Sunday, 4 June, 1995 - The day that changed the face of Clare hurling
The Banner's unlikely lads stunned Cork with a late goal in a Munster semi-final and altered the course of hurling history, writes Martin Breheny
Was it the game that changed Clare hurling forever, an occasion which will never match the historic status of the Munster final win over Limerick five weeks later or the All-Ireland final success over Offaly in early September, but which played such an important role in the liberation of the Banner?
Was it the day that lifted the Clare spirit, opening into a world of possibilities which it was bold enough to explore, exploit and enjoy? As Clare supporters converge on Croke Park tomorrow afternoon, hoping to see their seniors emulate the U-21s, who won the All-Ireland title last Saturday week, they might usefully reflect on that early June Sunday over 18 years ago as a defining day for the county, an occasion which greatly helped in the emancipation process.
It's easy to allow time to dim the memory of a really important development in a sporting saga and replace it with those which carried the glisten of silver. And yet!
If Clare hadn't beaten Cork in the 1995 Munster semi-final, it's quite likely that their famine would have raged on. Back then, the championships were run on a cold, unforgiving knock-out basis. One defeat ended the season, quite often in May (Waterford were eliminated by Tipperary on May 21 in 1995).
In fact, Waterford completed their championship campaign before the end of May three times in five seasons (1993-97), underlining just how difficult it was for counties to build squads before the 'back door' was opened.
Clare were doing better than Waterford in that period, but their season would still have been over in early June in 1995 if Cork had beaten them.
Who knows where that would have left them?
Instead, Clare won in the most dramatic circumstances, securing a victory which proved to be one of the most important in the county's hurling history. Its ramifications linger on to the present day, not least in the fact that Davy Fitzgerald, then a key player and now team manager, has always typified the confident new face of Clare hurling from its breakthrough year in the mid-90s.
Clare had reached the 1993 and 1994 Munster finals, losing both heavily. In 1993, Tipperary beat them by 3-27 to 2-12, a shocking defeat for Clare, who had looked so progressive when beating Limerick and Cork in the earlier rounds. Ten months later, Clare beat Tipperary in the Munster quarter-final and despatched Kerry quite comfortably in the semi-final, only to suffer a nine-point defeat by Limerick in the final. A second Munster final trimming hinted at a serious confidence problem. Clare had neither excuses nor explanations.
"Limerick blew us off the park. They ran out 0-25 to 2-10 winners and there was nothing we could do to stop them. For some reason, we were off the pace," Davy Fitzgerald wrote in his autobiography.
Ger Loughnane took over from Len Gaynor as manager for 1995 and steered Clare to a National League final where they were well beaten by Kilkenny. It was as if finals froze the Clare mindset, preventing them delivering to their true potential. For all that, Loughnane told them after the league final defeat that Clare would win the Munster title. Right, Ger. Few believed him inside Clare, none at all outside.
Cork played poorly in the 1993 and 1994 Munster championships, but did well in the first 40 minutes of the 1995 Munster semi-final, by which stage they led Clare by five points. Loughnane decided it was time to take a more active role in the game. He took to wandering on to the pitch, talking all the time to his players as he criss-crossed the various lines.
"I was up and down the field, talking to the players, encouraging them, telling them the tide had turned and that we were going to win," he wrote.
However, Clare were hit by what might have been a match-turning setback after 55 minutes when centre-back Seanie McMahon injured his collarbone. Clare had used all three subs (the maximum allowed back then) so despite his serious handicap, he stayed on the pitch, switching to corner-forward.
Despite a spirited revival, Clare seemed headed for defeat when Kevin Murray scored a late goal for Cork to put them two points clear. But in one final act of drama, McMahon, stricken by injury but driven by relentless determination, forced Cork wing-back Tommy Kelleher to concede a line ball. Fergie Tuohy angled it neatly into the Cork square and Ollie Baker flicked the ball to the net for the winning goal.
According to Fitzgerald, it was a victory for genuine spirit on a special day.
"Cork were better hurlers than us on the day but we beat them with sheer commitment. Our blocking, tackling and passion were unbelievable. We were through to a Munster final, thanks to a man with a broken collarbone and a midfielder popping up for the winning goal. We had done to Cork what they had been doing to us for years."
Clare beat Limerick to win the Munster final for the first time since 1932. They beat Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final and Offaly in the final to take the title for the first time since 1914. After a surprise defeat by Limerick in 1996, they again completed the Munster and All-Ireland double in 1997 and won a third Munster title in four seasons in 1998, before losing the All-Ireland semi-final in a memorable trilogy involving Offaly.
That magical period changed the view of Clare hurling both internally and externally. Clare were "no longer the whipping boys of Munster" (Anthony Daly's words after winning the 1997 Munster final), instead seeing themselves as a powerful force who could match the best anywhere while the rest of the hurling world now looked on the Banner in a completely different light.
Clare's fortunes dipped in the new Millennium – certainly by comparison with the peaks they had visited in 1995-98 – but the mindset never changed. Youngsters taking up the game did so with a confident mentality, which had been carved deep into the county's psyche by the 1995 breakthrough and the subsequent successes.
Naturally, the silver-laden days of All-Ireland and Munster final wins are remembered most fondly in the county but would any of it have happened if Clare hadn't shown such incredible fortitude in the 1995 clash with Cork?
Was it one of the most important days in Clare hurling history, an occasion which more than 18 years later may well have a resonance as they attempt to write a new chapter which again involves Cork?
With Davy Fitz around, the spirit of '95 will certainly be there in glorious abundance.
How the teams lined out at the Gaelic Grounds
1995 Munster SH semi-final: CLARE 2-13 Cork 3-9
Davy Fitzgerald; Michael O'Halloran, Brian Lohan, Liam Doyle; Anthony Daly, Seanie McMahon (0-1), John Chaplin; Stephen Sheedy, Fergal Hegarty (0-1); Fergie Tuohy, PJ O'Connell (0-2), Jamesie O'Connor (0-4); Jim McInerney, Conor Clancy (0-1), Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin (1-3)
Subs: Ollie Baker (1-1) for Sheedy; Frank Lohan for Chaplin; Stephen McNamara for McInerney.
Ger Cunningham; Jim Cashman, John O'Driscoll, Pat Keneally; Peter Smith, Brian Corcoran, Timmy Kelleher; Cathal Casey, Barry Egan (0-1); Darren O'Donoghue (0-1), Ger Manley (1-0), Mark Mullins (0-2); Kevin Murray (1-2) , Alan Browne (1-2), Kieran Morrisson (0-1).
Subs: Fergal Ryan for Casey; Sean McCarthy for Morrisson; Darren Ronan for O'Donoghue.