Sport Hurling

Saturday 21 October 2017

Banner primed to lift Thurles hoodoo

Niall Gilligan celebrates
with Clare supporters
after beating Limerick at
Semple Stadium in 2008
Niall Gilligan celebrates with Clare supporters after beating Limerick at Semple Stadium in 2008

Christy O'Connor

As the 1998 Munster semi-final between Clare and Cork drew to a close, Banner manager Ger Loughnane strolled up the touchline in front of the Kinane Stand in Thurles.

His side had stepped on the gas in the previous 10 minutes to leave Cork trailing in their rear-view mirror and the crowd rose to acclaim Loughnane as he walked alongside the Clare section in the stand.

The noise had almost built to a crescendo by the time the final whistle sounded and Loughnane made his way to the Killinan End before triumphantly pumping his fist in front of the Clare terrace.

At that moment, Clare were the undisputed kings of the hurling world, with Loughnane the central ruler. It was a rare outburst of emotion from Loughnane, but it could easily have been interpreted as a release of 20 years of pent-up frustration.

After losing the 1977 Munster final to Cork, Clare returned to Thurles the following season hell-bent on atonement. A two-point defeat effectively broke that Clare team which Loughnane was such an integral part of.

Loughnane and his players created their own legacy in the 1990s, stampeding over historical trends in the process.

Along with winning two All-Irelands, Clare bestrode the Munster championship like Spartan warriors, avenging decades of oppression. That semi-final result in '98 was Clare's fourth championship win over Cork in six years.

However, it was their first victory over Cork in Thurles since '81.

Clare had experienced a lot of heartbreak in Thurles prior to '95, but when they destroyed Waterford in the '98 Munster final replay, they looked to have firmly arrested a trend which had always haunted the county.

The stark reality has been very different in the meantime. Clare have played 10 championship matches in Thurles and won just one -- the 2008 Munster semi against Limerick.

That statistic is exacerbated by their woeful league record there as well. Since defeating Kilkenny in the 2001 semi-final, Clare have lost a league quarter-final, two semi-finals and a final at Semple Stadium. They also lost the Division 2 final there to Wexford in 2010.

Clare never had a good track record in Thurles, especially at underage. Yet it was always respectable at senior level. Between 1951 and 2001, Clare played 55 games in league and championship in Semple Stadium and lost 25.

They had a decent history there in league and championship quarter-finals and semi-finals, but disappointing Munster final defeats in '72, '77, '78, '81 and '94 added to the mystique that Thurles represented a graveyard for Clare hurling before '95.

The trend was briefly altered afterwards, before being completely reversed when Clare experienced their longest losing streak in Semple Stadium, suffering six successive championship defeats at the venue.

Identity

The manner of some of those losses undermined the identity Clare created in the 1990s: an 11-point defeat to Cork in '03, a 19-point hiding from Waterford in '04. When Clare reached the league final the following season, Kilkenny whipped them by 14 points.

On the other hand, Clare's poor record in Thurles since '98 is reflective of their poor performances in the Munster championship in the intervening period. Since defeating Tipperary in the '99 Munster semi-final replay -- one of Clare's greatest ever displays -- the Munster championship has largely been a wasteland for them.

They have only won three Munster championship games since -- the '03 quarter-final against Tipp, and the '08 quarter and semi-finals against Waterford and Limerick. Clare have failed to win a game in the Munster championship in 10 of the last 12 seasons.

"Clare's record in general has been poor," says Banner captain Patrick Donnellan.

"Our record in Thurles has been terrible but we don't see that as any extra baggage for us. I absolutely love playing in Thurles; it is one of those pitches where you saw your heroes be so successful. That's where you want to be playing.

"Our recent history there is irrelevant now because every year is a different squad, a different team. This is a year for us to make a name for ourselves and to try and win something."

The mindset has changed now, because so has the culture. When the Clare senior team were struggling in Thurles during the last decade, their underage teams were similarly fighting to survive .

Apart from a few results against Kerry, one of the most alarming statistics for most of the last decade was Clare's failure to win a first-round championship game at minor or U-21 between 2000 and '07.

The performances of the U-21 team in '08, when they should have won a Munster title, finally halted the decline. The graph has been steadily rising ever since because Clare have produced their most talented crop of underage players in nearly two decades.

Along with landing an All-Ireland U-21 title in '09, Clare won successive Munster minor titles, in 2010 and 2011, for the first time in their history.

The county is producing a new breed of player, almost untypical of Clare sides in the past: highly skilful, pacy, some beautiful ball-players and excellent forwards.

However, the senior players on the panel still have to show the leadership qualities and hard edge of the successful team of the '90s.

The professionalism of the current set-up, though, has addressed the side's deficit in physicality and fostered a far greater level of belief. Management have also designed and implemented a game plan and style of hurling which suits the squad's make-up.

The pace, class and fitness Clare have now is tailor-made for the wide spaces of Thurles.

Crucially, the influx of so many young players with a successful underage pedigree has equipped the panel with a mentality to win there.

The '09 U-21 team won an epic All-Ireland semi-final against Galway after extra-time in Thurles. The 2010 minor team won their Munster title in Semple Stadium. Last year's minor side went to Tipperary's back yard and bullied the Premier minors around the field in the provincial semi-final.

"We have plenty of young players who have won big matches in Thurles at minor and U-21 level," says Fergal Lynch. "They feel they can win anywhere and that has really rubbed off on everyone else.

"There is great belief in this squad now. We'd be fairly confident that we will perform on Sunday. And if we do, our poor record in Thurles will be rectified by Sunday evening."

Since Clare's last win in the championship, not counting the meaningless relegation play-off against Wexford in '09, they have gone four years and six successive championship matches without a win. They have lost those six matches by an aggregate margin of 54 points.

A win on Sunday is desperately required to arrest the negative trend and herald a new beginning for Clare hurling. And securing it in Thurles would add a sugar lump to the taste.

Irish Independent

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