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Thursday 17 April 2014

'The whole thing is still a bit surreal. It's still only sinking in'

Glory, ecstasy, elation -- Clare captain Donnellan takes us through Banner's epic march to glory

Clare captain Patrick Donnellan collects the Liam MacCarthy cup after defeating Cork in the All-Ireland final replay

Pat Donnellan glanced at the clock on the big screen for the first time and finally realised it was all over. Darach Honan had just scored Clare's last goal. Clare were six points up. The three minutes of allotted injury-time had almost been played. After so many resurrections, Clare had finally driven the stake through Cork's heart.

Glory. At last.

Donnellan took a few seconds to look around. To drink in the atmosphere. To let the tension drain away. He didn't have to worry about the next ball or focus on the next challenge. Clare were All-Ireland champions.

Ecstasy. At last.

"You just lose it," says Donnellan. "You don't know what you're doing. You're just running around trying to find someone to jump on or to hug. It's just such a sense of relief that you explode inside. You are running around like a little child all over again."

The roar and the explosion of emotion the final whistle triggered was so primal and raw that it could only have come from a county that seldom experiences All-Ireland glory, that wants it so desperately. As dusk fell across Croke Park, it was hard to make sense of such a magical day, of an All-Ireland final that was surely the greatest ever.

It was perfect, one of the most epic finals in the history of any sport. A match packed with power and class, skills executed at such pace and consistency unseen before in any sport, in any era, all underpinned by a relentless feeling that anything could happen next. It was so breathless and unique that it almost felt like a dream.

Donnellan was suddenly living the dream so intensely that he struggled to actually believe that it was real. He climbed the steps to accept the Liam MacCarthy almost in a trance.

"It really felt like an out-of-body experience," he says. "I would have watched guys going up there for years lifting the Liam MacCarthy. You would always have your dreams, but no matter how optimistic I would have ever been of doing it, you would still have always seen it as the pinnacle and nearly out of your reach. When you actually get to do it, it was nearly unbelievable. I was trying to take everything in, but I was looking around asking myself, 'Is this actually happening'."

Clare were champions for just the fourth time. Donnellan had become only the third Clare man to captain his county to the ultimate glory. His life would never be the same again.

 

THE JOURNEY

Like so many All-Ireland-winning captains before him, Donnellan didn't arrive as a precocious talent or travel to the top as an indestructible force. He had his struggles. He got his beatings. There were plenty of times when captaining his county to All-Ireland senior glory seemed as unrealistic as him landing on the moon.

Donnellan never won a game at minor or U-21 with Clare. After first being drafted onto the senior panel by Anthony Daly in 2006, and making his championship debut that summer against Cork, he was dropped from the squad at the outset of the following year by Tony Considine.

"I was very disappointed," says Donnellan. "After your first year, you want to push on. When Mike Mac (McNamara) brought me back in 2008, I was delighted. You would have your low days, but I had seen what it was like not to be there and I probably had a different point of view to other fellas. We had some real low days, but I was making sure that I made every day count."

Donnellan lost a Munster final in 2008. That team broke up soon afterwards, the slope caught them and the slide began. A talented crop of underage players were coming, but they were initially loaded with the twin burdens of being Clare's present and Clare's future. There wasn't time to condition them for the hardship that lay ahead. They struggled. The team struggled.

In the six championship matches Donnellan played between 2009 and 2011 (excluding an irrelevant relegation game v Wexford), Clare lost every one. They were beaten in their three qualifier games in those seasons by an aggregate margin of 40 points.

Davy Fitzgerald completely altered the culture and the mindset when he took over in 2012. They were promoted to Division 1 and finally won a championship game for the first time in four seasons. When Clare won their second All-Ireland U-21 title in four years at the end of the 2012 season, it confirmed that the county had produced the most talented generation of young players in its history.

That gifted generation knew nothing else only winning and they arrived bearing the future. Clare were ambitious and in a hurry to seize it, but the real big glory days still looked to be in the distance.

"You would have taken an awful lot of confidence from seeing the young players come through over the last few years," says Donnellan. "It's gone so professional now that you are always looking for consistent increments and to get steadily better year by year. In recent years, we had gone up and then gone back down. If you were to be realistic, you'd be thinking that if we slowly got better and started reaching Munster finals and All-Ireland semi-finals, then we have a chance to challenge and a right to win it.

"Even when we lost the Munster semi-final, we went back down and had to come up again from the bottom. Because there are those peaks and troughs, you would wonder if it is ever going to happen.

"The consistency wasn't there whereas a team like Tipperary were winning Munster titles and consistently getting to All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.

"At least they were consistently up there and had a right to think about winning All-Irelands.

"To win it after coming from a level of inconsistency and 16 years without winning, it was why it came as a shock and a surprise. I always would have thought we had the players and the capability and that it was a small margin. But at the top level, small margins are still very big."

Massive.

WHAT THE JERSEY REALLY MEANS

 

"It is a real privilege for us to represent Clare. A real privilege for us to walk out in Thurles or Croke Park. The real characteristic of this team is that we really do not want to get carried away. We do not want to be a one-hit wonder. The younger lads in particular have instilled that will to win every day we go out. We want that sense of achievement for Clare. It's so close to our hearts and it makes it all the better for us."

-- Donnellan's speech at the team's medal presentation in early December

 

Donnellan's three older brothers grew up during a time when Irish soccer was establishing itself on the European and World stage. Italia '90 grabbed such a hold on their imaginations that soccer was their game.

Donnellan was of a different time. He was 10 when Clare won their first All-Ireland in 81 years in 1995. PJ O'Connell was on the team, Ger Moroney was on the panel, O'Callaghan's Mills men, local heroes who were far more accessible than global soccer stars.

"I grew up with the Liam MacCarthy coming in to the school," he says. "Fingers (O'Connell), Ger Moroney, Bobby Frost and other lads who were on the Clare panel over the years were the people I looked up to. They were the Ronaldos of my time. They were the guys you wanted to be like.

"I saw the effort and commitment those guys put in and you would have seen yourself hopefully getting there when you got older." Growing up in that time, in that culture, imbued Donnellan with a deep passion for the Clare jersey. That fire burned so deeply in his soul that he almost felt a spiritual connection to the jersey.

"To see Clare winning All-Irelands gave me a real sense of pride and tradition and a love for Clare and the Clare jersey," he says. "I put a lot of emphasis on certain things myself and I like having a sense of pride in the actual jersey I wear. I like taking care of it. I like feeling that it is my jersey when I am wearing it and it is something I have to put all my effort into.

"The jersey is something that is hugely important to all the Clare hurlers now and in the future. I really just love to play for Clare. It was something I grew up really wanting to do and when I got the jersey, I made a commitment that I was going to do what I could for it.

"When you are captain and that bit older, you feel a sense of responsibility towards the whole idea and the whole tradition of Clare hurling. You want to feel that you are doing as much as you can for it and that you are going to leave it in a better state than it was when you first got it.

"Walking off the bus in Croke Park or Thurles, I love having the Clare T-shirt on. Going out in the parade, walking around with the Clare jersey and the Clare crest is something very special. It is hugely important to me and it always will be. Even when I'm not playing, I will have a real fondness for the Clare tradition."

 

OH CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

 

During the homecoming, when the open-top bus pulled into Clarecastle, Donnellan spotted Anthony Daly in the crowd. Daly was one of his heroes growing up. He gave Donnellan his first senior jersey as Clare manager. Daly is an icon in the county, only the second man to captain Clare to an All-Ireland. As the third, that is the orbit Donnellan now inhabits.

"When I meet him (Dalo), I'm still a little bit in awe of him," says Donnellan. "It's brilliant to meet those players. It was great meeting Jamesie (O'Connor) at the All Stars. It is weird. They are our heroes and they are cheering us on. It is complete role-reversal, but all players of all generations are fans. They just want to see their county doing well."

When Donnellan was first announced as Clare captain in 2012, it was no surprise within the squad. He was one of the oldest and more experienced players, but he was also intelligent, articulate, popular, a good speaker and a natural leader. Ideal.

When the squad had a meeting in the Radisson Hotel outside Limerick in December 2012, Donnellan's words reached inside the group's psyche. In a room decorated with All-Ireland underage medals, he told his team-mates how he had never won anything, even with his club.

"He spoke so passionately about how much he wanted to succeed," says one player. "He had seen plenty of bad days and he really wanted to lead us to the good days. It meant a lot to us. Paddy always makes everyone feel part of the group. He is a real calming influence. He leads by example. He is ultra-professional in what he does. There is no ego with him and he is very down to earth. He is a great captain."

In the modern game, helmets conceal identities. Media and public appearances are rationed under a manager's watch. Hurlers don't have anything like the same connection to the hurling public now that they once had. Prior to this season, Donnellan was just another name on a huge playing roster, where only the top bracket are identifiable to the wider public.

Now, that anonymity has long dissolved. "It is a life-changing experience," says Donnellan. "I could have been captain for the last 10 years and nobody would have known me. The recognition comes with winning. Suddenly your face is recognised everywhere you go.

"I think it's great. At certain times you would like to put your head down, but that has been very minor. I would always rather have the recognition than not have it. It means you are known for the right reasons. No matter how clinical you are about it, it's always great to have to stop to talk to someone or to sign an autograph.

"I will never complain about having to go to another function or bring the cup somewhere else. I would always, always prefer to have the chance to celebrate with the cup rather than be looking on like we were for the last 10 years. It's the place to be. It's the pinnacle of our sport."

The absolute pinnacle.

 

THE ONGOING JOURNEY

 

The homecoming was "mind-blowing". Arriving in Ennis and being introduced to 30,000 people was "like being on stage for a U2 concert". Going home on the Monday evening, though, was more intimate. The fire which had first ignited within him from a similar experience in 1995 was stoked into a crescendo. Donnellan's soul was blazing.

Donnellan plays with O'Callaghan's Mills but he lives on the western side of the parish in Kilkishen. His home house is at the top of the village, close to the GAA field.

The whole squad began marching through Kilkishen from that point, after the Tulla Pipe band. Donnellan and his clubmate Conor Cooney led the entourage. They held the Liam MacCarthy before being embraced into the bosom of their own people at the bottom of the village.

Donnellan was finally home. Back to where the journey had first begun.

"It was one of the highlights of my life so far," he says. "It was like getting the cup. It felt surreal. The whole thing is still a bit surreal. When we won it, I thought it would have sunk in after a few weeks, but it's still only sinking in. It was such a big thing that every time you see something or meet someone, you remember something different or something else that happened on the day."

He will have time to soak up some of those memories during the team trip to Cancun after flying out to Mexico earlier this week with his new financée, Limerick lady Edel Leahy.

"No matter how optimistic you are, you don't realise how much of an achievement it is and how much it means to people, until you've actually done it," Donnellan says.

Glory. Ecstasy. Elation. The sweet inhalation of success.

At last.

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