Banner's Boston bond pays dividends
O’Connor hails much-maligned Fenway Classic as launchpad for Clare’s improving season
In Boston's Logan Airport last November one of Clare's joint-managers, Gerry O'Connor, got chatting to John Conlon, the county's influential forward, about the few days they had just spent together for the Super 11 hurling competition, or Fenway Classic as it is known.
The format and the concept, the brainchild of the Gaelic Players Association, doesn't get much love on this side of the Atlantic but for Clare the benefits extended way beyond winning it outright.
For Conlon, the trip had brought him closer to players he had spent an entire season in a dressing-room with without ever really getting to know them.
A product of inter-county's ever-spinning treadmill perhaps but something that jumped out at O'Connor.
When he looks back at it now, it was their starting point to 2018, not the end point to 2017, an "inadvertent" training camp as he put it.
"I said to John, 'What were your thoughts and reflections on the whole Fenway Classic'. He said, 'It was absolutely brilliant, Gerry'.
"I thought he was going to explain about playing in the Fenway Classic, winning the tournament and all that stuff. But he said we were over here for four or five days, we as a panel had three or four meals every day. "There was a huge amount of time spent together and the fantastic example was in Smith and Wollenskys (restaurant) around the corner from our hotel. He was sat beside Jason McCarthy for three hours.
"He said in the previous year he hadn't spoken to Jason. We are so focused as a group when you come into training, you come in you do your prep, your rehab, you go out on the field, you eat and you go home.
"You do whatever else you have to do and then you come back into training and it's another two-hour block and you go again.
"He felt to spend that amount of time really strengthened the bond among the actual group. A lot of leaders developed over there in Boston and that was the start of our journey."
That journey since has taken them over bumps and through dips in league and even the beginning of the championship. But they've arrived in a Munster final against Cork with the momentum of three successive wins behind them - a different team, looking at things differently than they did against the Rebels in the corresponding game 12 months ago.
O'Connor believes their product is better than it was in 2017 and that has helped to 'reconnect' with the Banner crowd which was conspicuous by its absence in Thurles last year.
Clare players referenced that void in the aftermath of the defeat but O'Connor detects real change and the 'sold-out' signs for Thurles that went up last week indicate that too.
"I think there has been a massive reconnection with the Clare supporters in Cusack Park. That's why this format has been fantastic for Clare because those two matches gave us a massive opportunity to reconnect with our supporters.
"Once we got over Waterford, there was a massive Clare crowd in Thurles when you consider we were on the sideline looking over at the new stand as the parade went on and a huge Clare crowd erupted with noise and volume.
"Whether we like it or not, there are supporters in every county but they will come out to support you when you start winning. It doesn't matter whether it's football, whether it's Munster rugby, whether it's Irish rugby. You have to put a good product in place before people buy your product."
O'Connor has drawn attention to Shane O'Donnell's thundering shoulder on Barry Coughlan in the Waterford game as a real rallying point for team and supporters.
"That was something we felt as a team we were missing. We needed to show our supporters and ourselves as a group and a team how much it mattered to us," he said.
"We would feel that incrementally we have been showing how much this matters and how proud we are to represent the people of Clare.
"I think that is being replicated and it is being reciprocated because I have never seen or felt emotion on any pitch like we experienced down in Thurles.
"There were people very emotional. It impacted on the players. We came in off the field and we made a promise to ourselves as a group and our supporters out on that field that the performance was not going to be a spike, it was going to be a standard, that we were going to try to maintain for the rest of our season. I think that did happen in the Limerick game."
Had they lost in Thurles it would potentially have derailed them and jeopardised the joint-managers, as O'Connor acknowledged.
"In my world where you work (he's a sales manager with Shannon-based mining engineering firm Mincon), you're judged on your results and them (results) only," he stated.
"You're judged and measured on your performance. Rightly or wrongly, that's how we judge ourselves as a management and that's how we judge our players.
"We have key factors within that to use and judge our players. It's important that they're comfortable in that.
"There's no point in saying we weren't under pressure coming into that Tipperary game. I think it's fair to say Donal and myself would have faded into the background because we had a two-year contract and I couldn't see that being renewed and I couldn't see an appetite within us to continue either," he explained.
"You get involved in this to try and replicate the success you had at underage level."
After last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary, the other joint-manager, Donal Moloney, emphasised that they would learn a lot from the season.
For O'Connor, the lessons absorbed have been to focus much less on opponents. That and a shake-up of their backroom team.
"The main difference is that this year we've focused exclusively on ourselves rather than the opposition. And we've added really good people to our backroom team," he added.
"But the biggest single change from our perspective is that the players have taken ownership and responsibility for the whole project. They lead the analysis, they lead the team talks.
"They look at the opposition and come back to us and they outline where they see their opportunities. Because the players are the guys out there, they are the experts and they understand the opposition far better than we do," noted O'Connor.
"We take the feedback on board, we go to the coaches and the coaches implement a game-plan and a training regime based on what the players want.
"Ultimately, there's no point players in the heat of a championship match looking towards the sideline for inspiration because we've got to create an environment where they are all become leaders and communicate throughout the game."
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