Tom Cribbin was player-manager in 1997 when Clane last won the Kildare senior football championship.
He was still doing his best Kenny Dalglish impression 12 months later when they lost the county final. But then it all ended. Clane contested seven finals during the 90s, winning four. They have amassed 17 senior titles in their history, but 1998 was the last time they contested a Kildare SFC decider.
That will change this Sunday when they face two-in-a-row chasing Naas at St Conleth’s Park. And on the sideline managing Clane will be a familiar figure. Yet, had certain events transpired differently, Cribbin would not have been on this journey.
In the immediate aftermath of Jack O’Connor’s decision to step down as Kildare manager, Cribbin emerged as one of the frontrunners to take the reins. He had served as a selector under O’Connor, and with Cian O’Neill before that as well. However, the Kildare County Board went in a different direction and, as a result, so too did Cribbin.
“I kind of knew at the time if the Kildare thing didn’t work out that there was something there with the club, a talented young team, that maybe my experience could help,” says Cribbin.
But while the tidy narrative might be packaged around the former player-manager returning as bainisteoir over 20 years later to take the club back to a final, Clane’s decline and renaissance is far more nuanced.
“Nineteen-ninety-seven, 1998, it is a long time ago and unfortunately it feels a long time ago as well,” says Cribbin. “It was our own fault. In the 90s we were so used to success at senior level that we had been neglecting our underage.”
Clane embraced that old cliché of taking their eye off the ball and then wondered why the conveyor belt gradually ground to a halt. Cribbin can trace the line all the way back to the local national school in Clane and its former principal, Pat Lynch.
“We didn’t realise the good work that was taking place in the school. Every day the kids were kicking football. Those kids would then come over to the club with all these natural skills already in place. We didn’t realise what Pat was doing for us in the school.”
With the passing of winters, Pat retired, more housing estates started to spring up around Clane, the population grew and so too did the school and the number of sports clubs in the town.
“The demands on principal increased, instead of having six or seven teachers, you had 20-25 teachers and treble the number of students to manage. It goes from running a small business to running a big business.
“Rugby came to the town, there were soccer clubs, tennis, loads of great clubs and they were all looking for kids to play their sports too. And we weren’t getting the same raw talent to our underage.”
They talked to other GAA clubs, including Cuala in Dublin, and even took lessons from what Naas were doing. Cribbin did a stint as Clane chairman and around 15 years ago the structures required to put fresh foundations under the club were laid.
“We put a huge emphasis on our underage teams because we realised what the problem was. What we are seeing now is the fruition of all that work done by so many people in the club over the years.”
Naas enter Sunday’s final as favourites, but Cribbin does not see this as bonus territory for his side. Having had spells as an intercounty manager with Laois, Offaly and Westmeath, he is wise enough to know you have to grab your chance when it arises.
“At the start of the year, obviously, we set goals, for their first goal the lads wanted to be a top four team. I knew the talent that was there, they are very young but very talented.”
At the outset Cribbin set about accumulating data on his players using GPS devices.
“With the information from the GPS, I knew [how] to play a particular system and I had a theory that I wanted to try. When you know the top speeds for players and their take off pace, stuff like that, you know where they are best suited to on the pitch. After that you start training the football aspect of that position to them, that’s how we approached it.”
Cribbin managed Edenderry to Offaly silverware in the past, while he also helped O’Hanrahan’s in Carlow during a championship-winning season. But that has been it on the club front.
“I don’t mean it to sound disrespectful to the clubs, I was delighted for them, but compared to winning with your own, the euphoria with your friends and family everywhere, I didn’t get the same buzz from it.”
Now for one more time with feeling.