Banner men still carrying Loughnane flag

 

The charismatic Clare leader’s legacy lives on in Davy Fitzgerald, Anthony Daly and now Ollie Baker. Different coaches but all born to lead, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

WHEN OLLIE Baker walked into the world of the Offaly hurlers, he didn’t talk to them about winning titles or bringing back the glory days, or anything like that. The first thing he told them he wanted was for their people to be able to walk out of a ground after a game having seen their team stand up for itself. Start there and the rest they would deal with in time.

When Anthony Daly fetched up in the lives of the Dublin hurlers, he didn’t challenge them on why they hadn’t won anything. Instead, what he upbraided them for was none of them seemed angry about it. Where was the rage? Why was this okay? Job one for him was to ransack their sense of equanimity.

When Davy Fitzgerald landed back in Clare after his spell with Waterford, he found talent and youth in equal measure and straight away he had his angle. Talent and youth are all very well but there’s a time-sensitivity in everything. The Clare hurlers could have a great future ahead of them but why wait around for it to show up? Three men. Three counties. One team.

A generation on and the Clare hurlers of the mid-1990s still plant their flag smack in the middle of the game’s consciousness. When a quarter of the game’s serious counties draw their managers from a single team that won two All-Irelands a decade and a half ago, it makes for the perfect epilogue to an already compelling yarn. In fact, if you take the team that rolled away the stone in the 1995 All-Ireland final against Offaly, you’ll find that five of them – Daly, Baker, Fitzgerald, Ger O’Loughlin and Cyril Lyons – have all managed at intercounty level since that day. Add in the various bainisteoir bibs worn over the years by Ger Loughnane, Tony Considine and Mike MacNamara and the influence of that one group is ever more obvious.

And chances are, there will be more to follow in time. Brian Lohan’s work with Patrickswell and UL is moving on apace and few people doubt that somewhere in his future is a spell in the Clare hotseat. Liam Doyle has been a Clare selector, as has Fergie Tuohy. Others have taken club sides – like Conor Clancy with Kilmaley and Stephen McNamara with Dublin club Faughs, while still more have been involved at underage level, albeit sometimes more out of duty than desire.

James O’Connor was dragooned into helping out with the Clare minors a few years back, an experience he neither sought nor particularly enjoyed. He doesn’t rule out joining the fray again at some point in the distant future but for now, with a young family, he’s content to watch his erstwhile team-mates put themselves through it. To understand why there’s such a preponderance of managers from that one team, he says you have to first look at the individuals involved.

“Daly was a guy who you always would have said would go on to intercounty management at some stage. He just had the personality for it, the drive for it, the tools for it. He just has so many of the qualities and characteristics that you’d look for in a manager. He’s one of these guys who has charisma, who is a people person just naturally. As a player he had those leadership attributes. The week of a championship match, he’d be up on his toes, full of confidence, full of bullishness, regardless of how well or poorly he’d been going in training.

“Loughnane would have said that Baker was very like Daly in the sense that they both had that swagger about them. You could call it arrogance, for want of a better way of putting it. Ollie and Daly would be very friendly with each other and they would have shared the same outlook and the same bullishness. Daly’s self-belief and confidence would have rubbed off on Baker quite a bit.”

Baker’s last year as a player was Daly’s first as a manager and he’s always said he wouldn’t have hung on for anybody else. When he eventually pulled stumps at the end of 2004, Daly straight away brought him back as a selector. Fitzgerald was coaching club teams and Fitzgibbon Cup teams as his playing career was still going on. Even away back in the very early days, Daly and O’Loughlin managed the Clarecastle minors to a county title in the same year as Clare won that first All-Ireland. Dressingrooms have a draw for men like this.

“Some guys can walk away,” says O’Connor. “They can just decide that they’ve had their day and they have no desire to go back into it. But for other guys, those big days in Croke Park just have this pull. There is the pull of the dressingroom, the training pitches, the camaraderie and some people just can’t leave it behind them. It’s like a drug, it really is.

“The itch is always there to be involved. This is the next best thing to playing. Those big days in Thurles or Limerick or Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Croke Park, some guys just want to experience those again and again and again. If they can’t get out onto the pitch, they’re just mad to be involved in a big way on the sideline, central to it in some shape or form.”

An inability to walk away is hardly unique to Clare, though. Plenty of great teams have old soldiers still searching for new battlefields. They don’t endure like this one has. Every year since they won that first All-Ireland, the roll-call of intercounty managers at the start of the season has featured at least one player/selector/ manager from that Clare side. Maybe it’s just a quirk of timing that has three of that team over intercounty squads in 2012 or maybe there’s a bit more to it. Baker himself has a theory that holds as much weight as any.

“When we were successful as players back in the ’90s, there was always an onus on us as players to go back to our clubs and drive training when we were finished with the county. It was never a matter of just coming back and rowing in with the lads that had been doing the training all through the year. It was more that you were expected to take charge, to run sessions, to set the example.

“That was responsibility you had and that’s what gave you the interest in maybe taking it further when you finished playing. You took a few sessions, maybe took over one of the underage teams, maybe got the odd call from a club in another county seeing would you come down and take a few nights’ training and it just went from there.”

If it was just that Clare themselves decided to lean on that team for as long as there was still puff in their bodies, that would be understandable.

But other counties and teams have come looking for a taste as the years passed. Loughnane went to Galway, Mike Mac to Offaly, Davy Fitz to Waterford. Baker was a selector under Dinny Cahill up in Antrim. O’Loughlin won three Limerick county titles in a row with Adare, Daly picked up a couple on the bounce with Kilmoyley in Kerry.

The thinking isn’t overly complicated – these men have been down in a hole before and they have an idea of the way out of it.

“Where we came from,” says O’Connor, “overcoming all the historical baggage that we had to, that looks good to people on the outside. You probably have other teams and other counties looking out for someone who came from a similar position and who made the breakthrough. The guys who played on our team have that experience of making a breakthrough and they know what’s required. I’d say it makes players from that team attractive propositions straight off the bat.”

Behind it all of course, the figure of Loughnane looms like Brando in The Godfather. Mad as he was maddening, tyrannical as he was brilliant, he would take up a huge chunk of the index of any book of their lives. That they each play out their managerial career with him holding up scorecards on the sideline isn’t easy but then nothing ever was. That’s the point, in many ways.

“Look, where do I come from only the place Clare were in the early ’90s?” Daly asked aloud last summer. “We came through a spell of two or three managers who were good people in the wrong place at the wrong time and then Len Gaynor came along, who I would have massive respect for. He changed our mentality and tried to make us winners, even though we flopped a couple of times under him.

“But Loughnane was Loughnane. What could you do only try to emulate him when you started off coaching? Any of us that played under him couldn’t help but be influenced by him.”

The trouble with someone like Ger Loughnane is that character and caricature blend into each other at the drop of a hat. O’Connor makes a point of saying that for all the tall tales and war stories, nothing could have happened for Clare without Loughnane’s hurling brain. He was more than just a jackboot with a maniacal grin.

“Loughnane was a huge influence on all of us. He couldn’t but be. He was a brilliant man-manager, he was a psychologist, he was hugely charismatic. But what’s often forgotten was he was an unbelievably good hurling coach. The quality of the training, the variety of the training was fantastic. The pace and intensity with which we trained was top class. At the time, we certainly would have felt that there was nobody in the country doing training of the quality that we were.

“You have to believe that you can do it and Loughnane did an fantastic job of getting that across to us. Now, admittedly he had a lot of strong personalities in that dressingroom. Certainly Daly, Fitzy and Ollie would have been three guys who weren’t short of self-confidence and belief.”

This weekend and next, all three of them will get on with passing everything they’ve learned and everything they are on to the next crop of coltish youngsters.

They’ll do it for a million reasons – partly because they want the challenge, partly because they’re born leaders, partly because the sport won’t leave them be. And partly because almost a decade and a half ago, they came together and refused to accept history as fact, changing the game and shaping it in their own image.

A lifetime later, they’re shaping it still.