Banner flying high - Clare hurlers are starting all over again, just as they were in the 2013 quarter-final
Winning the 2013 All-Ireland title raised hopes of a golden future but did that success in what was a moderate year give Clare an inflated view of their true status?
Published 23/07/2016 | 02:30
It wasn't supposed to be like this, certainly not as far as the Clare public were concerned. Rewind to the autumn of 2013 and glory days in Banner-land as it perched high on hurling's peak, surveying the scene below.
The All-Ireland senior and U-21 titles had been secured - the latter for a second successive year. Eight Claremen were selected on the All Stars team, 19-year-old Tony Kelly was Hurler of the Year and Davy Fitzgerald was a contender for Manager of the Year.
Meanwhile, every chat show wanted another 19-year-old, Shane O'Donnell, to re-tell the story of how, after learning only two hours before the start of the All-Ireland final replay against Cork that he would be playing, he went on to score 3-3.
Fergal Lynch (30), Patrick Donnellan and Brendan Bugler (both 28) were the oldest members in a squad where the average age of the 26 players named on the All-Ireland final match-day list was marginally over 23 years. Nine were aged 21 or lower.
With the underage production lines producing fresh talent, Clare completed an All-Ireland U-21 treble in 2014, further adding to a flow that seemed to be flooding towards becoming an unstoppable force.
In many ways it was reminiscent of Tipperary in 2010 when, after beating Kilkenny in the All-Ireland senior final, they hammered Galway by 25 points in the U-21 final in Semple Stadium six days later.
The seniors had ended Kilkenny's five-in-a-row ambitions and as presumption outstripped reality, there were some in Tipp who were openly predicting an extended period of domination. Embarrassingly, an All-Ireland five-in-a-row was even mentioned.
The giddy optimism was based on the win over Kilkenny and the belief that after the U-21 success every young hurler in Tipperary had superstar potential.
Yet, even the most basic analysis showed that the senior success, while superbly executed in the final, may not have been the portent of the bright future that Tipperary supporters expected.
It had been achieved against a Kilkenny team that lost Henry Shefflin early on, a setback of incalculable significance.
Equally importantly, Kilkenny were without centre-back Brian Hogan, a loss that goes some way to explaining how Tipperary scored four goals, some of which were created through the No. 6 channel.
Still, on the basis that All-Ireland winners are always deemed to be the epitome of perfection, Tipperary were classed as the team of the future, even if they had been beaten by Cork by 10 points three months earlier. Six years on, Tipperary are still awaiting their next All-Ireland title at senior or U-21 level.
Amid all the Clare euphoria of late 2013, it would have been pointless to remind supporters of the Tipperary experience. Once Liam MacCarthy or Sam Maguire is on the premises, counties can never see a rainy day ahead.
While Clare's delight in 2013 was understandable, a review of that championship suggests that it was one of the poorest for some time.
Uncharacteristically, Kilkenny hit a bum note all summer before exiting in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Galway, who took Kilkenny to a replay in 2012, fell into the all-too-familiar slump they often experience the year after losing an All-Ireland final.
Tipperary were flat, Waterford out-of-sorts, Cork erratic. Limerick and Dublin stepped into the vacuum to win Munster and Leinster titles respectively but neither survived the All-Ireland semi-finals, something that had not happened previously since 2004.
And it's a matter of record how close Clare came to losing the All-Ireland final, salvaging a draw with a wonderful strike from Domhnall O'Donovan before winning the replay, 5-16 to 3-16.
Both games were fascinating spectacles but how high was the standard? Few teams that concede 3-16 in any game, let alone All-Ireland finals, aren't beaten. Yet Clare did it twice and still emerged as champions.
Yet, for all that, there was an assumption in Clare that they would never see another bad day. The squad was young, Davy Fitzgerald had a plan, Kilkenny were supposedly in decline so what could possible go wrong?
Quite a lot actually. If the title had been won in a sub-standard year, the future was a lot more uncertain that it might appear.
Three seasons on, Clare head for Thurles tomorrow, having won only one championship game against a Tier 1 team since 2013.
It came against Limerick two weeks ago and while it spread a huge blanket of relief over Clare, it has to be viewed in the context of opposition whose form has declined over the past year.
Naturally, the failure to build on the high expectations which followed the 2013 win led to unrest in Clare.
Fitzgerald became an obvious target in a county packed with would-be replacements who believe they could do a much better job.
That, too, is understandable since anyone with managerial ambition would like to test themselves in Clare.
As 2014 and 2015 passed without Clare making any impression in the championship, there were dark mutterings about a golden generation being lost.
Fitzgerald's critics insist Clare would have done better under different management but would they?
We'll never know, of course, but if the assumption is based on the 2013 All-Ireland win, it's not convincing for reasons outlined earlier.
In a sense then, Clare are starting all over again, just as they did in 2013, when the quarter-final win over Galway launched the glorious run to All-Ireland glory.
Most of the team that beat Galway three years ago remain on board and, if anything, their desire to succeed is now greater, since they too have taken criticism on an individual basis.
But then, how many of them can say with total sincerity that they have performed to their maximum over the last two seasons? Very few, but they readily acknowledge that.
To their credit, they have not taken the easy way out by blaming the manager.
It shows an impressive level of maturity, based on the principle that they started as a group and will see it through together.
Tomorrow is a huge occasion for Clare. Having failed to reach the quarter-finals for the last two years, it wouldn't represent much progress to make the last six, only to stall again.
They know that, but are also deeply aware that they are coming up against opposition, whose needs are equally - if not even more - pressing.
It was the same in 2013 and Clare came through. They are older and wiser now but the pressure is greater too. Three years ago, they were embarking on a journey with a sense of innocent wonder as to where it might take them.
They now know what the rewards are like, but that makes it no easier to recover them. It's time for the 'golden generation' to show they can glitter again.