz League final was a further advertisement of their potential, but their intricate style has sometimes been difficult to locate. That is one of the reasons why tomorrow’s match in Thurles feels particularly significant.
In April, Conor Lehane of Cork said the All-Ireland final, which Clare drew after Domhnall O’Donovan’s last-gasp, timeless point, was actually a worse feeling than losing the subsequent replay. Lehane and most of Cork were just beginning to accept that they were All-Ireland champions. No team has come closer, and since finishing second-best that year, Cork went into a tailspin only to soar without warning over the past couple of months. In the meantime, Clare supportersare waiting for their team to threaten again.
“That tickets are like gold dust tells its own story,” says Robbie Hogan, who managed Ballyea to its first county title last year. The club then went on a winter run which ended in an All-Ireland final against Cuala, which the Dublin giants won. There is a sense that the wellbeing of Clare hurling is wrapped up in the exceptional competitiveness of the club competition within the county. It has become an annual dog fight and very difficult to call.
At Clare’s recent media day, joint manager Donal Maloney, in chronicling the relative scarcity of Munster senior hurling titles, pointed out that while hurling is ingrained in the make-up of the county, there are not huge numbers playing the game.
“We certainly don’t have the number of clubs that Cork does,” says Hogan. “But I think that the club championship is so competitive reflects well on the quality. It isn’t just a numbers game. Crusheen are the only team to retain their titles in the last 13 years. Tipp have Thurles Sars, Cork have Glen Rovers. There is no club in Clare dominating. Crusheen and Cratloe are drawn this year in the losers’ group. Ballyea and Sixmilebridge, who won in 2015, are drawn in the next round. And they were beaten by Wolfe Tones last year, who had come from intermediate.
“So it is a real minefield. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Kilmaley have led the light in underage success were actually relegated at senior last year. And they were in a group with Newmarket, who lead the way for titles won historically. So it is just very competitive. Ballyea lost the first game last year and we wouldn’t have been given a hope at that point of winning a county title. There is no secret. It is just really competitive.”
Hogan has stepped down after five years in the post but is optimistic about the future of the club and of Clare in general. He believes that, despite the calendar pressures, the county-club environment is symbiotic.
“Definitely. I think that guys like Tony [Kelly] come back to the club scene, and their input brings on the club lads another level. You can see that across the clubs. The intercounty and U-21 players are used to a standard and that has helped to develop the club standard in Clare.”
Clare are finding hurlers in the old football strongholds, and Colm Collins’s son Podge committed to playing both hurling and football for the county last year. This year he opted to commit to the hurling squad, a decision his father supports. As it turned out, Clare footballers were one of the stories of last summer, beating Sligo and Roscommon on their way to a historic All-Ireland quarter-final appearance, where they suffered the cosmic misfortune of meeting Kerry, their habitual oppressors in the Munster arena.
But it was notable that in discussing Kerry’s Munster title in Killarney last Sunday, manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice emphasised that Clare had “shown what they are about” in their convincing win over Laois on the previous evening and he predicted that they will “keep showing it”. Clare’s football progress in recent seasons hasn’t been lost on Fitzmaurice.
The painstaking honesty of effort with which they have dragged themselves from the fringes of relevance should be proof enough of what can happen in all other struggling counties. Joe Hayes, the team’s long-serving goalkeeper told this newspaper’s Malachy Clerkin last summer of an afternoon in which he tended goal in a Division Four league match against Kilkenny and counted the total attendance at the game in Ennis. Twelve showed up. It’s a haunting story but one that Hayes could share, because by then Clare had climbed into Division Two.
“The players are the reason that we are here,” says Collins. “I think the essential thing is that a great group of players came together who had a dedicated mindset. They were prepared to do whatever was needed and to put in the hours. There are fantastic people in the background, too. When you go out and prepare a team, it is not to be second best. You want to reap the best out of them. And if it follows that that happens, then you are right up there with whomever. What is very important is that you are tested by playing against better opposition.
“In Division Two there are quite a lot of good teams. The thing you see immediately is that any little mistake is punished. If you hand over the ball cheaply it is going to end up in a score for the opposition. So you suddenly realise the value of hanging on to the ball. It is all part of it. I have always felt that the higher level you play at, the better you get. And I’d prefer to be tested than to be comfortable in a division below.”
Tonight in Ennis is a steep test and a tantalising proposition. There is a sense that Mayo right now are travelling somewhere between the vulnerability of their loss against Galway and the bloody-mindedness that has enabled them to cast off a series of huge disappointments in recent years. But still, Ennis represents the road less taken for Mayo: a tricky detour on their mission to scale September. For the Clare football community, the co-ordinates are simpler. It’s a golden opportunity to do something special.
“One of the things we spoke about at the start was getting those teams like Kerry or Dublin or Mayo playing in Ennis,” says Collins. “So yeah, it is great to see Mayo coming here. It is a big evening for Clare football. Mayo have been one of the top teams in Ireland. They have been fantastic. How many counties would love to have a team like Mayo to support? I think they are a great side. So this is very positive for us.
“From a football point of view, it is nice to be spoken about as much as the hurlers for a change. And it is a fantastic weekend for Clare with the Munster final to come and our minor hurlers getting there as well.”
But it is all tenuous. The divide between Kerry, the perennial football county, and Clare, a dual county, was made painfully clear by the final scoreline at last week’s Munster minor final. Getting there was an achievement for the Clare teenagers but they were unable to live with Kerry’s abundant quality over the hour.
Meanwhile, Clare’s 1997 All-Ireland winning hurling team had a reunion to mark the 20th anniversary of that success last weekend. This year’s vintage scraped through their semi-final after extra time against Limerick and Sunday will be the first time since 1997 that Clare will feature both minor and senior teams on the Munster final match-day programme.
Cork are at their most dangerous in resurgence and if these days are coloured with history, then they have most of it: 51 titles won to Clare’s six. Still, this is one of the few titles that an exceptional group of Clare hurlers has yet to win. A crucial 24 hours for both sides of the house for Clare, then, full of dazzling questions on the verge of answers.