Saturday 21 April 2018

Children of the revolution

Harrowing 2008 Munster U-21 defeat gave a group of hurlers the motivation and hunger to bring glory back to their county. By Christy O'Connor

Young guns: Clare trainer Paul Kinnerk speaks to his players after the 2010 Munster minor championship semi-final game against Limerick
Young guns: Clare trainer Paul Kinnerk speaks to his players after the 2010 Munster minor championship semi-final game against Limerick
Colin Ryan lifts the trophy as Clare are crowned 2009 All-Ireland U-21 champions
Conor Ryan, in 2012, when Clare were also U21 All-Ireland champions
Paul Flanagan lifts the trophy as the Banner claim the 2013 All-Ireland U-21 title again

LIKE any revolution, there is always a first shot fired. A fist pumped into the sky for the first time to herald a new dawn, a new beginning. Identifying that seminal moment in the aftermath is often difficult through the smoke and debris from the initial blast, but the explosion normally occurs when a people have been on their knees.

In injury-time of the 2008 Munster U-21 hurling final, Clare won a 20-metre free which would surely have secured them their first provincial title in that grade after 12 failed final attempts.

Then the referee Jason O'Mahony was alerted by his umpire, who deemed the Clare goalkeeper Donal Tuohy to have marginally stepped outside the square for the previous puckout. The free was overturned, a '65' was awarded to Tipperary and Pa Bourke pointed to give Tipperary the victory. Anthony Daly said on 'The Sunday Game' four days later that "an umpire basically decided to play God". And the sense of injustice drove the Clare crowd into a rage.

With mayhem raging around the ground, team captain Conor Cooney addressed the disconsolate squad in their dressing-room. It was his last year at U-21 but Cooney spoke with immense clarity and stoicism. He told his team-mates that the harrowing defeat would either make or break them.

Over 12 months later, nine of that starting team were still on board when Clare won their first Munster U-21 title. They went on to add a first All-Ireland title. Cooney was right. The disappointment of 2008 didn't break them. It made them.

When you look at Clare hurling now, they have become the benchmark at underage, having won three of the last five All-Ireland U-21 titles. After years of producing stereotypical players, the county is now harvesting a standard of hurler Clare never had before in such bulk; athletic, pacey, beautiful ball-players, immensely skilful, diamond forwards. And, more importantly, all fused with a belief that they can rule the hurling world.

That maiden All-Ireland U-21 win in 2009 was the obvious starting point but there were some critical turning points throughout 2008. Prior to that season, Clare were going nowhere at underage. Apart from a few results against Kerry, one of the most alarming statistics in the hurling world during the 2000s was Clare's failure to win a championship game at minor or U-21 from 2000 through 2007.

Yet in 2008 the minors overturned Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in April and the U-21s beat Cork at the same venue in the Munster semi-final three months later.

Something was finally stirring. "Prior to 2008, I had played two years minor and two years U-21 and had never won a game of any substance," said Colin Ryan.

"Going down to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, putting together a performance and coming out with a result was a massive confidence boost."

The initial revolution began a year later but the first shots of the second wave were fired prior to that All-Ireland success that season.

Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor were joint-managers of a minor team well beaten by Waterford in a Munster semi-final.

They knew they had to technically improve. That they were way behind in strength and conditioning terms. They realised that as soon as they went into the Waterford dressing-room afterwards and observed their muscle-toned bodies.

They requested a review meeting with the county board because they desperately craved a second chance. As soon as the board ratified them, the hard work began. They sought counsel everywhere and anywhere; Pat Flanagan, Donie Buckley, Eamon O'Shea, Richie Mulrooney. They asked Alan Cunningham to train the team but he pointed them in the direction of Paul Kinnerk, a young Limerick footballer teaching in Shannon.

Moloney and O'Connor subsequently met Kinnerk and told him they wanted to win an All-Ireland. As soon as he came on board, everything changed. For everyone.

Kinnerk emphasised the importance of getting their technique absolutely right. He broke down all the different skills, and applications of the skills. Players were working under intense pressure, and making decisions in tight and confined spaces.

Moloney devised an aerial drill that helped take their hurling to another level. They were changing Clare's traditional style of hurling but they were doing so to accommodate the players they had, some of which were light, pacey, classy ball-players. Their style was based on guarding possession, off-loading off the shoulder, patient build-ups and shooting from distance.

Once they got traction, they were up and running. Tackling and contact largely defined their sessions. When the minors trained before the seniors one evening in 2011, the senior players realised the minors were operating at a different level to them. The 2009 U-21 team had produced some class players but the younger crew had even more élan and sheen.

"The big difference between Clare teams in the past and this team is their skill level and pace," said former player Seánie McMahon.

Moloney and O'Connor moved up with the U-21s in 2012 and began blazing a path to greater glory. Kinnerk was also on board with them for those All-Ireland successes but Davy Fitzgerald recruited him as soon as he took over the senior team in 2012 because they shared the same philosophy. The fact that the younger players were so used to such a non-traditional style gave them a headstart and facilitated their transition to senior.

"Kinnerk has been an absolute revelation," said Gerry O'Connor. "He is the guy who has completely changed the thinking behind Clare hurling. These young players have no baggage. No fear of any jersey. The players believe nobody works harder than them."

Clare now have a system and template in place that works and that ambition and mindset has transferred to all levels. Clare have never had such momentum at underage and the county are intent on making sure the mistakes of the 1990s are not repeated, when Clare rested on their laurels after winning two All-Irelands.

The revolution is raging but there were numerous silent staging posts along the way, understated moments where the sparks ignited before the main explosion finally detonated. When Gerry O'Connor was involved with the Clare U-14s in 2005, PJ Kelleher from Bodyke was also part of that management.

Clare always had a traditional way of playing and a traditional way of thinking but Kelleher challenged them to think differently.

"PJ would have been small enough in stature himself," said O'Connor. "And from observing previous school and county teams, he felt that too many big guys were getting in ahead of small, pacier, skilful guys. From then on, we widened the net and looked at every possible player."

Not long after Paudie Butler was appointed national hurling co-ordinator in September 2006, he came to Clare one evening for a coaching seminar. Around that time, all the coaches in Clare were working off a similar template. They were looking for the speed of hurling that Ger Loughnane had always preached. Yet Butler spoke about the six speeds needed to play the game – running speed, hand speed, eye speed, mind speed, swing/hurling speed and then reaction speed. In Clare, coaches were looking for just a couple of those speeds. Not all six.

Then Butler took a one-hour session with a development squad, which included Darach Honan, and blew everyone away. A new path was visible. Peter Casey, the county's current games development officer, once said that "a lot of Clare's current success was down to that night".

Any time Butler returned over the next couple of years, he challenged the coaches on every aspect of their coaching and thinking, from examining the length of hurleys, to the way players even held the hurley.

Seán O'Halloran, Bord na nOg chairman during the last decade, was another huge visionary in initiating the current boom. He first travelled to Kilkenny in 2007 to meet a delegation to discuss how Clare might arrest the underage culture of defeat. Yet he felt that he wasn't in a position to get a more coherent structure in place on his own.

Four former players – Jamesie O'Connor, Seánie McMahon, Jim McInerney and Brian Quinn – subsequently took it upon themselves to accelerate that process. They had often privately spoken about implementing a coherent underage development plan. At the end of 2009, they began meeting at McMahon's house in Spancilhill.

The four didn't have any official title but they assumed the status of a committee. Their initial priority was to overhaul the development squads model. "People were working really hard, especially Seán O'Halloran," said Jamesie O'Connor. "And we were basically saying to him, 'Ye are doing great work but how can we improve this even more?"

At the end of that year, O'Halloran and the committee travelled to the Anner Hotel in Thurles and sat down with Kilkenny's Pat Henderson and Brendan O'Sullivan. A short time later, McMahon and O'Connor met with Tipperary's Dinny Maher in Thurles. The committee drew up the model which best suited Clare. The county were lucky that they had excellent coaches in administration and on the ground – Seán Chaplin, Peter Casey and Ronan Keane – to ensure the numbers were coming on stream to fit into the system.

The development model in place now has been in existence since 2010. When Ger Loughnane addressed an U-15 squad in April of that year, he said the underage coaching apparatus was what he had "dreamed of 10 years ago".

There was always excellent work going on in the schools and clubs but the current environment has increased and accelerated the output. The boom has also underlined how the club culture has radically changed. Population trends have shifted, especially in southeast Clare.

Coaches there were given more of an opportunity to think differently and more independently. Clonlara and Cratloe, two clubs that never had prestige or power, now provide 12 players to the senior panel.

For decades, the senior championship was dominated by the big powerhouses but the last 12 county titles have been shared by 10 different clubs.

"The majority of the work still comes down to the clubs," said Donal Moloney. "They are the ones that are producing the talent. It is the people there who have produced so many of these guys with the X-factor. But the key question now is who is going to be the next Clonlara, Cratloe or Ballyea?"

In the organic system that Clare have now created at all levels, a pervasive and continuous culture of winning grows stronger all the time. This sensational generation of young players have arrived bearing the future and Clare are young and ambitious and in a hurry to seize it. Behind them, platoons of young Clare players are coming on stream with the opportunity and ambition to join the revolution.

Great days are here. And better days are coming.

Irish Independent

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