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Clara ready to make history after long fight for respect

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Lester Ryan, Clara

Lester Ryan, Clara

Lester Ryan, Clara

At the outset of this season, the Clara management sat down with the players. Goals and objectives were set. Targets were identified.

Mostly, though, this campaign was about validating what they had achieved last year, consolidating their new identity within the Kilkenny club culture. It was ultimately about respect.

Clara knew what was being said elsewhere: that they had won a handy championship last year; that they didn't take down any of the big guns; that this season would prove as much.

They were desperate to prove the doubters wrong. The management told the players exactly what they needed to hear: they weren't returning this year on a lap of honour. The only way to emphatically prove their worth and new standing within Kilkenny was to retain the championship.

Ten months on, Clara are one final step away from gaining true and full acceptance of that new identity. The big guns - James Stephens and O'Loughlin Gaels - have been silenced. Carrickshock - who they narrowly defeated in last year's final - were routed in the semi-final.

Now the modern behemoth that is Ballyhale Shamrocks, with 37 All-Ireland senior medals stitched onto the chests of their starting team, stand in their way.

Mismatch

Two years ago, this fixture would have been considered a complete mismatch. On paper, it still looks as much. A Shamrocks side which is loaded with such household names as Henry Shefflin, Michael and Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid and 'Cha' Fitzpatrick face off against a team with just a solitary county player, Lester Ryan.

All the numbers and history are heavily stacked in Ballyhale's favour, yet they are only marginal favourites with the bookies. More importantly, Clara now have the respect they always desperately craved.

They don't have the big names of other clubs but Clara are an extremely well balanced team. The vast majority of their side have played minor or U-21 with Kilkenny. They have former Cats underage players lining their bench. Just as importantly, they have been surfing on a tidal wave of momentum for the last two years.

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In 2012, they were still an intermediate team but they won the championship that autumn and went on a run that culminated in them winning the All-Ireland Intermediate title.

They carried that form into last year's senior campaign and won the Kilkenny county league for the first time in their history.

With league and championship heavily linked in the county, that achievement secured a direct passage to a quarter-final. Victories against Castlecomer and St Martin's guided them into the final.

Before they could take it all in, they were county champions for just the second time, bridging a 27-year gap to their previous success.

It has taken a generation for the good times to return. Lester Ryan and his two brothers, Liam and Tom are sons of Johnny Ryan, who was centre-back on the 1986 side that won the county title for the first time.

Neal, Shane and David Prendergast are sons of the former Kilkenny player Paddy. Tom O'Shea is the father Conor O'Shea, while his nephew Seán is also part of the squad.

Dermot Langton's son and nephew also play. Gerry Nolan, full-forward in 1986, has two sons, James and Dermot, on the current side.

Anthony Prendergast's son Ciaran further reflects the bounty Clara have reaped from the generation game.

Clara always had a name for producing rich talent. They are the only club/parish in the country to have players on the Hurling and Camogie Teams of the Century - Paddy Langton and Liz Neary.

Langton won his All-Irelands in 1939 and 1947, but Clara was only formed in 1954 when the Parish Rule decreed that players from the area could no longer play with other clubs.

Originally called the Moat hurlers, they later changed their name to St Colman's, Clara (St Colman is the patron saint of the parish) before settling on Clara in 1960.

Situated just three miles outside Kilkenny city, the club first started making waves at the end of that decade when winning three successive county U-21 titles between 1968-70, with their first county junior title secured in the middle of that sequence in '69.

It took them until 1982 to finally win intermediate and a senior title within four years reflected the rich talent within that team.

Paddy Prendergast won three All-Irelands with Kilkenny. Harry Ryan won an All-Ireland in 1983. His brother Lester (Snr) also hurled with Kilkenny for years, while Anthony Prendergast won an All-Ireland in 1993.

The 1986 county title opened a new chapter of their history but they unfortunately ended that season embroiled in controversy after the infamous 'Battle of Athy' with Camross in the Leinster club championship.

Clara did manage to reach another county final in 1990 but they were hammered by Glenmore and the team broke up afterwards.

Relegation soon followed and they were scrabbling around the badlands for the guts of 15 years, oscillating between senior and intermediate. They won intermediate again in 2007 but spent the next four seasons struggling to survive before eventually slipping through the trapdoor in 2011.

Yet when they returned to senior 12 months later, a talented generation of young players were finally ready to make the step up. And they've been stepping on ever since.

A high-profile management team has been guiding them all the way up the ranks. Last season Mick Purcell brought on board Tom Mullally - who led Carlow minnows Mount Leinster Rangers to last year's All-Ireland club final - while Mullally's brother Paddy is also involved alongside former Waterford selector and Kilkenny minor manager, Nicky Cashin.

Roaring

In their first two league matches this season, Clara lost to Ballyhale and Carrickshock. The results fitted the general perception and the convenient label many had attached to Clara's success last season but they were both narrow defeats and Clara have come roaring back ever since.

They have copper-fastened their status as a serious outfit; teams look upon them in a more reverential light now. Their emergence as such an effective force in such a short time-span has also been an inspiration to other clubs.

Rower-Inistioge succeeded Clara as Kilkenny, Leinster and All-Ireland Intermediate champions in 2013-14 and they left a significant mark in Kilkenny this year.

They reached the league final, which they lost to O'Loughlin Gaels before going down to Carrickshock by one point after extra-time in a replayed quarter-final.

"I'd say every club in Kilkenny have been talking about Clara and what they can do," said Kieran Joyce of Rower Inistioge, and man-of-the-match in Septermber's All-Ireland final replay, before that county quarter-final.

Clara have validated last year's achievements but now they're on the cusp of real history.

Twenty-eight years ago, Clara won their first county final against Ballyhale by two points. A late controversial goal sealed the win.

Ballyhale have been seeking to set the record straight ever since, but so have Clara.

They have made a habit of flying in the face of convention and expectation.


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