Banner headliners: the top 25 Clare players of the past 25 years
From oblivion to Munster and All-Ireland glory, Vincent Hogan selects a special group of hurlers who delivered a lifetime of dreams to Clare
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Clare hurling was limping by in a bubble of mediocrity. Between '88 and '92, the county won just one of seven Munster championship matches played and, without the consolation of a back door, that meant gallingly short summers for the players and their supporters.
But Len Gaynor's arrival set in motion a revolution that brought successive Munster final appearances in '93 and '94, albeit resulting in heavy defeats to Tipperary and Limerick successively. It took Ger Loughnane's evangelical touch to take them to the next level in that never-to-be forgotten summer of '95.
That Clare team would win two All-Irelands and create the history that spawned the generation Davy Fitzgerald now guides in search of the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
We present our top 25 Clare hurlers from the last quarter of a century.
1 Seanie McMahon
A man Loughnane christened "the baby-faced killer", McMahon was, arguably, the finest centre-back of his generation and one of hurling's true all-time greats. Wonderfully skilful, his mental and physical resilience stood to Clare, time and time again, most famously when playing to the end of the '95 Munster semi-final against Cork with a broken collarbone.
2 Brian Lohan
The most intelligent, calculating full-back of the 90s, Lohan hurled with an edge that discouraged all but the most courageous from venturing close to the Banner 'square'. So often, that familiar red helmet became a symbol of Clare's defiance as Lohan's high fetches and booming clearances triggered great explosions of noise in the stand.
3 Anthony Daly
Nerves of steel and genuine charisma established Daly as Loughnane's on-field general and the emblematic personality of Clare's surge in '95 to a first Munster crown since 1932 and All-Ireland since 1914. Regarded as a fearless competitor, his sheer force of will was announced on the team bus before that '95 Munster final when, with some Limerick supporters shouting at the Clare players that they were wasting their time, the captain jumped to his feet, bellowing: "We'll f ... ..g show ye whether it's a waste of time or not!"
4 Davy Fitzgerald
The current Clare manager was one of hurling's most acrobatic and fearless net-minders, happy to openly challenge some of the greatest forwards the game has known to try their luck against him. Team-mates expressed astonishment at some of Fitzgerald's saves in training and his ferocious strike of a ball was regularly put to good use by Clare when awarded a penalty.
5 Jamesie O'Connor
Even before the breakthrough of '95, Jamesie was catching the eye. The day Tipp obliterated Clare in the '93 Munster final, he took the battle almost single-handedly to the Premier with a personal tally of 0-4 from play and grew to become the county's marquee forward for the next decade, collecting four All Stars along the way.
6 Ollie Baker
One of Loughnane's greatest achievements was to turn Baker into, arguably, the most influential midfielder of the 90s. Equipped with a massive physical presence, Baker lacked the skillset to be a top-class inter-county hurler and was not even picked for the start of the '95 championship. Yet, three months later, he was an All Star.
7 Colin Lynch
The ultimate heart-on-his-sleeve hurler, Lynch emerged in '97 as the perfect midfield foil for Baker. Aggressive, hugely mobile and a prolific point-scorer from distance. Prone to the odd intemperate moment but, when Lynch played well, Clare usually did too. A tough personality, he grew from a debut-season stand-off with Loughnane to become one of the team's real leaders.
8 Liam Doyle
The Bodyke man seemed a career corner-back until Loughnane's arrival transformed him into a key part of, arguably, the best half-back line in hurling. Quiet to the point of reticence off the field, Doyle was a ferocious on-field competitor with great hands and wonderful anticipation who won All Stars in both '95 and '97.
9 Frank Lohan
The younger of the Logan brothers, Frank was a fixture in the Clare full-back line for more than a decade, playing in 58 senior championship matches, a record
only bettered in the county by Davy Fitzgerald. Loughnane believed that left corner-back was his only position, but Lohan moved to full-back after his brother's retirement in '06 and captained Clare to an All-Ireland quarter-final appearance the following year.
10 Ger O'Loughlin
The 'Sparrow' endured relentless disappointment through his early inter-county years and was eight seasons a Clare player by the time they made the breakthrough. Prolific but lacking a physical presence, O'Loughlin was one of those who flowered through the harsher fitness demands Loughnane brought to bear in the Clare dressing-room. Became a fearless, indispensable figure until retirement in '99.
11 Niall Gilligan
Another triumph of Loughnane's psychological mastery. Unaware he was in the manager's starting line-up for the '97 All-Ireland final against Tipperary until shortly before throw-in, Gilligan's performance had much to do with Clare's victory. The Sixmilebridge man became a senior Clare fixture until retirement in 2010, winning an All-Ireland intermediate title one year later.
12 Cyril Lyons
Loughnane's eventual successor as Clare manager and a man who guided them to the '02 All-Ireland final, Lyons' 13-year inter-county career was tapering by '95. A prolific scorer through the lean years, he came on as substitute in the '95 final before retiring the following season.
13 Tony Kelly
Still a kid, but Kelly already has the look of a hurling superstar. Has carried on from a favourable debut season with Clare seniors to look an All Star in waiting this campaign and potential 'Hurler of the Year' if he fires again tomorrow night.
14 Brendan Bugler
One of the real leaders of the current side and a man who has developed his game even further after last year's All Star win. Powerful in the air, composed and steely in the heat of battle, Bugler is following in the Clare tradition of strong-willed personalities at half-back.
15 Tony Griffin
On his day, Griffin could look unmarkable and might have been a monumental presence in the Loughnane era had he emerged five years earlier. Hurled at his best for Clare under Anthony Daly, winning an All Star at left corner-forward in '06 and earning nominations in '04 and '05.
16 John Conlon
Remarkably, one of the elder statesmen of the current team at the age of 24, the Clonlara man won an All-Ireland U-21 title in '09 and has been a fixture with the seniors since. Great primary ball-winning presence at half-forward and a good score-taker, he has become a key figure in the Davy Fitz regime.
'Fingers' was an unorthodox hero of the 90s, long-haired, thin as a wraith but armed with searing pace and a selfless willingness to work. Man of the match in the '95 Munster final, O'Connell was described by Loughnane as the "free spirit" of that Clare team.
18 Tommy Guilfoyle
Cruelly missed out on the glory days having been a wonderful servant to Clare through the late 80s and early 90s. Cut from the panel in late '94 because of a hip injury, Guilfoyle was a big, traditional full-forward whose two goals helped Clare to a famously redemptive win against Tipp in that year's Munster championship.
19 Michael O'Halloran
A man described by Loughnane as having an "assassin-like" personality, his inter-county career was rendered cruelly short by injury, yet he packed two All-Irelands into the experience. Loughnane maintained the Clare full-back line was never the same after his retirement.
20 Brian Quinn
Unsung and, accordingly, under-valued outside the county, Quinn was an unflappable successor to O'Halloran. His bravery and skill in the No 2 shirt compensated for a lack of pace and he contributed outstandingly to the '98 Munster final win after Brian Lohan's sending-off.
21 Podge Collins
Another of the current breed making a big impression and, maybe, slightly premature to put him on this list. But Collins has been such a revelation in this championship, he looks destined for a glorious career. Over the shoulder point in the drawn All-Ireland final one of the most outrageous September scores ever seen.
22 Conor Clancy
Loughnane believed that Tipperary would never have won the All-Ireland in '01 if Clancy was still on the edge of the 'square' for Clare. A hugely physical presence in '95, the Kilmaley man's battles with Brian Lohan in training became the stuff of folklore. A real go-to figure on Clare puck-outs.
23 Fergie Tuohy
Man of the match in the '95 All-Ireland final with a priceless personal contribution of four points, Tuohy became one of the most substituted players of the Loughnane era, yet – on his day – had the confidence to hurt teams with jet-heeled pace and ability to pick a score.
24 Alan Markham
Highly skilful player with an ability to strike off left or right, Markham possibly suffered by acquiring the name of being a good utility player. Broke through in '98 and hurled for Clare until 2010, but never quite nailed down a specific place in the team.
25 Jim McInerney
A stalwart of Clare teams through the early 90s, McInerney was known as the 'bulldog' because of his physical power. Got his Celtic Cross in '95 as an unused substitute in the final.