Dermot Crowe: Brendan on an extended voyage
It feels like another lifetime when Brendan Bugler first donned the saffron and blue of Clare in the Munster Championship. For the 2007 quarter-final at Semple Stadium against Cork, Tony Considine selected him at midfield where Jerry O'Connor and Tom Kenny were still a formidable double act. He entered at a time of change and uncertainty.
Anthony Daly had stepped down as manager the year before and of the defence that won All-Irelands in the previous decade, Frank Lohan was the lone survivor. At minor and under 21, Bugler didn't win a match. There was no posse of brilliant hurlers storming over the horizon.
Considine played Bugler in the middle of the field throughout the league, but in the three qualifier matches that followed defeat to Cork, and in the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Limerick, Bugler found a resettlement in the half-back line. Considine speaks warmly of him, listing off attributes - dedication, determination, honesty - that are as relevant now as they were then. "It was his application to the whole thing. No matter what he goes at he gives his all. Those fellas are worth their weight in gold."
Next month Bugler will turn 31, the most senior player in the Clare team. Many of his younger colleagues were accustomed to a high level of success as county players before making the senior ranks. He came from a different landscape; nothing came early or soft. "I had great time for him," says Considine. "It wasn't the best of times either, but he never let anything affect him. You could see he was going to be a county player for a long time. Anyone who goes into their first championship game against that Cork midfield and holds their own, that's something."
Bugler won an All-Star for his performances in 2012 in Davy Fitzgerald's first year as manager, and the relationship between them appears genuinely close and respectful. Bugler was one of the players who went public in defending Fitzgerald after Clare went out of the championship last year in the qualifiers to Cork. That act would not have required coercion. Fitzgerald reignited his career at a time when it had hit a period of stagnation.
Bugler has spoken before of the 17-point defeat to Galway in the 2011 qualifiers being his lowest point. By then, in the second year of Ger O'Loughlin's tenure as manager, his impact had waned. In that year's league Clare failed to make it out of Division 2, and he didn't play in the Limerick games that bookended their campaign, both defeats, the second being the divisional final. He had no part in the Munster semi-final loss to Tipperary and didn't start when Galway hammered them in the qualifiers. In his first season in 2010 O'Loughlin started six debutants in the championship against Waterford. By the end of the game ten of the team that won the 2009 All-Ireland under 21 title had seen action. Bugler was still a starter but a year later he didn't figure as prominently.
With Clare's defence conceding goals at an alarming rate throughout 2011, the rejection would have hit a defender like Bugler even harder. Clare conceded 14 goals in eight league games and eight in their two championship matches. "Before Davy Fitz took over I think he thought his career was over. Davy gave him a lifeline back into hurling and he grabbed it," says David Solon, a selector with the Whitegate senior hurling team that Bugler plays for. "He is very much a Davy Fitz man, because he appreciated he wouldn't have an All-Ireland medal but for him. He was in a kind of a lull and could not see any way out of it, I think he got very little game time. He bought into Davy's way of training - he is a huge man for training."
If Galway in 2011 was the nadir, then the All-Ireland win two years later offered the ultimate compensation. Bugler ended up an All-Star for the second year running and in the dressing room afterwards he was filmed playing the accordion in the midst of their celebrations. His father Seamus is a noted musician.
In Whitegate, a small club with low numbers and where county hurlers tend to be scarce, Bugler is a Herculean influence. Solon recalls the 2013 intermediate final against neighbours and rivals Feakle, when he inspired them to victory, perfectly cast in the captain's role at centre-back. Through the campaign Feakle had been scoring goals and carried a talented set of forwards. They were considered favourites but Bugler was impassable. Whitegate won by three points. "Feakle were odds-on to win," says Solon. "They had some very good forwards." At the later medal presentation, Ger Loughnane, a Feakle native, made note of Bugler's contribution. "I think Ger Loughnane said there wasn't a man in Feakle to break him," recalls Solon. "Every ball he won and sent it back up the field. He has been the main driving force in our club. When he starts hurling everybody starts hurling as well; such a phenomenal man."
The last two years have brought more frustration, the exit to Wexford in the qualifiers in 2014 featuring his dismissal, which carried over to the championship last year and caused him to miss the opening game against Limerick. He also missed the last two games in the league against Kilkenny, including the relegation play-off. Clare's season ended in defeat to Cork in the qualifiers.
When Clare won the National League for the first time since 1978 last month, Solon texted him to say he was the first Whitegate man to win a league for Clare since his uncle, Fr Jack Solon, in 1946. In the 1970s Clare celebrated their league wins unashamedly. This year Bugler was back in work the next day.
Bugler doesn't see Clare's improvement as being the result of a primal hunger missing over the last two years. He feels the appetite never dipped. Each win has made them better essentially. "That game against Limerick (which earned promotion to Division 1A) I don't know would we have won that last year," he says. "That Tipp game (league quarter-final) we scraped through by a point. Whereas last year we seemed to be losing a lot of those games by a point. This year you are winning them and gaining a lot of momentum."
In a half-back line which has two young players in David Fitzgerald and Conor Cleary, Bugler's experience has been even more valuable, with injuries having forced Clare to delve. "Once lads got the opportunity to get the jersey they played well. And we know now that there are 25 guys who the management would be comfortable with going out in championship. I don't know if that (was possible) last year, or the year before, because in Division 1A you were playing Tipp, Kilkenny, all these teams, and you really had to have your best team out, nearly every day the same team was going out. We are a lot more comfortable with the panel we have this year."
Bugler's role in their two matches against Waterford in the first week of May was to limit the clout of Brick Walsh. It didn't involve spectacular feats of hurling but not all hurling is about spectacular feats. "He is an important player for them and we did study all their forwards," says Bugler. "He is a very influential player, he is a very selfless player and Waterford are a better team when he is playing. He is one of the players you have to stop; I think the younger lads, they tend to grow around him when he gets on the ball."
Having two dress rehearsals against Waterford should benefit Clare, he feels. "I don't think we played great by any means (in the league final replay). We were a whisker from losing the game. I think there is that little bit more in us being honest, I know there is a lot more in Waterford as well. If we played the same way we did in the league final we won't win that game. I know they are going to bring the game up a notch or two.
"I think every game in the league we seemed to grow in confidence that little bit more. I suppose there was a little more of an understanding of our role the last day as opposed to the first day because obviously when you are playing a team like Waterford, and like we were talking before, some players might find themselves out of their comfort zone. Because they wouldn't be used to stuff like that. As a team I think we grew, that would be one positive. Players understand their role that bit more."
It doesn't take him long to identify the area where Clare can improve. "The game was on and before we knew it we were a goal down. When you line out at the start of a game, you line out 15 on 15, you can't line out with the extra defender back there. So we got caught cold for the first goal. But I am sure we will have worked on something to counteract something like that happening again.
"As a defender you never want to concede goals. The two they got were two sucker punches really. One was self-inflicted but again, no fault to Pat (O'Connor), he responded; I thought he was outstanding in the second half. That is the type of character he is.
"If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. You just get on and go for the next ball and in fairness that is what Pat did. He showed massive mental strength to come back the way he did. Those two goals are definitely things that can be taken as negative from our own performance but it is something we can eliminate the next day."
Having worked as a teacher in different parts of the country over recent years, he is now settled at St Flannan's College in Ennis, where Jamesie O'Connor is also situated. "He has been a breath of fresh air around the place," says O'Connor. "He has been with the first years and he has given hurling in the school a shot in the arm. The lads look up to him and hang on his every word. He's incredibly positive and enthusiastic. I think we have all been energised by what he has brought."
Talk of winning another All-Ireland, or the need to, doesn't sit comfortably with Bugler. "I don't want to put that pressure on ourselves," he says. "For us, we want to win an All-Ireland and do everything we can. We know that with the players who are there, we can do it. But I certainly won't see us as failures if we don't."
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