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Ger O'Loughlin's final battle for head over heart


Ger O'Loughlin: 'I am totally focused on Kilmallock'. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Ger O'Loughlin: 'I am totally focused on Kilmallock'. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE


Ger O'Loughlin: 'I am totally focused on Kilmallock'. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

He can't lose, he hears. Ahead of him is today's Munster club hurling final between his Kilmallock side and Cratloe, who have players who swear allegiance, as he does, to the saffron and blue of Clare.

Any other day he'd be rooting for Cratloe, but Ger O'Loughlin is scheming their downfall. It could be worse. "If it was Clarecastle we were playing," he says, "I don't know how I would even cope with that."

Which is why Limerick is where he has plied most of his trade as a coach and manager since leading Adare to three county titles in a row in the last decade. There was a return season in 2012 with Adare, when they reached the county final, a marginally more exotic venture with Newtownshandrum over the Limerick border last year, and now his latest engagement with Kilmallock.

If he's in demand his record provides a ready explanation: five attempts over three distinct periods, with two clubs, have yielded four Limerick championships and one narrow final defeat. His predecessor at Kilmallock, Tony Considine, won two county titles. Sean Stack landed a couple with Na Piarsaigh.

Considine also managed an historic first with Garyspillane in 2005. Clare coaches have been sweeping the boards in the Limerick county championships, winning all but one of the last 11.

O'Loughlin, or the Sparrow as he is more commonly known, has less enrichment with the Clare county team, much like some of his fellow travellers Considine and Stack, though the latter did not get to manage at that level. O'Loughlin had a one-year spell as selector with Cyril Lyons in 2003 followed in 2010 and 2011 by full ownership of the project, where stability and transition were the targets rather than winning titles.

During that period he introduced some of the gilded generation who would go on to win an All-Ireland in 2013, a few of whom will be trying to ruin his dream of winning a first Munster club title as manager today.

"I am totally focused on Kilmallock," he states. "I have great respect for Cratloe and the lads involved. When it was not fashionable for guys to get involved (with Clare), when there wasn't light at the end of the tunnel, the Cratloe lads were the first to come, they put their heads down and worked hard. I have huge respect for them. But my job is to try and defeat them on Sunday. I'd like nothing better than to be down in Kilmallock on Sunday night celebrating with them."

It is over 21 years since he starred in a classic ambush of Clare's fierce rivals, Limerick, in the Munster Championship, a win that ended a losing streak back to 1988. It also started the momentum that would lead to a championship breakthrough two years later. O'Loughlin suffered at Limerick's hands in the 1994 Munster final before enjoying a famous win over them in Thurles a year later.

Ciaran Carey's dramatic point in the Gaelic Grounds, where the Sparrow will be patrolling the sideline today, ended their hopes the following summer.

The rivalry between the counties is hardcore but O'Loughlin has developed a deeper appreciation of the Limerick hurling race through his years working there. Last year he was at the county semi-final when Kilmallock fell to eventual champions Na Piarsaigh. That game came back to him when he got a call from Kilmallock inviting him to be their new coach.

"I just felt the spirit had gone out of them a bit, I said that to them when I met them; I said we are not going to entertain that this year, we will push on and see if we are good enough to win the championship."

In the first round they took a bad beating from Na Piarsaigh but they had their chance to avenge that defeat in the county final when the sides met again. Na Piarsaigh won the Munster club title last year and had taller ambitions than winning Limerick. They were favourites to retain their county title but Kilmallock upset the odds.

Now O'Loughlin's players find themselves in a Munster final and hoping to be hurling into the New Year.

It took a huge win over Sarsfields of Cork to get there. Not before some worrisome moments when they blew a six-point lead in the late stages and were dragged into extra-time. "You go six points up with six minutes to go, the one thing you don't want to give them is a soft score and we did that, we gave them 1-1. But in extra-time we got the two points with 50 seconds to go. And they had no comeback.

"We could have thrown in the towel at full-time but we regrouped in the dressing-room for five minutes and I just said to them, look, you are at a crossroads lads. If fellas don't have it in their belly for the next 20 minutes we are going to be caught.

"I said 'do we want that', and each and every one of them said, we are not going to be beaten, we are going to hang in there. And funny enough after 10 minutes of extra-time when they had the wind and couldn't push on and it was level at half-time, I felt in my own head we would go on to win it."

When he finished his club and county career in 1999, O'Loughlin became involved with juvenile teams in Clarecastle and the senior hurlers, but it wasn't until 2005 that he experienced the feeling of winning a senior county title as coach. His club's success put him in the frame for other work. He didn't seek it out, it found him.

Adare came out of the blue and at a time when he was considering taking a break from hurling after his father died after a short illness at only 66. "He had bowel cancer, was diagnosed in August and died in December so he went downhill fairly quickly. When that happens you lose a bit of focus. Your head isn't right. In hindsight it (taking on Adare) was probably the thing I needed."

Adare were looking for someone from outside the fold to help them win a championship. He was working in Limerick, living in Clarecastle and after some initial reluctance went for it. His son Mark, now 16, accompanied him on many of the journeys. "An awful lot of the lads in Adare would have known Mark since he was seven or eight. He became an Adare fan. He was in his element, he was in pictures after county finals. So, nice memories."

The downside was that they did not win a Munster club title in 2008, losing to De La Salle by two points in the final. "The first year (2007) I knew after winning the county final they weren't tuned in, the turnaround was too quick, I think we had to play Loughmore the next weekend. The following year we should have won. I'd like to think

"I have learned from that. If I had it all over again, five points to nil up at half-time, we got sucked in a few times. They had good players in fairness like John Mullane and Kevin Moran who stood up in the last 15 minutes but we were just a bit green. Both on the field and on the management side."

After Adare came Clare, when the Mike McNamara reign dissolved in internal unrest and player agitation. Clare won the All-Ireland under 21 title that September but it was too soon for O'Loughlin to fully milk the benefits. In a sense he came in at the worst possible time. "I just wanted to settle the ship. After a few months I thought my best approach was to try and build a team. It had to be youth really."

Cratloe players like Conor McGrath, Liam Markham and Cathal McInerney were among those blooded in his time. Clare failed to win promotion from Division 1B in successive league finals and his time ended with a thumping defeat in Pearse Stadium from Galway who knocked them about like rag dolls. He feels the job came too quickly.

"I hadn't a whole lot of time to say yes or no. I didn't win anything, but I'd like to think that I did something to gel the team going forward. I knew what I was getting into. But at the same time I felt it important to Clare to see could we introduce some under 21s and minors and hand them over to someone who could push them on. And it could not have worked out better."

Davy Fitzgerald was the ideal fit, he says, in that he brought a level of backroom artillery through good contacts and prior experience that wasn't available to his predecessor. In the first winter months when the weather was dreadful, O'Loughlin had his players training in generous but unglamorous Meelick. He also lost players who he had seen as the spine of the team; Tony Griffin, Tony Carmody and Niall Gilligan all moved on. So he focused on the other end.

Conor McGrath was too young the first year but he talked to him and his father, who is Cratloe manager now, and planted the idea for the following year.

He played "the cards I was dealt" and comforts himself in the knowledge that it contributed in some way towards Clare eventually winning the All-Ireland two years after he left. Along the way he has learned from some wise old coaches, from his early Clarecastle days and on to the heady times under Ger Loughnane. "Hurling is hurling at the end of the day, no pain, no gain, you must put in the work. You need touch, fast feet, but my philosophy is that you must work awful hard to impose yourself. Even as late as last night I'd be saying to lads you can't line up like that when you are striking the ball, you won't get the direction you need. You need to practice but you need perfect practice, you need to be doing it right."

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