'What we have won is all in the past, the future needs looking at'
John Conlon will be a central figure as Clare seek to end their slump at senior level, writes Damian Lawlor
DANNY CHAPLIN needed a favour. A family friend dropped by looking for a prominent sporting figure to welcome a group of cyclists on a charity venture into Shannon Airport.
The notice was short but Chaplin had good contacts from his playing days with Clare and as a selector during Ger O'Loughlin's tenure in charge of the senior team.
"They needed someone well known but more importantly someone obliging, a lad who would get into the spirit of the thing," Chaplin says. "John Conlon was the first man I rang. I apologised for the short notice, explained what was required and he just asked what time he needed to be there -- that lad would do anything for anyone. You won't get a better young man."
Already the 23-year-old Clonlara man is the team's primary ball-winning target. In the league he notched 1-3 against Laois, 0-4 against Limerick and 1-2 against Wexford as part of a two-man full-forward line. Indeed his form has been out of the top drawer for some time, whether at full- or wing-forward, right back as far as the 2011 Division 1B final defeat to Limerick when he was named man of the match.
With Davy Fitzgerald's new-look Clare likely to put men behind the ball this afternoon, Conlon's job will be to gain possession when it crosses halfway. It will be lonely at times and he'll have to fillet the Waterford defence at every opportunity.
"Long-term, I would say that centre-forward is his position," remarks Chaplin, "but he is a leader whether playing at wing- or full-forward. He's not the type to go roaring around the dressing room but I always go back to the 2009 under 21 All-Ireland final. Who stepped up in the second half when most needed? Conlon. He hit three great points that day."
Conlon himself, however, is sick of reliving that occasion when Clare edged past Kilkenny to win the under 21 championship for the first time. While he tolerates talk of a senior team on an upward curve, with classy minors from the past two years also coming through, he dismisses the notion that Clare have their best days ahead.
"Ah, we should be up there with the best of them as it is," he says. "It's an exciting time but I'm fairly sick hearing what great potential and promise we have. We really have to drive on. I'm hoping that there will be an explosion in hurling over the next few years, teams like Limerick, Waterford, Dublin and ourselves are fast coming through at underage level and will really threaten Kilkenny. We want to be part of that.
"We're getting a bit of steel back and I thought we showed our real potential in the first half of the league semi-final with Kilkenny, even if things didn't work out in the second. We just have to keep that intensity going for 70 minutes and build from there. It's about time we started believing in ourselves now. I'm 22, so are most of the lads, and the way hurling is going, you'll be doing well to last into your 30s. 'Tis all over before you know it."
Davy Fitzgerald has put them through a rigorous regime -- sources close to the camp say they trained 30 out of 34 nights from January onwards and the physical stature of the players has most certainly changed. "We worked hard on strength and conditioning but we needed that," insists the Clonlara man, who also practises yoga.
"The big thing is that every player got his own programme whereas in the past it was the same across the board. It's more specialised now and we haven't really done any mad running -- everything is with the ball and we work really hard around tackling."
The manager is quick to reward them for their commitment. When they attended their first session under Fitzgerald, training gear was laid out, tops with their names on the back hanging from pegs. They received four sets of gear and trained in UL and other floodlit venues with the best of facilities. The players have wanted for nothing.
"It's the most professional set-up I've ever seen," Conlon shrugs. "Work hard for Davy and he'll work hard for you -- the camp is unreal and no one can give out that the set-up is not professional. Any county player would like it and if you can't feed off Davy's passion you may as well not be there. Another big thing he has rammed home is that our transition term is over. What we have won is all in the past, the future needs looking at."
Despite stepping up from a successful underage set-up, and being part of a Clonlara team that won historic county championships at minor, under 21, and senior at their first attempt, Conlon is still waiting for a first senior inter-county championship win.
"We feel we're close. Against Kilkenny, we lacked experience, our heads dropped, we stopped defending and then lost our intensity -- they ripped us open when they saw that. People say they were only in third gear, and maybe they were, but it drilled into us what was needed for Waterford."
It's a unified team, even with a bunch of disappointed promising young players snapping at the heels of more established guys. There are 35 on the panel, only 25 get jerseys and the other ten must sit in the stand. The dynamic of all three groups will switch from game to game.
This weekend's unlucky 10 were told on Tuesday that they wouldn't be part of the squad today. "Maybe before players would get a little negative," he says, "but anything that happens this year stays inside our panel -- nothing gets out. In the past some lads were happy just to be part of the Clare squad but now everyone is driving it on. Darach Honan and Pat Vaughan are back from long-term injuries and Brian O'Connell returning from Australia has brought a bit of experience and leadership back into the ranks. We probably need to become more vocal as a group too."
Fitzgerald's in-depth knowledge of the Waterford team will surely help. "Davy knows them pretty well," Conlon accepts, "but things will have pushed on and changed. And every championship game is different -- sometimes plans and tactics go out the window once a game starts. We can only look after ourselves."
Away from the set-up, Conlon is in the midst of a teaching degree at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. In February, he flew to Ethiopia for a 12-day trip with the Playing For Life charity group. Gavin O'Mahony and Graeme Mulcahy from Limerick, former Clare goalkeeper Philip Brennan and Dublin defender Niall Corcoran were also in tow. They set up base in the northern territory of Tigray where the ancient Ethiopian game of karsa, which also involves a wooden stick and a ball, is played. While there they conducted coaching sessions and also sampled the local sport.
Conlon and his colleagues worked closely with a group of 18-19-year-olds and raised nearly €30,000 which went towards projects such as the improvement of sports facilities and assisting single mothers in business.
"John is very thoughtful like that," adds Chaplin. "He sees the bigger picture. And even though he's totally focused on hurling, he knows there are more important things in life too. I just hope the Clare public come out today and back him and the lads. I've gone on record to say how disappointing the levels of support are in this county at times. They need to support the likes of John who would put his hand in where other lads would be afraid to stick a hurley."
Conlon knows that reaching a Munster final would certainly help get people back onside.
"Yeah, there's a good old buzz in Clare but we need to start winning a few games to get the supporters back," he says.
Today could be the start of it all.
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