Clarecastle hungry for success
You'd think they would be spoilt in Clare these days, drunk and sated on the excesses of success. No county has enjoyed more glory days in the 1990s - two Liam McCarthys, plus minor and club breakthroughs - than the Bannermen.
But the more you get, the more you want, and, as the decade closes in, the hurlers of Clarecastle retain a hungry demeanour in the run up to Sunday's AIB All-Ireland Club championship semi-final with Birr at Thurles. And why wouldn't they? Clarecastle are the new boys on the block, the only ones of the surviving quartet not to have savoured this stage of the competition previously. They've come so far, almost within touching distance of the great prize; now, they're just two steps away.
Twelve months ago, team manager Roger McMahon summoned his men together on a February evening and laid down the law. At that stage, their ambitions didn't stretch beyond the county title. The unspoken belief, though, was no that matter which team eventually emerged from Clare, it could conquer Munster and, possibly, go on to an All-Ireland.
That's what had happened to Sixmilebridge two seasons previously, and, last year, Wolfe Tone won in Munster and were only blocked at the final hurdle. Martin Sheedy, the team's captain, almost grimaces when he recalls Clarecastle's first outing, when they almost fell at the first obstacle. "We drew with Tullow in the first round," says Sheedy, "but, for some reason, I don't think our approach was 100 per cent right. That match was a major lesson, it toughened up our entire mental attitude. We got it right for the replay, and have continued to improve."
Indeed, Clarecastle haven't been found wanting since. With well over 100 training sessions under their belts inside the past year, they took the Clare title with a win over St Joseph's in the final; survived a stern examination from Ballygunner in the Munster semi-final, and showed their quality with a provincial final win over Patrickswell. As expected, the next step - a trip across to St Gabriel's in London - proved successful. "Initially, we just focussed in on the county championship," says Sheedy, who occupies the fullback berth. "There are so many hard teams in Clare that it is hard just to win that title, and we put in a concerted effort."
Even when the county contingent - Anthony Daly, Fergus Tuohy, Ger "Sparrow" O'Loughlin, Stephen Sheedy and Alan Neville - were away on duty with Clare, the club continued their preparations by playing in a summer league and integrating younger players.
"Of course, we got an obvious boost when Clare won the All-Ireland, and then the lads returned to training with the club," says Sheedy. "Overall, though, we have put in a massive amount of work, and the success is seeping right the way down to the juveniles too. When young lads see the senior team doing well, they're on just as much of a high. And, importantly, there is a great structure in place, so things look reasonably good for the future."
The immediate future concerns Birr. It may be two months since Clarecastle's last competitive game - in London - but the squad was reassembled in the early days of the New Year and nobody has shirked away. "For the past six weeks," says manager McMahon, "everyone has made great sacrifices. But, then, this competition demands it."
He continues: "It is every club's dream to get to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day and bring the cup home. It is the absolute pinnacle for every club and, as far as I'm concerned, this is one of the better competitions in the GAA. It involves the entire community and everyone feels a part of it."
For most of January, McMahon put the emphasis on physical preparation. For the last few weeks, the focus has switched to the eye and the ball. "There is a great pride to play for the village," admits Sheedy. The passion that goes hand in hand with playing the game is evident. Come Sunday, they'll be seeking to become the third Clare team in successive years to reach the All-Ireland club final. Changed times, indeed. "It's certainly been an amazing turnabout since 1995," says Sheedy. Clare teams don't fear losing any more. Clarecastle, with their smattering of inter-county stars and club stalwarts, will attempt to maintain that sequence and book a date with destiny on March 17th.
Fact FileClub: Clarecastle. Path to Munster title: beat Ballygunner (Waterford) 1-16 to 0-16 in semi-final; beat Patrickswell (Limerick) 2-11 to 0-15 in final.
All-Ireland quarter-final: beat St Gabriel's (London) 2-24 to 1-7. Current Inter-county players: Anthony Daly, Ger "Sparrow" O'Loughlin, Fergus Tuohy, Stephen Sheedy, Alan Neville.