Clare have followed Kilkenny's lead in an effort to revisit their hurling glory years, writes Dermot Crowe
A FEW years ago, some Clare hurling people travelled to Kilkenny hoping to learn more about their successful development squad programme. Pat Henderson, a man with fond memories of National League excursions to Clare through the 1970s, led a welcoming party happy to oblige. Tea was served and experiences shared. The Clare delegation left satisfied that nothing had been concealed or deemed off limits.
Not long after Clare defeated Kilkenny in an All- Ireland under 21 final and almost toppled an unbackable Kilkenny side in the minor final in 2010. They hold back-to-back minor titles in Munster which is unprecedented for any county outside of Cork and Tipp. And today they face Kilkenny in Thurles with a senior team that is still raw but showing promise and well stacked with several hurlers off recent successful underage sides.
By the time the Clare delegation met Henderson and others involved in underage hurling in Kilkenny, those Clare teams were already well into their development cycle. Clare had vastly upped their game and started producing competitive sides but there was still plenty of room to bring it on another few levels. Going to Kilkenny was part of that education process.
"The pitfalls were highlighted to us," says Jim McInerney, the former Clare hurler and a member of a committee looking after the county's development squads. "They told us things we would never have thought of. We found them very helpful. Their attitude was that it was for the sake of hurling; as far as they were concerned, it was going to improve hurling in Clare."
He admits he was a bit surprised at their openness. "I thought it was a great attitude; that they were going to help out a county that may some day come along and beat them because of the improvements they had shown us."
McInerney is joined on the committee by other former Clare hurlers, Jamesie O'Connor, Brian Quinn and Seánie McMahon, as well as one of the mainstays of underage hurling development in Clare for many years, Seán O'Halloran. O'Halloran's work is well regarded. He served for over ten years as Bord na nóg chairman during which time Clare's underage performance showed clear improvement. He was also a selector with the team that won the 2009 All-Ireland under 21 final against Kilkenny.
That proved a telling endorsement of the work being done. Earlier in the year, Clare went to Waterford and defeated the hosts to win their first Munster title at under 21 level after a sorry sequence of 12 final defeats. Eight of the Clare team that started against Limerick in the recent Division 1B final played against Kilkenny in the 2009 All-Ireland under 21 final. But for Darach Honan's long-term injury it would almost certainly have been nine.
Clare also gleaned valuable tips from Tipperary's underage model and are always looking for ways to improve and stay up to date. The 2010 Munster minor win was the county's first since 1981. They won the 1997 All-Ireland through the back door, having been beaten by Tipperary in Munster. From 1983 to 2008, every Munster minor title was won by Cork or Tipperary. Before that at least every second minor title was won by one of those counties. But new ground has been broken since then with the last three titles won by Waterford and Clare, twice.
The nature of Clare's hurling has also changed, with more natural ball players, wristy and instinctive and nimble on their feet. Power is still a vital component, as today's opponents illustrate more than any other team hurling team, but the breeziness in the emerging breed of Clare hurler and the arrival of classy forwards has given the county renewed hope of better days ahead.
McInerney managed the Clare minors for one year in the earlier part of the last decade and had a son pass through the development squad system. His own first-hand experiences prompted him to get more involved.
"Seán O'Halloran put in huge work and was trying to recruit coaches and organise pitches by himself. It was too much for one man. Those minor teams are the fruits of his work. We only got involved three years ago and our work won't be judged until 2014 on.
"We tried to identify the weaknesses in Clare hurling and work on those. And I must say the county board would have backed us big time. Bord na nóg would not have had the finance to do it."
He recalls the 2009 Clare minors playing a challenge match against Kilkenny in Ennis and the Clare under 17s struggling to field against Kilkenny the same night. His son was part of the under 17 squad. "I met one of the Kilkenny management and asked him would he be stepping up the next year with the minors and he said, no, he was stuck with the 17s . . . he said if they got eight or ten every year to play minor they we doing a great job. That stuck with me. He was just interested in serving Kilkenny.
"The same evening the Clare under 17s struggled to put out 15 players, some guys didn't show -- it was badly organised anyway. That said, for 50 minutes they were well in it and Kilkenny won out handy in the finish. And I thought, what a shame; we did not have a proper 17 squad there. So I met Seánie McMahon shortly afterwards, at a funeral maybe, and we just got talking. And that is why we decided to row in behind Seán O'Halloran. We just felt at the time Clare hurling was in a bad place in general, the senior team wasn't going well. 'Twas something we could do and contribute to."
McInerney says one weakness they identified -- "all our lifetime, for 30 or 40 years anyway" -- was Clare's performance in the air. "We would have found most work at club level is on your touch and speed whereas in actual fact to improve your overhead hurling everything has to be slowed down. It is all about judgement, all about doing it often enough to get good at it."
They increased the numbers being monitored at all age levels and improved the coaches and made sure there were no headaches like trying to get pitches, such as that experienced when Brian Lohan was a sometimes frustrated minor manager three years ago. All of this industry is feeding optimism of a bright future. Clare's last Munster senior title win was 14 years ago, barely within the memory reach of a current minor.
"I think there are a lot of very good young players in Clare," says McInerney. "We have a good senior panel at the moment, good senior management. It was a big step two weeks ago to get out of Division 1B. There's a lot of good young lads in the next three or four years that will be joining that panel. I think we have had the best minor player ( Tony Kelly) over the last couple of years."
O'Halloran, though, spells a note of caution: "It took a while to get it to the stage it is at and I would say it is far from being perfect, we are still a bit behind Kilkenny and maybe Tipp. But everyone with a bit of potential is getting the opportunity to wear a county jersey. That is crucial.
"We met the likes of Pat Henderson and people who had been instrumental in overseeing the structure in Kilkenny. They were very straight up and we appreciated that. They are real hurling people in Kilkenny. That is what they aspire to; they would have no other allegiances. I think that was the big thing. And I could see the people involved were hugely loyal. They stuck by it and that was it. Nobody was in it for the sake of being in it.
"I would say we are 70-80 per cent there. I often came home from Limerick or Thurles a very disappointed man after the performance of our minor team when I was chairman of the ( juvenile) board. We have had lean years. I saw a Clare minor team beaten by 20 points by Tipp for two or three years and they were tough times."
O'Halloran has known many of the players lining out against Kilkenny in today's league semi-final since
their early teens. "They are a really good bunch of lads, really dedicated; I'd only have the height of praise for them. There are huge characters in that set-up. They really want to do well."
Much of the drive has come from clubs, especially new forces like Clonlara, Crusheen and Cratloe who have won senior titles in recent years. Seánie McMahon admits the impact of Clare minor and under 21 teams has created a "buzz" of expectation. Today will be a huge part of their learning. "I think it's a perfect game for them. They are in bonus territory, we can approach this in a very free-spirited kind of way. And I would expect a good performance from Clare."