Louis Mulqueen - Banner's element of surprise is gone
Published 11/06/2014 | 02:30
Louis Mulqueen often tells a story that captures the innate competitiveness of Davy Fitzgerald.
When Fitzgerald was still Clare goalkeeper and Mulqueen was in his first stint as a selector and physical trainer, the pair played a game of squash one Christmas Eve which Mulqueen won.
Early on St Stephen's morning, however, Fitzgerald was banging on Mulqueen's door seeking an immediate rematch. He wasn't, as Mulqueen recalled, prepared to take no for an answer.
It's a story that has a definite parallel for Clare in 2014. Just as Fitzgerald sought quick retribution over a game of squash, so, too, will the rest of hurling be on the Banner's back after last summer's sweep to unexpected glory. They, too, might not be willing to take no for an answer.
Clare expect it, but how will they deal with it? Mulqueen admits their ability to change and adapt will be severely tested.
"Last year they played some great hurling, but it was very open hurling," he recalled.
"If you watch the league this year, in some of the matches, there was no space. We played two open All-Irelands last year. Pure hurling I would call it, ourselves and Cork. It was so open and skilful. Conor Lehane ran 60 yards and stuck it into our net; Conor McGrath ran 40 yards and stuck it into their net.
"If you were to play another team, it could be a totally different game plan. You could be closed down and wouldn't have that space.
"Like, there are certain teams around that wouldn't let that happen," he warned. "What we did last year worked, but other teams have had six months to counteract it.
"You'd be stupid not to. You can't tell me Kilkenny and Tipperary haven't looked at videos of us last year and are now itching to play us.
"That has to be there and our challenge is to be creative. Do you hit the ball in the same direction twice? Will it work?" he asked.
"When we performed at our best last year it was in Croke Park on a bigger field. It was where we were creating space for our forwards.
"You either follow your man or mark the zone, but no team is going to give us that space. Tipp gave it to us in the league this year, but didn't give it to us in the semi-final.
"Conor McGrath got three goals in the first match against Tipp, but in the second match I don't know if he got a sniff on goal.
"We have to try to make sure this Clare team is different this year. We have a very young and skilful outfit that's still developing.
"But teams won't give us what we had last year and teams are waiting to play us," he predicted.
The need to adapt, the need to be more prepared for the physical and mental challenges ahead, is paramount among their youngest and most exuberant players.
"You saw last year Podge Collins and Tony Kelly performing very, very well in big matches. But I would say there is a lot more in them," said Mulqueen.
"The only question is that this year is a different challenge. They were unknowns last year. Podge Collins? No one knew what to expect.
"Now, this year, everyone has studied him. And everybody has studied Tony Kelly. So they have to see what level they are at and whether we can answer close marking and different game plans. I would say there's a difference there."
Kelly brought a "breath of fresh air" to hurling in 2013 with his inventive play from centre-forward and his best years, Mulqueen predicted, are ahead of him.
"You have to believe that in the sense that you're not going to stop improving at 20. Tony Kelly is only 20 years of age. And can you tell me that his best hurling is not ahead of him? Last year he brought a breath of fresh air to hurling.
"But this year, as the league went on, centre-backs closely marked him and it was a totally different game. So Tony Kelly needs to bring a new level to his game.
"How does he lose his close marker? Where does he get the space that he had last year? He's still Tony Kelly and he will still put the ball over the bar, but it is the frustration of not getting the space.
"That's how he has to develop experience. He has to actually learn his trade for the next three or four years at this level. Will he be the best hurler in Ireland again this year? He was last year, but I would say he must adapt to a different game this time round."
The stealth of being underdog in 2013 has been replaced by the confidence generated by what they did in that position and Mulqueen sees it as a fair trade off.
"We got a lot of breaks last year and grew in confidence as the year went on. We played better as we played Laois, Wexford and Galway and when we got to play Cork in the All-Ireland, we were probably playing our best hurling after 10 or 12 weeks of performing.
"This year we would have taken a lot of confidence from last year. Last year we doubted ourselves. We had young lads who didn't know how good they were. We're hoping that this year we start at the point where you have confidence in what you're doing. And then you can develop your hurling."
Mulqueen's big fear ahead of Sunday's All-Ireland final rematch is the two games against Waterford that Cork have under their belt.
"I remember being with (Ger) Loughnane in 2000 and we went down to watch Tipperary and Waterford, I think in the quarter-final, and we came away thinking we were in a good place. But then when we played Tipp down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh we didn't puck the ball. We were 'ate'.
"They had a game under their belts and that is the fear I would have this year going into the semi-final."