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
Butler advocated a vision of how to develop a more complete hurler, concentrating not just on speed of hand or first touch or a natural swing – the qualities that might push a knacky kid onto an average minor team – but on the concerted development of a player’s physical prowess, hurling skill and intuition.
The partnership of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, who have guided Clare to three All-Ireland Under-21 titles in the last five years, has been well documented. And if there was an element of serendipity about the fact that Paul Kinnerk happened to get a job teaching P.E, in Shannon, it still required an open mind on the part of Moloney and O’Connor to approach him.
As a Limerick footballer, Kinnerk was not the most obvious fit. But his fastidious approach to technique and his innovative drills have been praised as being central to the staggering progress players made. Clare’s unprecedented rush of U-21 success has backboned this year’s All-Ireland gallop. The return last year of Davy Fitzgerald to take up the reins as senior county manager completed the picture.
“We are probably here two years before our time,” Peter Casey said. “It has made our job easier in terms of coaching the next group coming through.
“A year ago the thought of being in an All-Ireland final was wishful thinking. But how it happened is, I think, a culmination of 30 or 40 different things, including luck. Certainly, the coaching of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, the five years they spent with that crop from U-16 to U-21 and bringing in Paul Kinnerk. And losing the minor final (in 2010) might have been a blessing in disguise for them in that it kept the players sharp. Things fell into place.
“You couldn’t say it was any one thing. We could do the same thing with another group and get different results.”
It has helped that the several members of Clare’s feted 1990s team got involved to steer the Clare development squads.
“Myself, Jamesie, Jim McInerney, Brian Quinn and Seán O’Halloran just got together to see if we could help push it on,” says Seánie McMahon.
“We are there the last four years so in reality none of the current players have come through our set-up. Much of the credit for the players that have come through in recent years goes to Seán O’Halloran.
“What we have tried to do is take what he has done and work with the next group. I think the development squad gives a player the last five or 10 per cent. The real credit should be going to the clubs. Tony Kelly, for instance, came into the development squad as a very good player. So the clubs are coaching at a very high level, particularly the rural clubs which have less numbers.
“Clare went nine or 10 years without winning a significant match at underage. It was too long. Now, I think people realised that themselves. We hadn’t done it before and we had to go out and do this work. And I don’t think we are doing anything too different from other hurling counties . . . .”
After that, it was down to hard work – on the part of the youngsters as much as the coaches. Peter Casey was involved in coaching the U-15 group of which Shane O’Donnell was part. Even then, O’Donnell’s dedication was phenomenal. He had not been part of the U-14 squad and showed a ravenous appetite for improvement which he has maintained in his college years, travelling from UCC two and three nights a week to make Clare training.
“Maybe other lads were more talented when they were 15 but didn’t put in that effort and he is getting his just rewards. And that is someone to point to now for the next group of lads.”
It wasn’t an overnight transition. Colin Ryan had played with the minors for two years before winning a game of note. And the Moloney/O’Connor partnership might easily have been dissolved after the 2008 Munster minor-semi final when Clare were comprehensively beaten by Waterford.