How to keep an edge while living on the edge
Travelling to Dublin last month for the All-Ireland semi-final with Cushendall, St Joseph's Doora-Barefield coach Louis Mulqueen was taken aback at newspaper coverage of the other semi-final between Birr and Athenry.
A year previously, his team had squeezed past Athenry at the same stage by a point. The Galway team had been upset by the disallowing of what they believed was a perfectly good equaliser but despite talk of appeals and challenges, they let the result stand.
St Joseph's went on to win the All-Ireland and the semi-final defeat rankled with Athenry to the extent that it was still on their minds as the climax to this year's championship approached.
"I was totally shocked when I read a newspaper article," says Mulqueen. "One Athenry player was still going on about the chances they had missed against Christy O'Connor (St Joseph's goalkeeper) and the point that wasn't allowed. I thought this was a crazy dilution of their focus and if I was a Birr man I'd be eating it up."
That Athenry managed to overcome this premature obsession with St Joseph's, defeat an accomplished Birr side and reach the final is evidence of how highly motivated they are. "I saw all the talk about how they've trained 150 sessions and I've been told by people there that it's true," says Mulqueen. "It's what their parish wants and expects. But we don't think we played to our potential either last year."
Mulqueen's achievement in guiding club champions back to Croke Park on St Patrick's Day puts St Joseph's on the threshold of emulating Sarsfields, for the next two days at least, the only club to retain the hurling All-Ireland. Yet it's been a tough year for the Clare team with the wear and tear of club success intensified by the presence of nine of their players - including the hugely influential trio of Sean McMahon, Ollie Baker and Jamesie O'Connor - on the county panel.
All three were All Stars a year ago but each endured their quietest inter-county championships since Clare sprang to prominence. Mulqueen was aware of the murmuring disgruntlement in the county, that the club was blunting the county form. This year he has been appointed trainer of the county hurlers and feels a specific responsibility for his club-men whom he will take for special sessions with the county in the aftermath of the club final.
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Twice this season St Joseph's have been to the edge of the abyss: Ogonelloe led them by a point three minutes into injury time in the Clare championship and five weeks ago similar deliverance was required to bring Cushendall, the unfancied Ulster champions, to a replay.
"We were on a hiding to nothing," he recalls about the Cushendall match. "I told people that and they said `sure, diplomatic talk' but I remembered the year we won the minor All-Ireland (Mulqueen was coach to the Clare minor team in 1997) we went up to Clones and only beat Antrim 0-13 to 0-8. Cushendall had three of that team as well as the more experienced players.
"They were a side with nothing to lose on a heavy pitch in February. As they scored and we missed frees, you could sense it behind you during the match, feel the tension and the sense that an upset was on the cards. The crowd was baying, the reporters getting excited and our players could sense it as well.
"That was my 23rd match with them and we'd only lost one (the 1997 county final against Clarecastle). When a team has been on a roll as long as we had, it just thinks it has to win, that it's just going to happen. We hadn't had to graft in desperation very often. But against Cushendall that day, our titles were on the line and we couldn't shake them. It's the sort of experience that's good for the players."
He believes that having stuttered their way to the final stages in Clare, St Joseph's produced their best hurling in the county semi-final, final and in Munster which they won with a fluent display against Ballygunner. As can happen, the Christmas break, instead of bringing rest and regeneration, disrupted that rhythm and flow. Mulqueen can feel the difference between now and last year.
"Twelve months ago I knew we were going to win. I had seen Rathnure in their semi-final and I knew we had edges in certain positions. This year at the back of my mind I'm wondering can we reproduce our best form on the day. I looked at the Birr match and couldn't but be impressed by Athenry.
"Their style of play is hard to counter: the puck-outs to (Joe) Rabbitte, (Eugene) Cloonan loose in the forwards. Our job is to counteract that, like in a game of chess. I believe we have the pieces and that it will probably come down to who has the heart and stomach and I know we won't be beaten in that department."