Friday 19 October 2018

'Those games were different. It wasn't for the faint-hearted' - Gleeson and Loughnane recount Clare-Tipp rivalry

All has changed utterly as Tipp and Clare make return to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for first time since 2003

Clare’s Colin Lynch and Conor Gleeson of Tipperary show the scars of battle during the 1999 Munster SHC semi-final replay Photo: Sportsfile
Clare’s Colin Lynch and Conor Gleeson of Tipperary show the scars of battle during the 1999 Munster SHC semi-final replay Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The fashion has been to romanticise the old dump, as you do even the most contrary goats once they slip away.

In a week of Clare-Tipperary especially, it's been easy to convey a kind of phoney grandeur to the departed Páirc Uí Chaoimh. A tired face with busted teeth perhaps, but always petunias in the hair. Some days it had a pulse and a colour that made it feel centre of this sprawling universe. Clare-Tipp days especially.

They met down by the marina seven times in as many seasons between 1997 and 2003, bitter adversaries who - at times - would violate every Commandment known to man in pursuit of Munster Championship glory. In simplistic terms, their rivalry became the love-child of a Tipperary grin and a Feakle revolutionary's cunning.

The games between them were no lawn parties, that's for sure. They made a different kind of noise. Of those seven contests, each won three. From that rickety press rookery pinned to the roof of the stand, we took to grading the readiness of either side for battle by noting how many of them would vault that ludicrous metal barrier at the neck of the players' tunnel.

Remember it?

The teams would explode into daylight like a sudden rush of wind, only to then have to either slam on the brakes and circumnavigate the three-foot barrier or do an impromptu Ed Moses. Way back in '91, Declan Carr chose the latter option as he came boot-legging out of the darkness, leading Tipp into Munster final battle against Cork.

Running directly behind his captain, Conal Bonnar smashed straight into the metal, sustaining a gash on his shin that would require three stitches. This week, Bonnar remembered the incident as one greeted with "roars of laughter" by Cork supporters. It would be another decade and more before the penny dropped for Health and Safety.

But then that was the way of things in the old Páirc. The show obscured the chaos and the squalor. Once the preliminaries were over, all the rottenness just blurred.

In his autobiography, Dónal óg Cusack referred to the old stadium as "a badly-run death-trap". And yet, perversely, most players loved the field. They loved the atmosphere of the closed bowl, the sense - as Bonnar put it this week - of "playing in a Colosseum".

His last championship game for Tipperary was the '99 replay against Clare, a day of harrowing clarity for Nicky English and his men. They should have won the drawn game only to be pegged back by Davy Fitzgerald's late penalty.

Quaint

In the quaint fashion of the time, both managers stood shoulder to shoulder for a TV interview immediately after the draw, their words spontaneous and unfiltered.

Ger Loughnane spoke of Clare "getting away with it".

"Will ye do it the next day?" the interviewer asked English.

"Well I was hoping we'd do it today!" said the Tipp manager.

Legend has it that, in the famously cramped dressing-rooms, Loughnane and his men could eavesdrop on every word of English's pre-match speech for the replay. In Denis Walsh's 'The Revolution Years', Anthony Daly claims that they could hear English liken Clare to a wounded animal.

"His last line was, 'What do we do with wounded animals? Kill!' recalled Daly. "Well, when we heard that... Loughnane didn't even have to say anything. 'Get out there,' he said, 'and give them their answer!'" Clare won by ten points.

Conor Gleeson played in all bar one of those Tipp-Clare games between '97 and '03, but remembers that '99 replay as especially stinging. "We knew we should have beaten them the first day but the following Saturday, they were just hopping off the ground," recalls the '97 Tipp captain.

"I don't know what they took that week, but I remember watching them jump out over the stool to have their picture taken and there was something about them. They were buzzing. Those games were different. There was pulling in the air, pulling on the ground. It wasn't for the faint-hearted!"

That had been English's first year as Tipp manager and maybe the reflex conclusion would have been that Loughnane had too much savvy for him. Clare, after all, were still finding implausible heat in their manager's portrayal of English as laughing at them during the '93 Munster final slaughter.

That heat had delivered revenge 12 months later, Clare beating a 'Babs' Keating-managed Tipp (denied the injured English and John Leahy) - perversely - by scoring even less than they had when beaten by 18 points the previous summer.

To begin with, English - the manager - seemed preoccupied with Tipp being hard enough to meet Clare on those faintly unhinged terms. He changed how they trained, introducing boxing gloves and tackle bags and early-morning hill runs on Devil's Bit. With Len Gaynor at the helm, they'd twice lost narrowly to Clare in the '97 Championship.

English's Tipp set about being a meaner, more hard-boiled challenge.

But that '99 replay defeat meant that Tipp had now failed to win any of their last five championship games against Clare. Loughnane was on their skin, in their hair. Away from battle he might charm the fillings out of his opponents' teeth, but in the grot of Páirc Uí Chaoimh - to Tipp eyes at least - he became Jack Nicholson at a splintered door.

Nobody could have imagined then that he'd beaten them for the last time.

Everything about his revolution was franked upon pace and fury and Clare's willingness to turn every game into a threshing blur of manhood. In their relationship with Tipp especially, they happily farmed spleen and bitterness. It wasn't difficult.

Dislike of Tipp has always been a simple compute for any of the eight counties bordering them and, in Loughnane, Clare found a man who could turn it into energy.

But just as he began to squeeze the fruit of his team dry, English recognised the value of training smarter. In 2000, a haplessly over-worked Clare fell to Tipp by eight points, prompting their manager's resignation. And if Clare calibrated their preparation more wisely in '01 under Cyril Lyons, Tipp still won again.

They did so embracing the kind of terms and conditions that once unnerved them, a welcoming party of Ollie Baker and Seánie McMahon famously trying to bounce young Eoin Kelly into the stand, only for the Mullinahone kid to jump straight back to his feet with medics in mid-stride.

That day marked Lar Corbett's championship debut too and he would recall in his autobiography: "I found out all about championship hurling soon enough. From the throw-in, timber crashed and bodies clashed. There was a hiss of tension around the ground. You could nearly feel the heat from the crowd coming in on top of you."

Defining

For Clare, there would be something defining about losing a game played indisputably on their terms. Tipp won that year's All-Ireland through the calm, enlightened management of English at a time when Clare - it seemed - were still inclined to hurl as if in an unholy hurry.

That had been the style patented by Loughnane, hurling at furious pace and, occasionally, on the fringes of legality.

To do so, he identified leaders across the field, outstanding hurlers who also became remarkably strong personalities. It took the rest of hurling time to understand how a different, more ruthless game was now in fashion but, when that happened, Clare discovered the likes of Kilkenny and Cork had taken their physical template and added some murderous refinement.

That was the unavoidable message of '02, Tipp beating them for a third successive year in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a game at the end of which an exhausted Tony Griffin - having scored 0-6 from play - was famously photographed on his hands and knees. Sensing the symbolism of that snapshot, Colin Lynch quickly intervened, telling Griffin to get to his feet.

"He ran towards me as I lay sprawled out, shouting to get up, get up," recalled Griffin afterwards in 'Screaming at the Sky'. "'Don't ever let them see you lying down,' he said."

That message had been written into the modern Clare DNA. Show no weakness.

They did rebound through the back door to reach that year's All-Ireland final but had the misfortune to meet Kilkenny, now being shaped into a ruthless killing machine by Brian Cody. In '03, Lyons finally got his first championship win over a haplessly declining Tipp, now under the management of Michael Doyle.

But the truth was that hurling's story had now shifted irrevocably. Clare blew up badly against Cork in the Munster semi-final and were out of the championship by mid-June. Tipp trudged on to an All-Ireland semi-final only to be emulsified by Kilkenny. Both were yesterday's men.

Tipp have won their four Munster Championship meetings since (all in Limerick's Gaelic Grounds), but the games were played in conditions that seemed practically lethargic compared to those crimes of passion committed in that crumbling bowl in Cork.

Because, for a time, hurling was in thrall to Clare and Tipp, entranced by the claustrophobic feel of two gangs openly going to war in what was, essentially, a tenement.

"There was a romance to it all, but it couldn't continue," Tommy Dunne said on Newstalk this week, remarking how Tipp eventually found their way in that time, only once they "started to enjoy the whole chaos of the place".

Today will be genteel by comparison, a perfect new stadium and a rivalry too unfamiliar to nurture the psychopathic tenor of old. Tipp-Clare is a saner prospect now, Páirc Uí Chaoimh a new galaxy.

But there was a time the union would have made Dante blush.

Irish Independent

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