Martin Breheny: When Banner brigade ruled Premier rivals
Published 16/06/2011 | 05:00
IT'S all very sanitised these days, but there was a time when children were put to bed early, dogs ran for cover and the smell of sulphur wafted on to the terraces when Clare and Tipperary clashed in the hurling championship.
Throughout much of the 90s and early into the new Millennium, it was one of hurling's most intense rivalries, regularly attracting over 40,000 spectators, more than twice what's expected in the Gaelic Grounds for Sunday's Munster semi-final.
The recession is, understandably, having a negative impact on crowds this year, but, in the case of Clare v Tipperary, the drop in interest is also linked to the changed stature of both counties.
Tipperary will head for Limerick as All-Ireland champions, whereas Clare remain a Division 2 side who are seeking their first win in Munster since 2008.
Failure to secure promotion in either of the last two seasons has been a major setback, which explains why they are priced at 8/1 to beat Tipperary.
Granted, Clare ran Tipperary to two points in the Munster semi-final two years ago, but the Banner had been in Division 1 that spring and, while they finished bottom of the table, they still went into the championship having played all the top teams.
It's very different now -- for a second successive season, they were in Division 2, where they found Limerick a few steps ahead of them on two occasions, eventually losing out to their neighbours for the precious promotion slot.
Limerick franked the Division 2 form with a good performance against Waterford last Sunday, but it's still asking an awful lot of Clare to match the All-Ireland champions, who have a tough championship game against Cork behind them.
It was all so different in the 1994-99 period when Clare enjoyed their best ever run against Tipperary. But then that was the most productive era in Clare history, one which Sunday's rival managers Declan Ryan and Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin will recall with vastly different mindsets given their teams' fluctuating fortunes.
Ryan was Tipperary's centre-forward, regularly taking his experience and guile into battle against Seanie McMahon, while O'Loughlin's sniping activities were central to Clare's attacking plan in the '95 Munster and All-Ireland breakthroughs.
Len Gaynor's role in advancing Clare's cause in the early 90s has never been undervalued by those who appreciate that the seeds of the breakthrough were sown pre-Ger Loughnane.
However, Gaynor left at the end of '94, only to see Clare break new frontiers a year later.
Clare would still be the dominant force in '97 when Gaynor, by then the Tipperary manager, was at the wrong end of two close contests.
Gaynor laid the Clare platform, but there's no doubt that Loughnane's arrival in late '94 was the catalyst for the ultimate drive which took them to All-Ireland glory just two years after being demolished by Tipperary in the Munster final.
Loughnane's role in raising the profile of both Clare and hurling in general was substantial on two fronts. Clare were new, brash and mighty effective; Loughnane was mischievous, provocative and utterly uncaring about everything other than how it figured in the master plan to keep Clare at the top.
He generated a siege mentality which helped create two camps: those who admired Clare for finally raising the Banner on the highest peak, and those who thought that they were insufferable upstarts.
The majority were in the former camp in the early years of the Loughnane reign, but many defected as the 90s wore on and Clare became involved in some unnecessary stunts.
Still, there could be no denying that Clare were big box-office.
It was quite common for their league games with Limerick -- in particular -- to draw over 20,000 to the Gaelic Grounds, while their championship outings turned into great adventures.
Beating Tipperary twice in the '97 championship was the sweetest double success in Clare history and since Ryan was on the receiving end on both occasions, he will be preaching caution among his squad, even if times and circumstances have completely changed.
Now, the pendulum has swung back in Tipperary's direction and seems set to remain there for the foreseeable future.