Tuesday 20 March 2018

Clare's second win was the sweetest - Jamesie O'Connor meets Brian Lohan to talk about '97

Beating Tipp in the 1997 Munster final set up a thrilling All-Ireland win

Brian Lohan and Jamesie O’Connor recall their All-Ireland win in 1997. Photo: Brian Gavin
Brian Lohan and Jamesie O’Connor recall their All-Ireland win in 1997. Photo: Brian Gavin
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

In Denis Walsh's brilliant book, Hurling: The Revolution Years he beautifully captures an era that defined a sport. He takes the reader on a journey through a time when hurling was arguably at its best, when it was free-flowing and ferocious.

The winning and losing teams were filled with characters, men who lit up the sport both on and off the field, players who continue to inspire the next generation, legends of the game.

Brian Lohan is congratulated by fans after the 1997 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Lohan is congratulated by fans after the 1997 final. Photo: Sportsfile

When writing about Clare's All-Ireland victory in 1997, Walsh explains how they had to be better than they had been in 1995, that they needed to change, evolve, challenge themselves and go again. Two men who were central to that revolution were Brian Lohan and Jamesie O'Connor. They were part of the core, the identity and the fabric, leading by example, part of the ultimate team.

Twenty years on they arrive at the West County Hotel in Ennis, where many celebrations were held after All-Ireland and Munster victories, and they still cause a stir when they enter the room.

Curious glances are thrown, knowing looks are passed. Parents stoop to explain to their kids who these men are. The hurling tradition has always been strong in the county but without players like them and that second All-Ireland title the landscape in the Banner County would have looked a lot different. They left their mark on history.

MC: I'm going to go back to 1996 before we talk about 1997. What was it like losing to Limerick in the Munster Championship, one game and you are out?

Ger Loughnane has a word with Jamesie O'Connor during the 1997 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Ger Loughnane has a word with Jamesie O'Connor during the 1997 final. Photo: Sportsfile

JOC: It was a massive occasion, full house in the Gaelic Grounds and it was a game we should have won. We had chances to put them away, but we left them hanging in there and we paid the price for it. We were out, there was no back door. We met that September, here in the West County, and (Ger) Loughnane made out that the second All-Ireland had to be won. I remember Mike Mac (Namara) saying it hurt him grievously that a team he trained couldn't last 70 minutes in championship. I remember thinking, 'oh Jesus. If we thought it was bad before, we are going to be slaughtered altogether' and a wave of depression came over everybody if Mac is talking like that.

MC: When did you go back training for 1997?

JOC: After that meeting in September. The West County was after opening a new state-of-the-art leisure centre and we had access to the gym there so we got programmes to get working on. That's why at the end of that it was more fulfilling than 1995, because it was mission accomplished. We set out to win it. We had a clear goal for the year and there was huge satisfaction in doing that. I remember we got the gym programme, I was teaching next door in St Flannan's College, I was living at home, no kids and no commitments. I was in the gym Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then training in Crusheen Tuesday and Thursday.

BL: If you went well with your club it was encouraged that you stayed with your club until you were beaten and we went all the way to the All-Ireland final with Wolfe Tones that year. I was in regular contact with Loughnane and the feedback was that everyone was working really hard and Jamesie came up a few times, how much work he was doing in the gym. There were people who were working, working and working, trying to get the hours in and build up the fitness. Even though I wasn't part of it in late 1996, and I wasn't part of the group sessions, I was conscious that everyone was doing the work.

JOC: The Oireachtas was played pre-Christmas, so you trained Tuesday and Thursday and you had an Oireachtas match at the weekends. I remember we played Limerick in Kilmallock, I think it was Niall Gilligan's first match, and Laois in Rathdowney. We beat Kilkenny in the final in the Park, on the first Sunday in December and there were eight or nine thousand people at it. I read the Times the next day and there wasn't a word about the Oireachtas final but there was rugby and soccer fixtures covered with two or three thousand people at them. I'd say there was no better-attended sport fixture in the country that weekend than the Oireachtas final.

MC: Had either of you been doing work in the gym prior to 1997 or was it a new thing?

JOC: I'd done some weights in 1994 and 1995 but this time we had access to a state-of-the-art gym. The one thing about it was that we stopped going to the gym in March, so we probably lost a lot of gains. We still had residual gains but now they go to the gym all year round. I remember the thinking at that time was that weights bound you up.

MC: So it's fair to say ye had tunnel vision from the outset?

JOC: Well we had got the taste of success in 1995, we knew what it was like to play and win in Croke Park; 1996 was the other extreme and we didn't want to go back there.

BL: We were aware as well that there was a good group there. Clare always had good individuals, whether it be backs or forwards, good names. But maybe there wasn't always a group of individuals, backs and forwards, who were all good enough.

MC: Was that famous bond from 1995 still there in 1997?

BL: It was stronger in 1997. A bond is created from winning and we were getting stronger as a group. We might have lost a couple of games in 1995 . . . in 1997 we weren't going to lose any matches. Regardless of who we were playing we were going to be better than them. That seemed to be the case.

MC: What was Ger like in 1997?

JOC: Early in the season he sat back and let Mike Mac at it. It was very much his show pre-Christmas. Loughnane would arrive out to Ballyline very much hands in pockets and Mike Mac ran things. As players, we loved and looked forward to the clocks going forward and Loughnane starting the hurling training, it was fantastic at the time. A hundred sliotars on the pitch, the speed of the training and then the matches. He had the ability to gauge the temperature. The only time I remember the whistle being blown was when you were coming out with the ball, Brian and Hego (Fergal Hegarty) hit you a shoulder and blocked you, you were on the ground with about three fellas around you and he'd blow the whistle and say 'free in for over-carrying', knowing full well that Eamonn Taaffe or someone was about to get killed in around the edge of the square. He knew what buttons to press and if you were ever getting ahead of yourself he would cut you at the knees. He had his finger on the pulse all the time and the training was fantastic.

BL: He used to do this thing after a game where he would come around to people and he would say well done and thank people for what they did for Clare and if you got a thank you from him it was nearly better than winning the bloody thing . . . he had that aura around him.

JOC: Before we would play a match against someone like Tipperary he would pull you in and give you a minute about getting ready for them and the hairs would be standing up on the back of your neck. Beating Tipperary in the Munster final was a special moment for the county. The fans revelled in the glory, celebrating like it was the first title won by the Banner. Nicky English's smile to a team-mate late in the 1993 defeat still burned bright in their memories. There was something extra special in getting one over on the neighbours, the team who had kept us down for so long. It was a chance to rise above them and one that wasn't going to pass us by.

MC: What kind of things would Ger say, for example before the 1997 Munster final against Tipperary?

BL: It was the big things, like beating Tipperary in the Munster final, we hadn't done that before. It was alright to beat them in a championship semi-final or some other time but to beat them in a Munster final, well that was the be all and the end all. It hadn't been done before. We had a chance to do it and this was what had to be done. And then when we got to the All-Ireland final it wasn't beating Tipp in a Munster final it was beating Tipp in an All-Ireland final.

JOC: Everything about that Munster final day went like clockwork, the attention to detail was unreal. We left at 8am and went down to the Hayfeld Manor in Cork, a five-star hotel none of us knew existed. You felt like this was professional, top class. We had our breakfast, we went for a lie down, then we went for a puck around in the Mardyke. We went on the bus then to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, police escort to the stadium, the timing was perfect. We weren't in the dressing room that long. I remember the atmosphere that day, I remember Brian saying it to me after about the noise, it was like a cauldron, that he wanted it to be over after we went out to the pitch because it couldn't get any better than that reception we got. They called out the teams, Davy Fitz big roar, Frank Lohan big roar, and I remember thinking there is no way Tipp will get a reception like that, but when they came out it was like the ground was shaking. The atmosphere was as good as I ever played in. It was a great place to play, the surface was lovely. We went down the weekend before and trained the Friday evening and Saturday morning on the pitch, it was a springier surface and you felt no stone was left unturned. All the bases were covered.

MC: What was it about Tipperary that it was so important to beat them?

BL: They had hammered us in 1993, 3-27 to 2-12, they gave us a hiding, and when you are growing up you remember hidings. It knocked us back but it didn't keep us down. We were on our way and we had them in our sights. Even when we were playing challenge matches against them they never played their best team, they'd leave off (Pat) Fox and (Nicky) English so you never got the chance to mark Fox and English. It was as if we weren't good enough, that they didn't need to play them. And even though we had won the All-Ireland in 1995 and they hadn't won since 1991, we wanted them.

JOC: I remember Seanie (McMahon) telling me a story about being in UL and he went out to Fresher trials and this Tipp fella said to him, where are you from?, Seanie said Clare and your man started laughing. So you'd have things like that. The other side of it is Len Gaynor gave both of us our start and Eamon O'Shea was probably the greatest influence on my career. We played a lot of big matches against Tipp but there wasn't a lot of malice. The games were hard-hitting and ferocious alright, but I wouldn't say there was huge rancour on the pitch, things you might have had with the Limerick lads. I don't remember too many brawls; maybe ye had some at the back Brian? By and large the games were competitive but everything was left on the pitch.

BL: In that Tipp forward line you had English and Fox and they were probably two of the greatest hurlers of any generation. They were such good players and even though you didn't like them, at the time you were just hoping that you would get a chance to mark them. People use the words legends of the game a good bit and they were at that level. And you had Declan Ryan on top of that and John Leahy. You'd love to have them on your team, they were great hurlers but we thought we were better and we wanted to prove that.

MC: It must have been sweet to beat them in the Munster final?

JOC: We came out and played unbelievable hurling and then we took the boot off a bit. I had a few bad wides and five minutes into the second half I think we were level and the momentum had definitely swung. Seanie took off the helmet and really got into it and Sparrow set up David Forde for the crucial goal. They still had a chance to win it after that with John Leahy, it was one of those that went down to the wire. It's the second biggest prize on offer, so to do it on that day with that atmosphere was great.

But that Munster final wasn't the last we saw of Tipperary. The back door was introduced in 1997, giving teams a second bite of the cherry. Clare had beaten Cork in the Munster championship semi-final; Kilkenny awaited them in the All-Ireland semi-final. We were on a path to winning the perfect All-Ireland, toppling the hierarchy along the way and finishing by defeating our greatest adversaries on the biggest stage.

MC: The All-Ireland final against Tipp, were you worried? It's hard to beat a team twice in the one championship.

BL: We felt that we were a bit stronger than the team they had. They changed their team around a bit. They got bigger, stronger players. We just felt we were better hurlers than them and we would find a way to win it.

JOC: I remember feeling that we were going to end up playing Tipp. Wexford were champions but I thought it would be Tipp again. For me there was a fear of losing to Tipp and sometimes that fear can be a great motivator. Loughnane played on that a bit, that it would devalue that Munster title a bit. I'd say there was probably more pressure on us going into the game.

BL: I looked at it a bit different; I felt there was more pressure on Tipp. To lose to Clare in a Munster final for the first time ever and then to lose an All-Ireland final to Clare as well. There was more pressure on them than on us.

JOC: One thing I remember before the final was that there was a lot of rain and Cusack Park was boggy. We played a full 15-on-15 match eight days before the game in the Gaelic Grounds. I remember at that time I was in the best shape I had ever been in, I was hurling really well. I remember I was flying at that match. I got five or six points from play and then, right at the end, I got a chance and put it wide. I should have scored and your man ran out about 30 yards and ate me.

MC: Who Brian?

JOC: Oh ya Brian . . . he was on about being careless and I remember thinking at the time, 'oh would you go away'. But going home in the car I was reflecting on it and I realised he was right and I often say it to lads in the school that it did get me thinking. And then I got a chance late on in the final . . . That just showed his mindset. You couldn't afford any carelessness, any lapse in concentration. It happened 20 years ago and I still remember it. He didn't have to do it or say it but he did and he did it for the right reasons.

MC: That was a great chance to get so late in an All-Ireland to win the title.

JOC: I was lucky enough to get the chance. I had a brutal first half and I didn't play well in the 1995 All-Ireland final and I remember sitting in the dressing room at half-time thinking 'is this happening again? Is this thing going to pass me by again?' I remember early in the second half Loughnane coming onto the pitch and asking me did I want to switch wings. I said, 'no, no I'm getting into this now'. Even with that call he was as cool as a breeze, thinking clearly.

MC: How do you do that, get into a game in an All-Ireland final?

JOC: You just get your act together. I was marking Colm Bonnar and every opportunity he got he had a hold of me and if there was a ruck he would drag me to the ground. I knew I needed to get him moving and I did. I remember that last chance, I was going across the pitch and Liam Sheedy cleared the ball on the ground and he kind of half topped it. I was going to my left and I thought I would pick it off but it went a fraction behind me and I'd say I only missed it by a foot. I stayed over on that side of the pitch, Colin Lynch got it out to me and I was on my own, no-one near me on my left side. I'd have been annoyed if I missed it.

BL: When he got it I'd say every one of the players was thinking the ideal person has it. He will score 99 times out of 100. He wasn't going to miss, on his good side on the run. People said to me after would he not have stopped and sized it up, but he was more accurate on the run than he was from a standing position.

JOC: Loughnane was standing at the post so it fell into his hands. I was in space; I'd practiced that thousands of times. At the time you are just in the now, you aren't thinking. Ollie Baker's point before was probably more crucial, that was a monster point to level the game. The cameras missed it because they were probably showing the replay of the goal.

MC: Brian, those two goals Tipp got late in the game to go up by one, must have been tough going at the time?

BL: Stupid mistakes. First goal, Liam Cahill caught it inside of the box; he should never have been allowed to catch it. The second one was a 65, back then the crossbar was a plank of wood. The ball came in, bounced on the top of the crossbar and up and over me. I was in the right position; it hit the top of the plank of wood and bounced over me and Eugene O'Neill met it and scored it.

MC: What went through your head?

BL: Nothing really because Baker had the ball caught and over the bar to level it so there was still time. We almost lost it and we didn't. Baker got us out of jail. Then the ball went to Jamesie and I was sure it was going over.

MC: John Leahy had a chance then?

JOC: I'd say your life flashed before your eyes Brian when Leahy got it. If it was me I would have put it over the bar, played the percentages. Drawn match and we would have been back in Croke Park in two weeks. When I saw Leahy winding up, I was thinking of all the Tipperary players to do it, especially after the chance he missed in the Munster final, it was Leahy. He was one of those players; he wasn't the most popular in our dressing room. He was in your face, aggressive, but he was a great player. In fairness to Davy he kept his head, he saved it and we got a line ball after that.

BL: He struck it from the 21 and it would want to be an awful good shot for him to beat Fitzy from 21 yards out. When I dived across I was trying to block a point because I was thinking you are not going to shoot for a goal here. You'd want to be top corner to beat Fitzy. He didn't catch it well either. It bounced twice maybe before it got to Fitzy, definitely once. The grass was a little bit long; it wasn't flying off the turf. It's not the same grass that is there now.

JOC: You could see from Davy's reaction it wasn't a routine save either, he had to go across. He would have expected to save it and he would have been very disappointed if he didn't. He was still the best goalie in the country.

MC: What was it like playing in front of him? There is a perception that he was very vocal between the posts?

BL: He was never like that, never in the years I played with him, never like that.

MC: Cool and calm?

BL: Very much so for the majority of it. For the last year or two he changed a bit.

MC: What was it like after you won?

JOC: That dressing room was great. Cody has often talked about the magic of the dressing room after a win. You are with a group of people you have slogged with. I remember we went down under the stand, I don't think we went across the pitch. I remember the journalists were waiting outside our dressing room and my brother Christy was there and it was great to share a moment with him. That half hour after the game was euphoric.

MC: Did you ever think that would be your last?

BL: No. The big thing then was to win three. There was no-one playing who had three and we wanted to do that. That was the next goal. We didn't get there . . . we couldn't get there.

We tried but we just couldn't. There are different dynamics that come into play, different personalities and it's not easy to keep 30 guys happy. We got close a couple of times, we were beaten by some really good teams.

MC: People always refer to hurling in the 90s as being exceptional, stories and songs were written about that era . . . you both played in it, what was it like to be a part of that?

BL: It was the only thing we knew. It was only after, when Kilkenny became so dominant and it was every year a Kilkenny-Tipp All-Ireland final that the hurling public yearned for something different. It was just the way it was. We were at the top of the hurling tree back then along with probably Offaly and then other teams came along and knocked us off. And that was it.

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