Munster pecking order as persistent as ever as minnows struggle to defy the odds
It’s a much-changed scene from 20 years ago when Cork were outsiders as they travelled to face reigning champions Clare
Clare’s Noel Roche in action against Kerry during the 1992 Munster football final when they created a major shock by winning the Munster title. Photo: Inpho
What goes up must come down. Twenty years ago, as tomorrow, Cork footballers travelled to Clare for a championship fixture but circumstances could hardly have been more different.
This year Munster’s four-county peloton have been left for dead in all of the matches to date with heavy defeats for Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. Clare are all that stand between their peers and a clean sweep of chastening defeats by the ruling, Cork-Kerry duopoly.
The situation is so dismal that talk abounds of a restored seeded draw in the province, all but guaranteeing traditional finals for much of perpetuity, and sweeping away the open draw campaigned for by Clare’s Noel Walsh and which since 1991 has periodically facilitated Munster final appearances for all of the province’s counties except Waterford.
In 1993 it was however a different world. For the only time in the past 95 years Clare were defending champions in Munster.
Their seismic defeat of Kerry in the previous year’s final had catapulted John Maughan, a young army officer with an injury-curtailed Mayo career behind him, into the public consciousness as the manager who had accomplished a miracle.
His team had worked incredibly hard to make history and went on to push Dublin in the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final.
More relevantly they had performed so well in the league that they reached the last four and were, bizarre as it sounds in today’s context, favourites to see off Cork. Even at the time it was unfamiliar territory for Clare’s most experienced player Noel Roche.
“I put it in this perspective. My first championship match was in 1977 and this was 1993 but I’d never beaten Cork so of course I was apprehensive. No matter what we’d done in the past few years, we’d never beaten them.”
Cork’s perspective was naturally different. The county hadn’t lost to Clare since 1941.
One of their most experienced players was corner forward John Cleary, now the county under-21 manager and then nearing the end a successful career having played with what remains the county’s only back-to-back All-Ireland winning team in 1989 and ‘90.
“In ’93 we’d lost to Kerry in the previous two years. After 1991 we felt that we’d left it behind us and that we’d get back up on the bike in ’92 but instead we were well beaten so by ’93 there were a lot of changes and, although there was still a good few from the All-Ireland teams, players like Colin Corkery and Joe Kavanagh were coming on board. We were going there expecting to win with all of the pressure on Clare; they were the champions and playing at home. For once we weren’t the ones with something to lose.
“Billy (Morgan, Cork manager) used some of the predictions as a driving force for us because in a way we resented being outsiders even though it was a kind of incentive. Billy said that if we were properly prepared and in the right frame of mind, Clare would have to be better than us to beat us.”
The consensus was that they were but that’s not how it turned out. Roche felt that there had been slippage and identified the league semi-final defeat by then All-Ireland champions Donegal as a watershed.
“The wheels came off the cart against Donegal and I felt things were a small bit downhill for us from then because we’d done very well in the league and were nearly invincible at home, which was a factor in us going into the Cork game as favourites. But while there was a lot of things going for us, Donegal had shown some weaknesses.
“But there was also a lot going for us. We were going well in training, had an extra year under our belt and were used to the big occasion.
“Unfortunately it never happened on the day. Colin Corkery had a magnificent match (scoring 2-5). There was a very, very strong wind and we played with it to start but still ended up behind at half-time.
“It was a disaster for myself because I’d pulled a quad 10 days before and it wasn’t right and I’d to come off at half-time so my memories of it are very poor – not a great day for Clare or me personally, particularly as I knew from my point of view that there weren’t going to be many more days.”
He was right. Roche, who was a multi-capped International Rules player, had just one championship match left, against Tipperary a year later in what would be also be John Maughan’s last match in charge.
“Those were the days before qualifiers,” says Roche, “so there was one bite at the apple and then six or seven months training down the drain.”
On the subject of institutionalised inequalities, Cleary feels Cork’s and Kerry’s big advantage is in numbers – the sheer volume of players at their disposal.
“I was talking to Peter Creedon (Tipperary football manager),” he says, “and he was pointing out to me that Tipperary are pulling players out of about 10 clubs, maximum. Compare that to Cork where we’ve 248 clubs, 150 of which are either football or half-and-half and Kerry where there’s very little hurling really.
“So it goes without saying that Cork and Kerry will have a bigger pick and should be better than Clare, Waterford, Limerick and Tipp.”
Roche agrees with this and in those reduced numbers, he feels, was embedded the reality that Clare couldn’t continue to defy the odds.
“We were working off a panel of 19 or 20 players and the team picked itself. There was no question of taking a bit of time off because we were all needed to play both the league and championship matches. So there was a lot of mileage.
“We were up for the match but in hindsight, which is 20-20 vision, we’d been training non-stop for 36 months and when you’re tired and things get tight, doubts enter the mind.
“No-one knows the amount of training and hardship fellas put up with but the end had to come for Clare and unfortunately it came in front of a full house in our own ground.”