Organised Banner reaping the rewards for the systematic nurturing of underage talent

From 2000-2007 Clare hardly won an underage game of note – now they are the game’s emerging standard-bearers


September 14th, 1997 was the high water mark for Clare hurling. Another terrific summer for the old game was pared down to an All-Ireland final between Clare and their age-old rivals Tipperary, who had unceremoniously evicted them from Munster fields year after year.

In the context of the unbearable drama of the closing minutes of this year’s drawn final, it is worth remembering that the closing act of the 1997 final gripped the country as well.

Clare were one point clear when John Leahy got the ball in space and the Clare goal in his sights. He went for broke, rejecting the safety of an easy point and a probable draw by firing a low, skipping shot to Davy Fitzgerald’s right. The Sixmilebridge man coolly pushed the ball to safety, Liam Doyle cleared and that was it. Clare were All-Ireland champions.

Earlier in the afternoon, Clare minors had won the curtain raiser, becoming the first team to win an All-Ireland championship through the back-door route. Minor and senior champions; in September ’97 the Banner County was the envy of the hurling world.

When that great Clare team gradually began to fragment and Cork and Kilkenny reasserted the old order, one of the most common gripes in the county was that they had failed to bring young players through when they were riding high. They paid a high price for it.

Just three years after that minor All-Ireland, Clare entered a shocking period when, with the exception of a few wins over Kerry, they did not win a minor or under-21 championship match from 2000 to 2007.

Their lone senior All-Ireland final appearance in 2002 was forged on veteran brilliance and a select supply of younger players. But it was significant that not one of the 1997 minor champions made it through to senior championship level.

“It was tough to break in,” says Kevin Kennedy, who coached that side. “I had been with those guys since they were U-14 at a Tony Forristal tournament when they reached the final. Personally, I felt they were probably the second best team in the country after Tipperary – Kelly and Philip Maher came through that team. Davy Fitz had them as well at U-14.

“Look, our minor team was heavily dependent on defence. We didn’t score much but didn’t concede much either. So in the senior team you had Brian and Frank Lohan, Seánie (McMahon) and they were only 24 or 25 at that time. Brian Quinn and David Hoey were fighting for places. So it was hard to break into that side.

“Some lads were on the panel for years but they never really established a presence there. Still, I don’t think it would have happened in Kilkenny, when Cody was bringing in new players all the time. But we had been successful in ’95 and ’97 and maybe managers weren’t interested in changing things too much. In fairness, if Cyril Lyons had stayed on after 2002, I do think he would have brought more of those players through.”

A torch
Sometime after 2007, it was as if a torch was shone all over Clare and everyone who cared about hurling there just went to work. Talk to anyone about what caused Clare’s transformation from the county that couldn’t buy a win at underage grade to the county that is now the brand leader in youth coaching and several key chapters are referenced.

The phenomenal energy invested by Seán O’Halloran, the Bord na nOg chairman was critical – 2007 was the year he headed over to Kilkenny to talk with people about what they could do with Clare to address their miserable underage record. When Paudie Butler was giving his barnstorming tour of Ireland as national hurling co-ordinator, he had an eager audience in Clare open to all ideas and methodology.

Peter Casey, the Clare development officer, has said the transformation of Clare hurling can be sourced to a one-hour session that Butler gave in the autumn of 2006.

Butler advocated a vision of how to develop a more complete hurler, concentrating not just on speed of hand or first touch or a natural swing – the qualities that might push a knacky kid onto an average minor team – but on the concerted development of a player’s physical prowess, hurling skill and intuition.

The partnership of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, who have guided Clare to three All-Ireland Under-21 titles in the last five years, has been well documented. And if there was an element of serendipity about the fact that Paul Kinnerk happened to get a job teaching P.E, in Shannon, it still required an open mind on the part of Moloney and O’Connor to approach him.

As a Limerick footballer, Kinnerk was not the most obvious fit. But his fastidious approach to technique and his innovative drills have been praised as being central to the staggering progress players made. Clare’s unprecedented rush of U-21 success has backboned this year’s All-Ireland gallop. The return last year of Davy Fitzgerald to take up the reins as senior county manager completed the picture.

“We are probably here two years before our time,” Peter Casey said. “It has made our job easier in terms of coaching the next group coming through.

“A year ago the thought of being in an All-Ireland final was wishful thinking. But how it happened is, I think, a culmination of 30 or 40 different things, including luck. Certainly, the coaching of Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor, the five years they spent with that crop from U-16 to U-21 and bringing in Paul Kinnerk. And losing the minor final (in 2010) might have been a blessing in disguise for them in that it kept the players sharp. Things fell into place.

“You couldn’t say it was any one thing. We could do the same thing with another group and get different results.”

It has helped that the several members of Clare’s feted 1990s team got involved to steer the Clare development squads.

“Myself, Jamesie, Jim McInerney, Brian Quinn and Seán O’Halloran just got together to see if we could help push it on,” says Seánie McMahon.

Our credit
“We are there the last four years so in reality none of the current players have come through our set-up. Much of the credit for the players that have come through in recent years goes to Seán O’Halloran.

“What we have tried to do is take what he has done and work with the next group. I think the development squad gives a player the last five or 10 per cent. The real credit should be going to the clubs. Tony Kelly, for instance, came into the development squad as a very good player. So the clubs are coaching at a very high level, particularly the rural clubs which have less numbers.

“Clare went nine or 10 years without winning a significant match at underage. It was too long. Now, I think people realised that themselves. We hadn’t done it before and we had to go out and do this work. And I don’t think we are doing anything too different from other hurling counties . . . .”

After that, it was down to hard work – on the part of the youngsters as much as the coaches. Peter Casey was involved in coaching the U-15 group of which Shane O’Donnell was part. Even then, O’Donnell’s dedication was phenomenal. He had not been part of the U-14 squad and showed a ravenous appetite for improvement which he has maintained in his college years, travelling from UCC two and three nights a week to make Clare training.

“Maybe other lads were more talented when they were 15 but didn’t put in that effort and he is getting his just rewards. And that is someone to point to now for the next group of lads.”

It wasn’t an overnight transition. Colin Ryan had played with the minors for two years before winning a game of note. And the Moloney/O’Connor partnership might easily have been dissolved after the 2008 Munster minor-semi final when Clare were comprehensively beaten by Waterford.

They recognised that the Waterford lads were physically stronger and technically better than their charges and admitted as much in seeking a second term from their county board.

That secured, they set about rectifying those faults by seeking as much advice as they could and by putting those teams at the epicentre of their lives. The heartbreak of the 2008 Munster Under-21 hurling final, when a late free on a technical infringement gave Tipperary a victory, led to Clare’s first All-Ireland at that grade in 2009. Another title followed in 2012 and this year’s side cruised to a second consecutive title a week after the drawn All-Ireland final.

Munster minor champions in 2010 and 2011 and All-Ireland runners-up in 2010, there is no question that the county’s bleak underage record has been tackled. Like all Clare hurling people, Kevin Kennedy has been thrilled with the startling impact Clare’s underage teams have made in recent years.

Better organised
In 1997, the minor management did scour the county for talent and 15 clubs were represented on that team. But along with Sean O’Halloran, who was a selector then, they were scouting around indiscriminately looking for players. Now, there is a system in place.

“It is definitely better organised now and there is a big emphasis on skill,” Kennedy says. “The game has moved on from ‘97 now anyhow.”

The pace and skill with which the Clare senior team has hurled this summer has impressed many. The common observation is Clare are the latest team to change the way other teams will think about and coach hurling. Their predecessors in 1995 raised the bar for all other counties with a phenomenal training regime.

The current Clare play a controlled, measured game at an incredible sustained pace. The winning legacy of the past few years has given them the belief to implement it. Clare have underlined the notion that more than ever, it is a young man’s game.

“If you go back 10 or 15 years ago you would be saying that the peak of a player came at around 27 or 28,” says McMahon. “The game has changed and you might be seeing the peak at 24 or 25. You can talk and explain things to a lad but it is only be experiencing it that players get to know and feel what playing senior hurling is like.

“And I think in fairness when Sparrow [former manager Ger O’Loughlin] was over the team that is what he did. A lot of the team that is there now would have gone through his hands and experienced a few hard defeats and I think in fairness to him, he said: ‘we need to go with youth. We need to fire them in. We are not going to win the All-Ireland but they need to learn.’ And that is what he did. . . . . Hard defeats are the days you learn more than any day you win.”

For those excruciating few seconds at the end of this year’s drawn final, it seemed as if Clare’s young players were about to experience that truism in the toughest way possible.

Clare still have to add the lone splendour of that 1997 All-Ireland minor title. The stars of that day never got to hurl for Clare in Croke Park on a championship day again and had to live with the frustrations of that. By sunset tonight, Clare may or may not be the All-Ireland senior champions again but either way, they won’t be forgetting about the next generation.