Organised Banner reaping the rewards for the systematic nurturing of underage talent
From 2000-2007 Clare hardly won an underage game of note – now they are the game’s emerging standard-bearers
Clare’s U-21 joint managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney have played a big role in preparing the county’s new wave of talented hurlers. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
September 14th, 1997 was the high water mark for Clare hurling. Another terrific summer for the old game was pared down to an All-Ireland final between Clare and their age-old rivals Tipperary, who had unceremoniously evicted them from Munster fields year after year.
In the context of the unbearable drama of the closing minutes of this year’s drawn final, it is worth remembering that the closing act of the 1997 final gripped the country as well.
Clare were one point clear when John Leahy got the ball in space and the Clare goal in his sights. He went for broke, rejecting the safety of an easy point and a probable draw by firing a low, skipping shot to Davy Fitzgerald’s right. The Sixmilebridge man coolly pushed the ball to safety, Liam Doyle cleared and that was it. Clare were All-Ireland champions.
Earlier in the afternoon, Clare minors had won the curtain raiser, becoming the first team to win an All-Ireland championship through the back-door route. Minor and senior champions; in September ’97 the Banner County was the envy of the hurling world.
When that great Clare team gradually began to fragment and Cork and Kilkenny reasserted the old order, one of the most common gripes in the county was that they had failed to bring young players through when they were riding high. They paid a high price for it.
Just three years after that minor All-Ireland, Clare entered a shocking period when, with the exception of a few wins over Kerry, they did not win a minor or under-21 championship match from 2000 to 2007.
Their lone senior All-Ireland final appearance in 2002 was forged on veteran brilliance and a select supply of younger players. But it was significant that not one of the 1997 minor champions made it through to senior championship level.
“It was tough to break in,” says Kevin Kennedy, who coached that side. “I had been with those guys since they were U-14 at a Tony Forristal tournament when they reached the final. Personally, I felt they were probably the second best team in the country after Tipperary – Kelly and Philip Maher came through that team. Davy Fitz had them as well at U-14.
“Look, our minor team was heavily dependent on defence. We didn’t score much but didn’t concede much either. So in the senior team you had Brian and Frank Lohan, Seánie (McMahon) and they were only 24 or 25 at that time. Brian Quinn and David Hoey were fighting for places. So it was hard to break into that side.
“Some lads were on the panel for years but they never really established a presence there. Still, I don’t think it would have happened in Kilkenny, when Cody was bringing in new players all the time. But we had been successful in ’95 and ’97 and maybe managers weren’t interested in changing things too much. In fairness, if Cyril Lyons had stayed on after 2002, I do think he would have brought more of those players through.”
Sometime after 2007, it was as if a torch was shone all over Clare and everyone who cared about hurling there just went to work. Talk to anyone about what caused Clare’s transformation from the county that couldn’t buy a win at underage grade to the county that is now the brand leader in youth coaching and several key chapters are referenced.
The phenomenal energy invested by Seán O’Halloran, the Bord na nOg chairman was critical – 2007 was the year he headed over to Kilkenny to talk with people about what they could do with Clare to address their miserable underage record. When Paudie Butler was giving his barnstorming tour of Ireland as national hurling co-ordinator, he had an eager audience in Clare open to all ideas and methodology.
Peter Casey, the Clare development officer, has said the transformation of Clare hurling can be sourced to a one-hour session that Butler gave in the autumn of 2006.