Questions still to be answered
The revolution goes on but for Clare's youngsters, this game is almost a must-win, writes Dermot Crowe
SOME of the current Clare hurlers weren't born when Limerick arrived at Cusack Park in 1993 for the first round of the Munster senior championship.
Unlike now, local expectation was decidedly restrained. Clare had won just once in the province in five years, appearing increasingly destitute since vigorously contesting the 1986 Munster final against Cork.
They faced a perky rival that had won the league the previous year. Two years before that, on Anthony Daly's debut in the championship, Limerick crushed Clare with 14 points to spare. But an ambush was afoot and out of this a team emerged that would, notwithstanding some calamities, land long-awaited Munster and All-Ireland titles by the middle of the decade.
Clare had also started to make indentations at underage, though modest by contemporary standards. In 1989, they reached the All-Ireland minor final and in 1992 that crop fought a ferocious losing battle with Waterford in the Munster under 21 final. The modern generation has had a superior schooling: two All-Ireland under 21 titles and two Munster minor wins in the last four years. Unlike their predecessors they are expected to win and they need to. But they would not be where they are without their predecessors.
Like the situation that prevailed 20 years ago, the reward for victory will be a semi-final against Cork and a possible route to the Munster final which Clare has contested only once since 1999. In 1993, Brian Lohan made his bow at corner-back, a skinny impression of the towering figure that would physically mature over the next two seasons. A year after, Seánie McMahon was introduced. Daly and Davy Fitzgerald were already established. Dressing-room veterans included Jim McInerney and Cyril Lyons. That win over Limerick would prove a gateway to better things; today Clare need a win for the same reason.
Clare haven't won a Munster championship game in eight of the last nine seasons but expectation levels are difficult to contain. The team that made the breakthrough in the 1990s had no such problems, even well into 1995. "I think there is pressure," says Donal Moloney, joint manager of the under 21 team that won the All-Ireland last year. "I would see it as pressure to deliver."
Moloney is intimately acquainted with the players at Clare's disposal and the character they possess. But promise is one thing. Cutting it at senior level, having the right alchemy, that is another. "It requires constant hard work on everyone's behalf and constant diligence. All sorts of things can happen. A spate of bad injuries. All sorts of variables can come into it.
"The guys of the '90s arrived through many different routes, some through one major underage team. Sometimes that is the best way to build a team. Sometimes the group that comes together takes a while. Waterford will roll out Brick Walsh and Seamus Prendergast on Sunday and they are two pivotal figures. Clare maybe have Brendan Bugler, and maybe Patrick Donnellan; really outside of that they don't really have any players from that period.
"If you look at Kilkenny, the age profile, you always have a backbone of guys in the late 20s and early 30s who have seen it all before. Our guys have to learn that. They have nobody they can look to on the field to fill the void. I mean, Seamus Prendergast, he is going to have a lot of young lads like Jake Dillon who will feel so such more comfortable going in on Sunday with him there."
Davy Fitzgerald has been quick to dampen expectations when he can. After the heavy league defeat to Tipperary, he seized on the opportunity to counsel caution. "I was listening to so much rubbish during the week about Clare winning All-Irelands. I keep saying we're building; I've been saying this from day one but some of our own people get so carried away."
Moloney understands the expectation sitting on Clare while cognisant of its perils. "I don't think there is any substitute for experience. And unfortunately Clare are short of that at this moment in time. I think that will lead to some painful set-backs. We need to be guarded in our expectations. I think they are getting more competitive. I think their response to the potential for relegation in the league was pretty emphatic; they gave a terrific performance against Cork.
"The challenge is to deliver that every single day in order to win a major trophy. That is a big ask. I would think a realistic goal would be getting to the Munster final and maybe to get to an All-Ireland semi-final."
Brian Lohan was involved as a coach with the Clare minors in 2009, along with Moloney, when they were stopped dead in their tracks by Waterford. "I think we've got good quality, serious guys, good forwards. You have got potential there and an exciting bunch of players. But still with question marks about them and question marks in a number of positions as well."
Lohan is still waiting to be convinced that they have found their feet defensively. "That is an area of the field you would have question marks about. Are they going to be able to handle the physical power of the likes of (Seamus) Prendergast on Sunday? Is Prendergast going to exert the influence he had in the last few years? If they don't get to grips with him, they are going to make it very difficult for themselves. He will win ball and throw it out to Brian O'Halloran and (Jake) Dillon and they are able to score. You would think they have seen enough of him and he is not going to be allowed do so again this year."
But whatever limitations still exist, Clare realise this is a game they virtually have to win. "Every team comes to a point when you have to stop talking about potential and start actually making it happen," states Lohan. "It's time for that now for this team. Those '09 21s are now 24, 25 years of age. How long are you going to wait?"
The defeat of the Clare minors by Waterford in 2009 served as an eye-opener. Moloney wasjoint manager with Gerry O'Connor, the latter having been with those players since under 14, Moloney linking up two years later. They felt they were at the cutting edge until Waterford overturned an earlier loss to win in the Munster semi-final in Ennis, scoring three goals.
"I remember Donal handing me the manager's bib after the match and saying have a good look at that, you won't see it again. That is how we felt, we felt we had fucked up to be honest with you," says O'Connor. "We said we were not fit enough, strong enough, organised enough. I will be perfectly honest, I picked up the phone and rang Jimmy Meaney, the Waterford manager, two weeks later and asked what they were doing and what he said blew me away. What they were doing from a fitness and conditioning perspective; we were way behind."
They sought advice from Pat Flanagan, the well-known fitness coach, and a series of contacts led them to a young Limerick man Paul Kinnerk, who had a background in sports science. "He changed how we prepared a team. He put huge emphasis on individual programmes for players from a fitness point of view and hurling point of view. He put in place what we would hope is a continuous incremental improvement system," says O'Connor. The next year's minors reached the All-Ireland final, unlucky to lose to Kilkenny. The '09 minors would return to win the All-Ireland under 21 title last September.
And they did it in style. The endearing hallmark of recent Clare teams has been the high density of highly-skilled hurlers, confident, expressive. O'Connor recalls one of his selectors back when the first successful under 21 side were 14-year-olds, PJ Kelleher, making a point of seeing beyond conventional selection lines.
"I think there was a tradition of picking really physical strong players at the time and I remember PJ Kelleher identified a lack of mobility in some of the really physical players. Let us look at this long term and focus on the really pacy guys with good hands and good feet. We set out a template and based our panels on that type of a player. At the same time a huge amount of clubs were conducting good coaching in the county.
"You take any under 14 player, you will see the big centre-forward and this big player at centre-back and they will not always translate into a good minor or senior. We were lucky that PJ Kelleher challenged us to think slightly outside the box. By all means do bring in a real physically imposing player but look closely in trials at the guy with good feet and hands."
When Clare won the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2009, having never won a Munster championship at the grade until that year, John Minogue hailed it as breaking the reliance on the team of the 1990s. There were boys of nine and ten who did not remember the 1990s team and they needed new role models to inspire them. Minogue was part of the management team.
"There would be a lot of hope in Clare for the future, whether it starts this year or not. You still have a lot of young players who are 19 or 20, some got a run last year but quite a few are new fellas off last year's under 21 team. Munster senior championship is a different kettle of fish, I think people will be travelling in hope, with good reason to be hopeful of a good result for Clare."
They also have brought in Tony Kelly, introduced against Dublin last summer in the qualifiers, and Darach Honan appears to have finally had a clear run from injury. Honan was a star member of the 2009 under 21 side, shooting 2-4 in the All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway. He is a natural goalscorer and match-winner but only came on as a late sub against Waterford last year and looked out of practice when missing a late goal chance.
"He got a lot of success at a young age," says Minogue. "He did a lot of hurling from 18 to 21 and the body took a lot of punishment. He suffered a number of injuries and maybe lost his appetite a bit and then going off to third-level college might have been a factor.
"He seems to be coming back on the scene. This time of year is when he really blossoms. He could turn the game in two minutes. He can have a couple of goals in the twinkling of an eye. He is very important to the Clare set-up."
Honan is not named but expected to play. His club Clonlara is part of a new revolution on the club circuit that has seen the axis of power shift from traditional areas. Crusheen, Cratloe and Ballyea have also emerged as forces in the domestic championship and begun to backbone Clare teams. The quality of coaching within those clubs is much remarked upon.
"I think we made a huge mistake after '97, possibly a bit because we won minor and senior the same day, and felt that coaching wasn't overly important," says Anthony Daly. "Not giving it the attention it deserved. There was probably that feeling you are on top of the world and every young lad will want a hurley. By the early 2000s there was a realisation we needed to do something, to get more coaching resources. Clare are reaping the benefits of that now."