Brendan Bugler: 'I just took it very very bad, didn't want to be home'
He will do whatever might be asked of him but, for Brendan Bugler, Thurles tomorrow will be salted with maddening things in his head.
The hunger to hurl jabs him with feelings of frustration and contrition now. He missed the last two games of the National League through suspension and now sits out this Championship tilt against Limerick too when every molecule of his being aches to be on the field. It feels like he is in the belly of a prison sentence.
Bugler is an experienced general of the Clare dressing-room and tomorrow promises a contest in which any victory will have to be covered in the prints of strong characters. His kind of terms then.
He should be there, he tells himself. But a sending-off in the qualifier replay against Wexford last summer has carried over into this Championship so, from the moment Clare's name came out of the drum last October, he knew how the date of May 24 would be hopping around inside his head as a kind of self-rebuke.
Since breaking onto the Clare senior team during the League of 2007, Bugler has been a virtual ever-present. He did miss the '08 Munster final through suspension, and Clare have won just a solitary Munster Championship game since. So their recent story in Munster niggles them. They have not been provincial champions since the epochal summer of '98, a time when they were essentially re-writing the game's understanding of itself.
Those riotous Loughnane years changed everything and they changed nothing. Clare did not win a Munster minor title between '89 and 2010 and their first U-21 provincial crown did not arrive until '09 (albeit they have been stockpiling All-Irelands in the grade since).
So Bugler was hardly a child of plenty. He never won a Championship game with Clare at underage level and his first six years as a senior county hurler made the All-Ireland wins of '95 and '97 seem wild hallucinations.
So by the time Davy Fitzgerald stepped through the dressing-room door to sell his revolution, nobody was listening more intently. He is a two-time All Star since and the man whose accordion playing in the dressing-room became one of the iconic post-game images of Clare's All-Ireland final replay win in 2013. But he is also, first and foremost, a hurler.
A man who yearns to play.
Missing the two League games against Kilkenny was, he reflects, "unbelievably frustrating" in light of his pending suspension for the Championship first-round.
"Effectively, it's been nearly like a two and a half month ban," he says now. He was reported for "attempting to kick with minimal force" in the victory over Dublin, though even the reputed victim, Danny Sutcliffe, supported Clare's appeal.
"There was nothing in it whatsoever," says Bugler. Maybe so, but they had no access to video evidence that might offer categorical proof. So he would miss three games in a row, just as the season was gathering palpable heat.
"You can't let it eat you up," he reflects now. "Because if you let it eat you up, you'll be no good to the guys for the rest of the year. So I just have to put it to the back of my mind and focus on the next game after Limerick.
"There were times I suppose. . . the start of this month especially. . . you'd be getting down about it. But I suppose it's a new challenge for me. Because whoever is wearing the jersey this Sunday, I've then to try and win it back. And I haven't been in a situation like that for a while."
So if Clare touched the skies in 2013, last year felt like an endless breech birth, everything coming out wrong.
Within a week of the loss to Wexford, Bugler was in New York with a friend from Whitegate, Tommy Madden. He'd never been to America before but knew, if nothing else, it could offer distance from the cold truth of Clare's ruined summer. A teacher of woodwork and construction at Scoil Na Trionoide Naofa in Doon, he had, at least, the time to escape.
There were a few days in Kilkee to begin with, but all hurling talk just filled him with such regret it felt as if he might catch fire.
"I didn't really want to touch a hurley," he remembers. "I don't know, I just took it very, very bad and didn't really want to be around. I didn't want to be home, I didn't want to be in the country really. So the opportunity came to go to America and I took it straight away.
"You're defending All-Ireland champions and then, the day that you're knocked out, you get sent off. And you feel. . . I don't know. . . that you've let down your fellow colleagues, the management and the team. I was gutted."
The perverse thing was that New York would rehabilitate him, rekindling his love of the game.
He played in the local Championship with 'Galway', helping them take the title for the first time since '89 when a certain Tony Keady paid such a hefty price for offering his assistance. A small shoal of Galway inter-county men stayed with him under the same Yonkers roof out there, lads like Aidan Harte and Conor Cooney sharing his regrets for a lost summer.
And the soaring Bronx temperatures offered an entirely new hurling experience, particularly during the semi-final defeat of an 'Ulster' team back-boned by his own Clare colleague, David McInerney.
"The heat was absolutely horrendous," he remembers. "It was unbelievable, probably in the late 30s. I'd got a new pair of boots for the game and they had burst by the end of it. You know when you're looking down a Formula One grid at the start of a race and you see the heat shimmer? That's what it was like looking down the field."
Yet, the quality of the hurling came as a surprise.
"The standard was very high and the hurling very tough, they take no prisoners," he says.
"But it really gave me back my gra for the game. You know, to see the joy that winning brought those living over there. It makes their summer."
They had access to all the Irish TV stations in the house they shared, so the two All-Ireland semi-finals offered stark reminders of what it was they had left behind.
"We were all sitting there, thinking the same thing I suppose," says Bugler. "There was nearly silence in the house when we were watching them because you still have that sickening feeling in your stomach. You're kind of asking yourself did you do everything to give yourself the opportunity of being there?
"I mean Wexford deserved to beat us the second day, but Clare could have been there and that was the sickening thing.
"For me, it also kind of set the question going into 2015 of 'Which do you want?' And what are you willing to do to get yourself back up to the highs of 2013?
"Because, in Clare, we knew we had to start at rock bottom again."
He came home in the last week of August and ended his hurling year on a high, Whitegate surviving the attrition of a hugely competitive Clare Championship to keep their senior status for another year.
Still, if Clare were there to be shot down in 2014, the evidence of 2015 so far is that there won't be any shortage of snipers in the long grass this time either. For Fitzgerald especially, a curious vitriol keep bubbling up from certain quarters and Bugler finds the dynamic mystifying.
He'd had, after all, five empty years as a senior county man before Fitzgerald arrived.
"The whole thing changed when Davy came," he reflects. "I mean I had absolutely no success before that. We didn't win a Championship game in '09, '10 or '11 and even our League games were in Division 1B. There were times you'd wonder would you stick it out.
"But you could see the Tony Kellys and Colm Galvins and all these lads coming through, you knew there was a good group of lads coming.
"But remember, Clare have won four All-Irelands in their history and Davy's been involved in three of them. So I find some of the sniping against him unbelievably surprising. Just look at the history of Clare hurling. What more has he to do?
"The players have the utmost respect for him, they love working under him. Obviously there can be other issues going on with your life here and there. But if you have any problem at all, all you need to do is pick up the phone. He's there and he'll always try his best to sort it out. That wasn't there with other managers.
"He'll push you in training, he'll drive you, but he's only doing it to get the absolute best out of you. Players know that. They know the type of figure he is on the line but, again, he's only doing it to get the really best out of you. If people can't see that, then they're very, very blind.
"I mean a lot of the stuff that went on at the start of the year was blown out of proportion. But I suppose that happens in every sport when there's some sort of a story like that.
"What people probably don't realise now is that, of the players involved, two of them are fighting for a place in the starting 15 on Sunday big-time and the other one is probably fighting for a starting place with the Clare football team.
"So you just move on. These things happen, no big deal. No-one was shot. The issue was dealt with by the management and the whole panel rowed in behind the decision and felt that it was right."
They will be down a hatful of All Stars tomorrow, himself included. And, if the game promises a tumultuous opening to this hurling Championship, the build-up - he says has been oddly low-key in both counties.
If Davy asks him to say something tomorrow, Bugler will happily oblige. But the field is where he hopes, in time to talk loudest.