Twenty years ago hurling was in a state of flux. The calendar-year league was introduced as well as the championship change that allowed beaten provincial finalists to re-enter the All-Ireland. It also saw the emergence of one of the game's big rivalries.
Clare travel to Thurles on Sunday for a meeting of the league holders and All-Ireland champions. They beat Tipperary en route to the league title last year but it's fair to say that the rivalry these days isn't particularly intense. Both counties have won the MacCarthy Cup in the past few years without playing each other but for the Ger Loughnane revolution, beating Tipp was a touchstone.
The league win in 1995 was celebrated as a stepping-up after the humiliation of the 1993 Munster final but the counties didn't play each other in Clare's march to the All-Ireland or the following year when it was unexpectedly knocked from their grasp by Limerick.
In May 1997, however, Tipperary went to Ennis and administered a useful lesson to their neighbours. It was a combustible contest, ending in a one-point win for the visitors. Michael Cleary played that day and said the fixture was a significant event for Clare, who would play Tipp twice more that summer.
"I remember that game because it was almost violent," he says. "We beat them but they went to timber us that night. You might remember if you go forward to August of that year and we had come through the back door to play Wexford in the semi-final and Ger Loughnane made a famous comment to the effect that there was no point trying to use timber on Tipp.
“People thought it was mind games but it actually went back to that league game in Ennis. He recognised that night that to beat Tipp you had to hurl Tipp and I remember going into the Munster final earlier in ’97 (July) we were ready for a real physical battle but Clare just ran us off the field. Ger Loughnane – to his credit – had learned the lesson. But very few picked up on where that had come from.
“The Tipp team in ’97 was far from a great team but we got within a whisker of winning Munster and All-Ireland titles. Clare were far more than three points a better team that day and two points in the All-Ireland and yet they got out close on both occasions.”
It might have been worse for the eventual champions as on both occasions John Leahy had a chance for a late goal. Amidst the drama a high-voltage rivalry sparked. It would be another three years before Tipperary defeated Clare. Cleary recognised the current and undercurrent.
“You go back to 1987 and ’88,” he says, “and there was almost hatred between Tipp and Galway. Before it there was nothing and 10 years after there was nothing. There was a similar dynamic between Clare and Tipp in the late 90s, from about ’97 to 2001.
“I remember going to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in ’99, 2000 and 2001 (he had retired by then) and my God, you’d cut the atmosphere with a knife. I remember (John) Leahy coming on in one of those games and he only lasted three minutes before doing his knee but the excitement in the crowd – and it was as much the Clare crowd as Tipp – lifted the stadium.
“I remember an under-21 match in Ennis [in 1999, complete with sideline brawl and a massive 17,000 attendance]. We had to park up in the middle of the Clare crowd and it was beyond rivalry at the time, right in the teeth of it in that period.
“I always felt the dynamic was Galway towards Tipp at the end of the 80s and Clare towards Tipp 10 years later. I didn’t sense it from Tipp people but I could be wrong. Thankfully both have mellowed a lot in recent years.”
Cleary was never a fan of the calendar year and says that he preferred the more relaxed rhythms of the old system with league fixtures spread out from autumn to spring.
“I wasn’t and still am not,” he says when asked had he welcomed it as a player. “There were three or four games either side of Christmas and per-Christmas some of the county championship matches were still going on so managers had to try out new players because others were obviously tied up in the latter stages of the championships.
“There were league quarter-finals and semi-finals after the later league matches and for teams that didn’t qualify you used to have club ground openings all around the country. These were your pre-championship matches and you could get a few thousand at them. I remember one year we played Cork in Kilmallock at a pitch opening and there must have been around five or six thousand there. It freed up the calendar for clubs and counties and I think there was a lovely dynamic to it.
“I’m not a player now but they’re effectively professional. I know that’s a different discussion but I sometimes wonder do they enjoy it even though today’s players are so skilful and fit.”