No looking back for Clare’s ‘father figure’ John Conlon
PwC GAA-GPA Hurler of the Month award winner is playing a blinder in this championship
Clare’s John Conlon and Barry Coughlan of Waterford at the Munster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Round 2 in Ennis, Co Clare in May. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
It was Anthony Daly, on The Sunday Game, who said that John Conlon was regarded as the father figure of the current Clare team. It’s a sobering tribute to someone who won’t be 30 until next year but, as well as reflecting the youth of the current county panel, it acknowledges the place of the Clonlara man in local affections.
“I suppose this year was a big change,” he said at Thursday’s presentation of the PwC GAA-GPA Hurler of the Month award for May in PwC’s offices in Dublin. “Pat Donnellan and Brendan Bugler and all the lads that I would have been very friendly with had left – the older lads on the panel. If you look at it now I’m 29 this year and I’m the oldest on the team. The average is around 25 or 26, so it is time for us to stand up.”
Conlon has already been standing up in this championship. In Clare’s first two matches in the new Munster round-robin, he has twice been Man of the Match after scoring 0-5 against Cork and backing it up with 1-3 and the penalty assist for Peter Duggan’s goal in the most recent contest against Waterford.
“We’ve a great management team,” he replied to a question about what had changed for him personally, “and got a few new lads in this year. We brought a nutritionist in and a couple of others on the training side of things and they’ve brought a lot to my personal game and to the team.”
They head for Thurles on Sunday, knowing that victory in Semple Stadium could not alone push them towards a provincial final but also end Tipperary’s interest in this summer’s championship.
By coincidence at the awards presentation he bumped into Tipperary’s Brendan Maher, who works with Teneo, the PR consultancy organising the event.
Two decades ago this rivalry was central to the summer, and this weekend will once more play a pivotal role in how the championship unfolds, as neither loser is likely to survive. Because of the round-robin format, this is one of Tipp’s home fixtures and it means the counties will meet in Thurles for the first time in 33 championships.
The rhythm of the new format is considerably different; as Conlon pointed out, the emphasis is on looking forward rather than back.
“It’s very exciting for players. We lost to Cork and literally two hours after getting the meal, we had a meeting to see how we would prepare for Waterford and you’re totally switched off from Cork.
“Whereas last year if we played that game we probably wouldn’t have another game for another three or four weeks, and everything would have been dissected and lads would have been down for the week, but on the night we just had to get tuned back in for Waterford.”
So in the space of seven days a five-point defeat gave way to a nine-point victory.
Asked the inevitable question about Clare’s ailing trajectory since winning the 2013 All-Ireland with a bunch of under-21s, Conlon was quick to point out that the season five years ago began with an underwhelming defeat by a Cork team, who they would memorably defeat in the replayed All-Ireland final three months later.
“We kind of snuck through the qualifiers. Wexford brought us to extra-time below in Thurles and then all of a sudden, we just got on a run: beat Galway and Limerick. It is like any team; you look at Liverpool this year in the Champions League – they got on such a run that you thought they wouldn’t have been beaten in the final.
“I remember saying to Colm Galvin after we beat Laois in the qualifiers, ‘there are only four or five games until the All-Ireland now,’ and he looked at me, saying, ‘are you for real? Don’t be dreaming.’
“And the same year, we just got on a roll. And I remember walking down the Hogan Stand after we lifted the cup and he just turned around to me. I said it to him and he just started laughing and said: ‘What are you on about?’”