Monday 20 May 2019

'I just thought I had to say something. Lads were very down. We had to refocus' - Clare's John Conlon

Hurling is still a driving force for John Conlon but it doesn't dominate his life like it once did

John Conlon. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
John Conlon. Photo: Diarmuid Greene

Dermot Crowe

The conversation has turned to food, where for the modern sportsman it is as much about what you don't eat as what you do. John Conlon, in the form of his life, has always explored new ways of getting an advantage. Yoga has been part of his preparations for several years. His hurley reduced an inch to counter being hooked. He has learned to be less obsessive about hurling so that, while it remains central, it's not all-consuming. That better balance has helped too.

With food he was always sensible. A nutritionist came on board this year, at the players' request, and there are signs of this new learning everywhere. "We've lads coming to matches with baking done," says Conlon. "Personally, I would always have seen myself as having a good diet but she (nutritionist) made me go off and do a test on how my digestion was working. As she described it, I had an A-class diet but I got a C-class grade out of it. There were problems with my digestive system. Often in matches I'd feel very bloated."

He stopped eating red meat. Cut out bread and milk. He doesn't drink tea much any more. "It's more fish, chicken. I actually blend all my food. It's not nice but I feel it works for me. I haven't had a steak in four or five months. It just didn't agree with my stomach. Cut out peppers, tomatoes, things I love but they just weren't agreeing with my stomach. She was able to tell me this . . . put me on supplements to improve my digestive system.

"On match day I would be burping. I used to eat the pre-match meal, now I bring my own lunchbox. I think a lot of lads are the same. I thought that my diet was good, I was into baking and cooking. But she has brought me down the right road. We were going to the Tipp match, David Fitzgerald was showing me his bag, saying do you want a taste of these?"

Times change. In the 1990s the Clare hurlers would head across the road from Cusack Park to the Sherwood restaurant for their post-training meals. The place had an ice cream machine which Fergal Tuohy quickly commandeered, serving whipped cones as the hurlers took their place in the queue. In scenes that would probably appal the modern team nutritionist, they wolfed down steaks, devoured fry-ups after early morning sessions, and drank Coke by the pint.

Conlon was six when Clare made the breakthrough under Ger Loughnane in 1995. His first Munster final to attend was in 1997 when Clare won in Cork against Tipperary in a thrilling match, the day Anthony Daly made his 'whipping boys' speech, not content to leave his talking on the field.

Clare's John Conlon. Photo: Sportsfile
Clare's John Conlon. Photo: Sportsfile

"An amazing day," Conlon recalls. "I remember being on my father's shoulders listening to Dalo, you know, little things like that. You looked up to them."

Since the 1990s Munster has been infertile ground. Conlon has won an All-Ireland and a National League, from 2016, but the Munster medal is the obvious missing piece in a career now in its tenth season. None of which will make winning today any more probable. Cork are defending champions and Clare's last victory in a Munster final over Cork was in 1932, a time when hurlers did not refuse red meat, if any came their way.

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"We know it is going to be a massive test, Cork are a super team and a really skilful team," says Conlon. "They are the Rebels and they have that bit of know-how to them, and a cockiness. They go out and play hurling and any game we've ever played, it's always a fantastic game against them and very honest and very skilful."

The losing start in the opening round robin match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh left Clare with an uphill climb. In the dressing room afterwards Conlon is said to have delivered a speech which helped rally spirits and lift the gloom. It is described in the course of a question as a 'big moment' in Clare's turnaround.

"There are a lot of big moments every year," he responds. "I'm the oldest player on the panel and I just thought I had to say something, lads were very down, we had to refocus; like, we were playing Waterford in Ennis in seven days, a big game in Cusack Park, and lads' heads were down.

"There was such a build-up to the game, you had eight weeks of training since the league. Things didn't come off, didn't come right, I just tried to get everyone up and said we had a massive game in seven days and if we weren't ready Waterford were going to take us and there was no point in feeling sorry for ourselves."

They have had some good fortune, without question: the favourable sequencing of games which allowed maximum rest time; Waterford's catastrophic bad luck during the match in Ennis; the weariness in Tipp's legs, and the shot from Jake Morris that came off the post, leading to a six-point swing when Ian Galvin goaled at the other end.

But Conlon saw promise, even in the Cork defeat. "We didn't go for the jugular, we didn't even take the shot, we just took wrong options and we just needed to focus to get more of that killer instinct. As Shane O'Donnell said after the Tipp match, it was very encouraging that in years gone by maybe we would have let that game slip by three or four points and Tipp would have gone on to win."

The game which confirmed their place in the final, when they defeated Limerick at home, had added value for a player of Conlon's Clonlara origins, living near the county boundary. "We've played them a nice few times between the Munster league, the (National) League quarter-final with the free-taking competition; we knew they were a massive team. Very big physically. Play very compact in the middle eight. We knew we had to be very cute and economical with the ball. Against Tipp, we were leaving those balls behind, our touch was wrong; the last day everything was sticking. Our conversion rate was very strong."

It made for a special day, with a capacity crowd and Ennis's narrow streets bustling from early in the day. "My brother always goes to the stand-up stand, the 'shed' across the way as we call it," says Conlon. "He said he was in it at ten past 12 and could hardly get into it.

"Cusack Park is a big factor for us. We do feel comfortable there. It is an intimidating place. I was talking to one of my neighbours from home, Fergal Lynch, who used to play with us. I could hear him down the sideline during the match. I knew the voice. That's the thing about the Park."

Now 29, there is no player older than him left hurling for Clare. When he came on to the team in 2009, veterans like Niall Gilligan and Tony Griffin were moving off the carousel. Conlon's hurling and physicality enable him to play in most positions, but he has thrived in front of the opposition goal this summer.

"The management have started to play me more centrally. I'm a player that likes to play off the cuff, hustle and bustle and being involved. Often on the wing, you mightn't be involved for 10 minutes."

In the primary school where he teaches, Conlon has used some meditation techniques on his sixth class pupils. "They love it. You know we'd do a 20-minute stretch and ten minutes of meditation. Just go through little things. Like telling them how great their lives are. And especially with children now and social media and the little issues and mental pressures, I think it just helps."

Where did this interest come from? "I just like that side of things. There is a neighbour of ours, Paulette Egan, she runs sports yoga classes at home and she got me into it back in 2012. I took a few classes with her and then I went to bikram yoga. I just always was looking for something that might help."

He still recounts the pain of not being brought to the 1995 All-Ireland final, and running away from home in a huff during the minor game after a disagreement with his cousin who was looking after him. But he couldn't bear to miss Clare play in the senior final and he swallowed his pride and came home. The homecomings in the 1990s are burned into his memory and inspired him to follow their example.

"I suppose, when you're younger, getting on the Clare panel is a great thing. And then you are learning every year, learning constantly. And then I got to the stage that it nearly took over my life. You know that I can't meet this person because I have to do an extra gym session. And then I suppose in the last two or three years I like to be busy. And that's why I am building a house. I am doing a strength and conditioning course at the moment as well.

"I just like keeping busy. I just said to myself that I must give more time to family and friends, my girlfriend, you know. Little things like that. As you get older you see the real things that matter in life. Not that the hurling doesn't matter, it does obviously; I wouldn't put as much time into it if it didn't matter. I remember before, in 2013 we won (the All-Ireland) and in 2014 I trained as hard in that off-season and maybe I just needed to relax. I did the same thing in 2015. And it got to the stage where in the last few years I have enjoyed my time off. I left the hurley down. Put on weight. Wintered well as they say."

Cork are a recurring theme. Clare had the better of them in 2013 when it mattered, but mostly they've had trouble dealing with Cork and they've more often than not lost. Since the All-Ireland final five years ago, they have met Cork four times in the championship and lost every one. Even in 2013 Cork had the upper hand in the Munster semi-final in Limerick, a day on which Conlon was taken off concussed and confused after 20 minutes, asking strength and conditioning coach Joe O'Connor if he had scored four points, when he hadn't raised a flag, until O'Connor, for peace's sake, said that he had.

Last year's Munster final defeat to Cork comes up. Clare never got into their stride in what was only their second provincial final appearance since the last win in '98. "As a team and a management, Donal and Gerry have often said it, they got things wrong, we got things wrong, in terms of the way we went out to play against them and I know it didn't work," says Conlon. "We admit that. And we're just trying to refocus now and go out to play hurling."

Tactically, you erred? "Yeah tactically, we shot ourselves in the foot I suppose. We just didn't do ourselves justice, which was going out and (playing) hurling. And if you look back at it, Conor McGrath got a goal with 10 minutes to go and there was only a point or two in it again. That's when the momentum maybe had shifted towards us and, as Shane O'Donnell says, we hadn't won those games, played to our potential.

"I suppose it's the last ten minutes where you see the bigger teams come through, that's what we are trying to build this year, build character in the group, build leaders and I think the management has had a really big focus on that this year. It is more player-driven. I remember hearing John Allen after coming out of one of those All-Irelands when I was younger, going to some of those All-Irelands with my father, I remember him saying that the minute you go over the white line you are on your own. They were after playing Kilkenny one year and it really stuck in my mind."

He plans to finish building his house later this year and marriage is also "on the cards" after eight years of courtship. Now nearing veteran status, it seems no time since he was the star player when Clare defeated Kilkenny to win the 2009 All-Ireland under-21 final, when he represented the future.

"If you look at the Brick (Michael Walsh) - the admiration I would have for him, and even Kevin Moran, fellas who have been going maybe 15 years, how do they do it? How do they keep togging and keep going?"

He will hope to have a Munster winner's medal before he finishes; he will earnestly hope to have one before the end of today. That would be a fitting return for the sacrifices made. He is asked if he will ever eat red meat again.

"Ah no, I will. No better man. We're farmers at home so we love a good steak."

That is a temporary accommodation. But would he forgo steak for the rest of his life for a Munster medal, if that were the price?

You really don't need to ask.

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