Conlon has achieved cult status in Clare with a characteristic lack of fuss

When the player changed role from forward to defender he took it all in his stride

For the past fortnight the Clare hurling faithful has been justifiably excited about the prospect of taking on Limerick, the All-Ireland champions, in the bearpit of Cusack Park. It doesn't get any bigger and it doesn't get any more claustrophobic than Sunday.

Much of the action will be defined by the channel now occupied by John Conlon, who made the transition from a marauding forward to the moral conscience of the Clare defence with unfathomable ease. He's the team captain and at this stage he has achieved cult status with a characteristic lack of fuss.

And without almost anybody noticing he is now in his fourteenth year as a Clare hurler, placing him among the ranks of the great survivors of the intercounty game. And through all that Conlon remains as vital to the Clare cause as ever.

"I was on the 2008 Clonlara team that won the championship with him," says Donal Madden. "I coached him at minor level. I am not the manager of the senior hurling team. I would be great friends with the guy. He is the ultimate role model in our club. He gets every last per cent out of the talent that he has. He works so hard and minds himself so well.


“He is a professional athlete playing in an amateur sport. And I do mean that. His attention to detail and willingness to learn and his mindset: he is looking for the extra edge down the years.”

It’s an observation that is often made about intercounty stars but Conlon takes it to a different level. He has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to adapting lifestyle and fitness choices to improve his capacity to play.

In March 2020 Conlon damaged his cruciate ligament in a training session at UL. It was another setback in a series of debilitating injuries which began with a torn posterior cruciate ligament which he suffered in the wild-ride All-Ireland semi-final draw against Galway in 2018. He actually played in the replay, operating on a theory of ignoring the injury, a decision he later described as “stupid.”

An ankle injury in early 2019 limited his championship preparation for that season and he spent it feeling older than his years.

“Every night I was off I was probably going to the field and with that everything else as you get older tightens up then as well,” he said later that year. “Even my wrists were coming at me; I was barely able to hold a hurley. It was just different things. It seemed to snowball into each other.”

So the recurrence of the knee injury early in 2020 might have been interpreted as a signal to stop. Instead Conlon doubled down. The swift transformation of the pandemic a week later threw everything into the air, including the hurling season. He quickly transformed the garage at home into a gym. That meant furnishing it with weights and some old equipment of his own he donated to the club – he borrowed it back as the club was out of bounds for lockdown.


But as he told Denis Walsh of the Sunday Times, he also painted the walls and installed a television. It was a detail which spoke of perfectionism. And it was in keeping with his approach to everything. When he learned his diet, although healthy, was stymying his athletic performances, he abruptly eliminated staples like red meat, bread, milk and even tea from his diet. Foodstuffs he loved – peppers, tomatoes – just went.

Sometimes he blended his food. He became adept at baking and cooking more compatible foods.

So he implemented a fairly thorough and consuming lifestyle choice in order to improve the efficiency of his game. A quick glance through Conlon’s resume reads like a defiance of time. In addition to hurling with Clare, he coached the Clonlara camogie team (to a first ever senior championship), devised a strength and conditioning programme for under-5s through to minor (for which he took a professional course) and continues to lead the way for the senior club team.

“Is he a talker?” Madden repeats when asked that question. “Well, he does lead more by setting a tone and example. Lads just respect him. And he expects high standards from club management as well. And if he felt that things weren’t right or there wasn’t the appropriate standard for us to be successful as a club he would have no problem in pointing that out in a respectful manner.

“That’s not to say he is argumentative or anything like that. But he knows the direction the club needs to go. John has everything won you can possibly win, from Fitzgibbon Cup, to All-Ireland under 21, senior club championships. He knows what it takes to win and he brings that standard into our training sessions. But also to the administrative side of the club.”


It was a casual conversation at training that transformed the trajectory of John Conlon's hurling career with Clare. In the 2020 championship it could be argued that Clare were unlucky to find themselves squeezed out of the reckoning after the Munster round-robin series. But they were underwhelmed by themselves.

In an interview last year Conlon mentioned that a group had gone to the management to discuss ways they felt they could improve. They found an open reception. Brian Lohan's willingness to listen and implement changes afterwards were identified by former Clare manager Anthony Daly and former Waterford manager Derek McGrath in the former's Examiner podcast show.

“I just thought it was really clever of Lohan and his management team,” McGrath noted. “They were the proactive team. They got the grip in the middle third.”

The positional reimagining of Conlon’s role was part of the new order. He had happened to mention to a Clare selector that he had sometimes played centre-field and centre-back with Clonlara. The idea of becoming the team’s new centre-back was sprung on him during one of the first sessions back in 2021. By the time he played his first championship game, against Waterford in the Munster quarter final, he looked completely at home there.

“Yeah I loved it,” Conlon said that evening in an interview. “At the start of the year Brian just said ‘would you be up for it?’ I was kind of doubting myself playing as a forward all my life. But I said I’d give it a go, rise to the challenge.

“In fairness, for the first game or two I was going fine – you wouldn’t say I was setting the world alight. But Brian stuck with me and management have been great, and so, like it or lump it you are going to be there so I have sort of grown into it.

“We just said we were going to make as tough a defence as we could over the last few weeks. And I suppose I can give our backs a pointer in terms of being a forward all my life.”

His role

The response reflected a marked lack of ego. Conlon is a bustling, hugely physical presence who thrives in the central positions. But he had been hurler-of-the-year material through Clare’s 2018 summer season and finished as an All-Star full-forward. He was a senior figure on the team. He was 31 years old. He had spent the pre-season in 2021 solely devoted to practising score-taking. He might have baulked at a complete shift in his role.

“Again that is down to attitude as well,” says Madden. “Other guys might be moaning and bitching about it. John doesn’t mind. If you mentioned going in goals he’d go in goals. He’s a phenomenal fella.”

Clare's renaissance under Brian Lohan has been steady and assured this summer. To their delight they have achieved two big wins while all the attention has been deflected elsewhere.

A win against either Limerick or Waterford puts them in a Munster final- where they are seeking a first win since the inflammatory summer of 1998. Conlon was a kid then, one of the generation inspired by the Loughnane crew. Now he is captain for the redoubtable fullback of that team. And he shares, you sense, the same burning ambition for his county beneath an understated exterior. Forget round robin on Sunday: for the hour Limerick and Clare will put everything on the line. It’s an environment which has always brought the best out of Conlon.

“He just loves it,” says Madden. “He loves being part of it. The way he has come back from two severe injuries – a cruciate and a setback. A lot of guys would have rolled over. He loves playing for Clare and the club. His dad played junior B up to 50-odd. I can see John doing the same. It is just part of the DNA.

Huge pride

“At times we have to stop John because he would nearly play injured. And Clare will miss him and we will miss watching him when it eventually comes to an end. Even my own kids, going and seeing him playing for Clare. There is huge pride.

“The biggest thing about John – and not many people can say this – is in his sporting career he has gotten everything possible from his god-given talent. There have probably been more talented players but he has used the talents he is giving - every last ounce.”

No arguments anywhere.