Ger Loughnane and the spark that lit Clare’s hurling revolution
The Game Changers: The first in a new series on those who changed teams and sports
Ger Loughnane with the Clare team in 1995. Photograph: Tom Honan/Inpho
There’s an element of luck in all of these things. In the early 1990s, Ger Loughnane’s relationship with the Clare hurling establishment was fractious. He burned with impatient energy and ideas and was at once all charm and confrontation: in other words a potential headache for any county board.
It could have gone either way. The contemporary Clare hurling story is ultimately about the harmony and subsequent clashes of a group of singular, unyielding personalities and Loughnane hovers over all of them. There is always this question though. What if Ger Loughnane had never managed Clare? How would Clare and hurling have prospered if he had simply faded from the scene after ending his playing career with a late, cherished county championship title with Feakle in 1988?
That day in Cusack Park represented full circle in his playing life. He could have retreated in comfort.
“So to do that at the very end of my career . . . everything I could have dreamt of was in Cusack Park that evening when we beat Ruan to have won a championship at long last,” he rhapsodised in an interview with Mick McCarthy just two summers ago.
“I felt then I paid my dues to Feakle. People don’t understand the history of Clare. Our history is so poor in terms of titles and sometimes you’d look back and you’d wonder how the game survived. When it came to big games Clare always under-performed. Now, many times we weren’t good enough. But even when they weren’t good enough, they under-performed.
“The worst thing was that when they were good enough they still under-performed. But it taught me the lesson that if they were to win we had to have a completely new approach. Especially psychologically. Our mental approach had to be totally different to what it was in my day. I don’t want to undermine in any way the quality of the players I played with. And how seriously they took it or how dedicated they were. But when it came to the really big games we have to say we collapsed.”
Fr Harry Bohan was the man who persuaded Loughnane to play with his club that year. “It’s important to understand that hurling is at the heart of almost everything you could say about Feakle,” Bohan says now. The club hadn’t won a senior title since 1944. But in the 1980s, they had a group of young players who vaulted from a minor championship win to winning four out of five under-21 county titles between 1981 and 1985. Loughnane and Séamus Durack were luminous figures in the mindset of that Feakle generation: they had been leading players on Clare’s nearly-teams of the late 1970s.
Fr Bohan was also the man who brought Loughnane on to the Clare senior team. He made his senior debut in 1973, just out of minor. Scan any interview with Loughnane in which he is reviewing the splendour and madness and dramas that was Clare hurling from 1992-2000 and he will invariably return to the psychic disappointments of the Munster final losses against the celebrated Cork team in the yellowed summers of 1977 (4-15 to 4-10) and 1978.
The lines between success and failure in sport are so clean. And they are often separated by a few scores here and there. Cork played with the ease of knowing that winning All-Irelands was part of their heritage. Clare teams played in the opposite mood and existed in a state of anxiety.
Loughnane belonged to a group of players already keenly acquainted with the apparent truth that to hurl with Clare was to submit oneself to an eternity of disappointments. He was one of the most enduring and talented of the generation of men whose hurling lives peaked in the late 1970s and who collectively failed to ring the most out of their talent.
Clare hadn’t won a Munster title since 1932. Even in the 1970s, that dateline belonged to an impossibly remote past. Clare were oppressed: by the hauteur of neighbouring Tipperary, by the jaunt and dash of Cork, and by their own crippling lack of faith that they belonged in this company. The national league titles of 1977 and ’78 confirmed that Clare’s talent wasn’t illusory.
“That decade was the turning point for Clare hurling because we brought a professional approach to training,” says Bohan. “But: we didn’t win.”
The Munster championship results confirmed the limitations of their self-belief. The litmus test was against Cork in 1978. “It was the worst defeat ever,” Loughnane would say of that 0-13 to 0-11 loss. He kept playing until 1987 and he cut a distinctive figure right through: bog-sallow skin, a gambolling athleticism and an intense light emanating from his every move. Of maybe you just imagine that energy, knowing what he would become in his post-playing life.
But by the 1990s, he was no longer playing and he enjoyed hunting: he didn’t need hurling. Others recognised that. “I had a fear that Ger would be lost to Clare hurling. He’s a key figure, I think he’s one of the best hurling coaches in the country,” Fr Willie Walsh told Denis Walsh in The Revolution Years.
He had been relieved of his position of manager of the 1992 under-21 squad after losing the Munster final narrowly to an exceptional Waterford side, despite having 17 players available for the following season. Len Gaynor, who had been parachuted in from Tipp to try and restore some confidence within the county, had the foresight to persuade Loughnane to join him as selector. The agreement was that Loughnane would succeed him as senior manager whenever he stepped away.
“Most people would give Len Gaynor huge credit in that he had laid a really strong foundation,” says Bohan. “And I think as well . . . there is no doubt that Ger was a winner. Everyone wants to win. But he had a deep belief. Now, they had done unbelievable training. There is no doubt about it: I suppose Ger had a mindset that was about winning.”
The myth behind the transformation of Clare from perpetual stargazers into a cold-eyed, confrontational, physical force of nature has been well documented. From the winter purges in Crusheen under the counselling of Mike McNamara to Loughnane’s talents as a natural, compelling communicator, Clare generated a momentum that was unstoppable.
Winning the Munster championship in 1995 would have been enough to sate the county but fuelled by pure adrenaline and a burning self-belief, they went on to edge a fancied Offaly team in that All-Ireland final. After a lifetime of nothing, everything.
But it was the behind-the-scenes perfectionism that gave Loughnane the edge. It had always been his calling card. “The training was incredible,” James O’Connor remarked of the under-21 set up. “The organisation, everything about the fella, was top class.”
“Ger was the kind of a man who did all of his homework,” agrees Bohan. “ So he would ask simple questions of himself. What does it take to win? Who are the winners on the field? Who are people who will never give up? Who has the confidence?”
And he was never sated. When Clare were eliminated from the 1996 championship by Limerick and Ciarán Carey’s deathless virtuoso score, Loughnane spent the winter hunting for new motivations.
At a winter function, he found himself sitting with Mick O’Dwyer and the former Kerry manager said something that struck Loughnane like a lightning bolt. “Any team can win an All-Ireland. They can get lucky . . . the best teams then take each other out. It takes a great team to win two.”
Loughnane had found his new obsession and it gripped him in much the same way as the sudden, all possessing impulse took hold of him after he watched Tipp destroying Clare in the Munster final of 1993.
“The reaction I had when Clare were trounced by Tipperary wasn’t disappointment,” he remembered two years ago.
“It was one of absolute fury. And I just got up off my seat and I said no matter what it takes I am going to do something about this. Why it struck me like that, I dunno. But I can still see myself getting up off that seat and coming out the road and saying I am going to do something about it. The county board didn’t want me. I suppose they regarded me as too difficult to deal with. There was a great chairman here at the time, Brendan Vaughan, and he knew the desire I had for Clare and he backed me. And he used a kind of circuitous route.”
It’s important to remember just how demoralising Clare’s hurling experience had been in the years around Loughnane’s autumnal burst of joy with Feakle. How was it that in 1987 Clare could draw 1-13 apiece with Tipperary in the Munster championship, causing a natural rise in hope, only to disintegrate in the replay and lose by 4-17 to 0-8 a few weekends later? In 1990, Clare lost to Limerick by 2-16 to 1-5. That was Cork’s double year.
Clare existed in a different realm of expectation. Loughnane had clear ideas about the style of hurling he wanted, convinced that the local game in Clare was too slow and lackadaisical. But his chief obsession was in burning away the oxygen that allowed self-doubt to thrive. None of this could have happened without the players: Loughnane was arguably lucky that players like James O’Connor and Brian Lohan and Davy Fitzgerald and Anthony Daly bought into his radical approach. But, then, who is to say that any number of players from the 1980s wouldn’t have bought into that extremism if give the chance?
“My hunch is he spent a fair bit of time looking at other sports and reading about other managers,” Bohan says.“He would have identified leaders like Anthony Daly but also Seánie McMahon: a different man and personality but a big leader. And Brian Lohan. He was nearly a professional manager. I would say Jamesie was right. Ollie Baker would admit himself that he wasn’t the greatest hurler in the world. But he was some performer. And was a big part in the winning of those All-Irelands.”
Years ago, Bohan was struck by a light taunt from a friend of his in Tipperary. “Harry, we used always feel superior to ye,” he joked. Bohan asked why, half-expecting the answer. “Because we won All-Irelands and ye didn’t.” Bohan thought about the remark for years. “There was something in that.”
Loughnane’s great feat was to banish those thoughts not just from subsequent Clare hurling dressingrooms but from the sport in general. In a few short years, he permanently transformed the way in which Clare teams were regarded. At their peak, they were feared and admired and unapologetic.
It can be argued that a county of Clare’s hurling pedigree should still be winning more titles – not one Munster title since 1998, despite the left-field All-Ireland title run engineered by Davy Fitzgerald in 2013. And of course there have been rows and grievances, some frivolous and some hurtful, since Loughnane took to media punditry with much the same zeal as he had coached the game, sparing his former players-turned-managers nothing in his assessment.
Still, see the scene in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1997. Loughnane has alchemised O’Dwyer’s idle thought into Clare’s public obsession. Tipperary – their tormentors, their landlords – had been beaten in the Munster final. Clare would go on to repeat the dose in that September’s All-Ireland final. But this must be the sweetest moment. And Anthony Daly has found the words to echo through the county as well as the microphone.
“Every Clare man, woman and child came to Cork this weekend on a mission. Our mission was to show that we are no longer the whipping boys of Munster.”
Could anyone from Clare have pictured that moment when they rose from their seats with Loughane on that dismal afternoon just four years earlier?
It would have been madness to think so.