Formidable Lohan the ideal spiritual leader for the Banner

Resurgent Clare showing signs of the distinctive zeal associated with their manager

Brian Lohan issues instructions to his players during the quarter-final victory over Waterford at Semple Stadium.  Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Brian Lohan issues instructions to his players during the quarter-final victory over Waterford at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

We forget, in the case of Brian Lohan, that these are still the very early days.

It’s true that in intercounty terms he is not a young manager. Indeed Lohan, Liam Sheedy, Davy Fitzgerald and John Kiely were all born within a couple of years of each other. But when it comes to his managerial career, this is very much its infancy – last Sunday was just his 15th game in charge of Clare.

Beating Waterford was big, then, in a number of ways. It was his first win over Munster opposition for a start. Granted, Clare have found themselves in the very Leinster-centric Division 1B in both of his league seasons but they played Limerick and Waterford in the championship last winter and lost both times. A habit worth breaking before it became A Thing.

More eye-catching though was the fact that the game’s major tactical battles were initiated by him and won out by his players. The positioning of John Conlon at centre-back and Tony Kelly in the full-forward line were risky gambits, the sort of moves that leave a manager open to derision if they don’t come off.

Lohan could have done one or the other, made a single bet out of either of them. Instead he went all in and doubled them up. It paid out in spades and it won Clare the game.

“It’s great when something comes off,” says Jamesie O’Connor. “They took advantage of Conor Prunty being out and the Kelly thing worked so well when it took out Calum Lyons’s scoring threat at the other end. And certainly that paid off.

“But as well as that, the decision to move Conlon back to six has been a great success. It was a big call to make and a lot of us were shaking our heads wondering if it was the right one. It isn’t the easiest position to play in the modern game but Conlon was awesome on the weekend.”

In the early days of any managerial career, an afternoon like that lifts all boats. Players love it when a plan comes together. However deeply they’ve bought into the voice in the middle of the huddle, there’s always room for a little more. Whatever Lohan cooks up for Tipperary this weekend, his team will wolf it down all the more readily as a result. A manager in his second year grows an inch or two on the back of it.

But of course, Brian Lohan is not your typical second-season manager. He has been a peak on the hurling landscape for a quarter of a century at this stage, a presence even when he wasn’t around to be seen. You don’t need to have eyes on Carrauntoohill to know it’s there, after all.

John Conlon, right, and Clare celebrate the win over Waterford. “The decision to move Conlon back to number six has been a great success. It was a big call to make . . .” said Jamesie O’Connor. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
John Conlon, right, and Clare celebrate the win over Waterford. “The decision to move Conlon back to number six has been a great success. It was a big call to make . . .” said Jamesie O’Connor. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

When Lohan retired in 2006 after a 13-year stint as Clare’s greatest ever full-back, nobody doubted that he would eventually assume the reins on the sideline. He was 34, the same age Anthony Daly had been when he took the job.

Nobody was measuring his shoe size to see could he fill Dalo’s straight away but the assumption hung in the air, like a spinning coin in a video game. All he had to do was decide when the time was right and he could jump up and cash it in.

Early years

And yet, in the end, it took all of 13 years. Of the great Clare team of the 90s, he is by some distance the latest to the intercounty management party. Daly, Cyril Lyons, Sparrow O’Loughlin, Davy Fitz and Ollie Baker all prowled various sidelines to varying levels of success before Lohan took the plunge in late 2019.

So where was he? Well, in those early years after retirement, he mostly stayed away from hurling. Bits and pieces at underage, of course, like any put-upon dad. But in general, throughout the back end of the 2000s, he concentrated on family and work and tended to the parts of life that a decade and a half of intercounty hurling invariably pushes aside.

It wasn’t until former Limerick great Gary Kirby called him up and asked him to come to Patrickswell in 2011 than Lohan got involved with a senior team.

Kirby had a young squad and he knew there was good stuff on the way – Cian Lynch, Aaron Gillane and Diarmaid Byrnes were all teenagers. But the club had lost its way a bit at senior level and hadn’t won a Limerick title since 2003. Eight years might not sound a lot but it was the Well’s longest stretch without one since their first in 1965.

“When I finished playing,” says Kirby, “I said I wouldn’t get involved in anything for five years and I suppose he probably did something similar. I think you need that time away, just to recharge the batteries. There’s a lot of commitment involved as well and when you have family, you have work or business or whatever, I can understand him wanting to take a breather.

“I was the manager at the time and we decided that team was so used us being over them, that we would try and get someone from the outside and bring them in. We spoke to Brian to see would he be interested. What he had done in his playing career was obviously a factor.”

The thing he appreciated and asked for above all was honesty and hard work

Kevin O’Brien was one of the young crop that Patrickswell were relying upon to carry them into the future. He was part of the Ardscoil Rís team that had won the Harty Cup at the start of the year – a 15-year-old Lynch came off the bench in the final – and he remembers his peer group being jazzed by the fact that Lohan was coming in to see them through their next stage of development.

“We were very young, very inexperienced but it gave us a huge lift to see him come in,” says O’Brien. “You were nearly nervous in his company, this was one of the legends of the game. But he was excellent for us and we got to a county semi-final even though I’d say we were punching above our weight at the time.

“The thing he appreciated and asked for above all was honesty and hard work. If you did that, he knew he could rely on you. That was the thing I found with him – he went for players he could rely on, players who would empty themselves for him.”

As a coach, Lohan has always preached the basics. He isn’t a ranter, he doesn’t go in for spittle-flecked machismo.

All encouragement

“I have come across him on the sideline in different competitions,” says O’Connor. “One thing that struck me is that, particularly when he is working with kids, Brian is so positive. It’s all encouragement, saying the right things, saying all the things you would be delighted to hear if you were a parent whose kids were being coached by him.”

In Patrickswell, they needed him for nuts and bolts stuff. Groundwork needed to be laid, foundations poured. He brought in a young Belfast kid to do the S&C – Cairbre Ó Cairealláin started to build up their bodies long before he became a celebrated name in hurling circles. A decade later, Ó Cairealláin’s exercise guides are still pinned to the wall in the Patrickswell gym.

As for Lohan, he would be gone to head up the UL Fitzgibbon team by the time it all came to fruition as the club won its 19th county title in 2016. But his couple of seasons there weren’t forgotten by anyone.

“Brian was good at bringing structure to the defence, Kirby says. “He was good at the basics of defending and getting those across to the players. Very strong on getting out to the ball, getting the first touch on it, how to react if the forward gets to the ball first. He would emphasise how to position yourself if the forward is on the ball, how to get your angles right.

“He was very much about getting the ball into your hand as fast as you can. Trying to make it clear as well that there are times when you have to clear the ball. You would always like to pick somebody out but there are times when you just have to clear it.”

At UL, Lohan took over one of the hardest easy jobs in hurling. Just as the Atlantic Ocean will not drain, so the University of Limerick will never run out of elite hurlers. The problem is knitting them together.

“There’s always such a huge pool of players to pick from,” says O’Brien, who linked up with Lohan a second time at UL. “You always have access to some of the best players from Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. Trying to get a squad together and keep them united is the thing. The squad was so together under him and that’s where the success came from.

“We had loads of stars but there were players of lesser ability who got on the team in front of them. Like, I played ahead of lads who were better than me and I put it down to the fact that Brian knew he could rely on me to give him everything. I remember scoring a couple of goals in a game down in CIT one time. Afterwards, the goals were hardly mentioned but I got loads of praise for tracking back and making tackles.

“Look, we had Tony Kelly, John McGrath and Jason Forde. We had absolute superstars in 2015, you won’t win a Fitzgibbon without them. But we had lads like Barry Stapleton, Brian Troy, Tommy Heffernan and they’re all flying away with their clubs now. But they were the glue of that team. Lohan loved lads like that who could bring the whole thing together.”

Lohan’s ascent to the Clare job hasn’t been smooth, of course. In May 2019, he told a press event that he wouldn’t consider managing Clare under the current county board. By October, he was the last candidate standing after the board made a mess of the process causing first Donal Moloney and later Louis Mulqueen to take themselves out of consideration.

Insiders describe the set-up as being more or less sealed off from the county board, an independent republic onto itself, thriving despite rather than because of the administrators above. It’s hardly an ideal situation but then Lohan has never looked for an easy way out before.

The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.

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