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
They recognised that the Waterford lads were physically stronger and technically better than their charges and admitted as much in seeking a second term from their county board.
That secured, they set about rectifying those faults by seeking as much advice as they could and by putting those teams at the epicentre of their lives. The heartbreak of the 2008 Munster Under-21 hurling final, when a late free on a technical infringement gave Tipperary a victory, led to Clare’s first All-Ireland at that grade in 2009. Another title followed in 2012 and this year’s side cruised to a second consecutive title a week after the drawn All-Ireland final.
Munster minor champions in 2010 and 2011 and All-Ireland runners-up in 2010, there is no question that the county’s bleak underage record has been tackled. Like all Clare hurling people, Kevin Kennedy has been thrilled with the startling impact Clare’s underage teams have made in recent years.
In 1997, the minor management did scour the county for talent and 15 clubs were represented on that team. But along with Sean O’Halloran, who was a selector then, they were scouting around indiscriminately looking for players. Now, there is a system in place.
“It is definitely better organised now and there is a big emphasis on skill,” Kennedy says. “The game has moved on from ‘97 now anyhow.”
The pace and skill with which the Clare senior team has hurled this summer has impressed many. The common observation is Clare are the latest team to change the way other teams will think about and coach hurling. Their predecessors in 1995 raised the bar for all other counties with a phenomenal training regime.
The current Clare play a controlled, measured game at an incredible sustained pace. The winning legacy of the past few years has given them the belief to implement it. Clare have underlined the notion that more than ever, it is a young man’s game.
“If you go back 10 or 15 years ago you would be saying that the peak of a player came at around 27 or 28,” says McMahon. “The game has changed and you might be seeing the peak at 24 or 25. You can talk and explain things to a lad but it is only be experiencing it that players get to know and feel what playing senior hurling is like.
“And I think in fairness when Sparrow [former manager Ger O’Loughlin] was over the team that is what he did. A lot of the team that is there now would have gone through his hands and experienced a few hard defeats and I think in fairness to him, he said: ‘we need to go with youth. We need to fire them in. We are not going to win the All-Ireland but they need to learn.’ And that is what he did. . . . . Hard defeats are the days you learn more than any day you win.”
For those excruciating few seconds at the end of this year’s drawn final, it seemed as if Clare’s young players were about to experience that truism in the toughest way possible.
Clare still have to add the lone splendour of that 1997 All-Ireland minor title. The stars of that day never got to hurl for Clare in Croke Park on a championship day again and had to live with the frustrations of that. By sunset tonight, Clare may or may not be the All-Ireland senior champions again but either way, they won’t be forgetting about the next generation.