Tuesday 11 December 2018

Neighbours from West with two similar tales to tell

Tony Kelly attempts to get away from Wexford’s Kevin Foley during Clare’s victory over Wexford which set up a semi-final meeting with Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly attempts to get away from Wexford’s Kevin Foley during Clare’s victory over Wexford which set up a semi-final meeting with Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In 'Behind the Banner', the DVD of Clare's All-Ireland win of 2013, the early footage is an essay in the pursuit of stronger minds.

Before the hurling comes the torture then. Sixmilebridge, Gurteen, Broadford Hills, and even Kilworth Army Camp all feature as Davy Fitzgerald explores the inner fortitude of a group not many imagine will be in contention for the Liam MacCarthy.

There is footage of Tony Kelly on an early-morning run in Cratloe Woods, his path illuminated only by the lights of the jeep from which he is being filmed.

Clare went to places in the winter of 2012 that brought no requirement of a hurley or sliotar. For all their wealth of underage talent coming through, the graduation to senior had exposed them to a charge of naivety in Fitzgerald's first year.

Prior to their opening Munster Championship win against Waterford the following June, strength and conditioning coach Joe O'Connor is seen coaxing the Clare players through a jumping exercise in the Thurles dressing-room while he roars "Clare warriors out there today".

Harmony

Joe Canning gets his shot away under pressure from the Kilkenny defence in what was an impressive Leinster final replay display from Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Canning gets his shot away under pressure from the Kilkenny defence in what was an impressive Leinster final replay display from Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Everything about the footage takes its harmony from our knowledge of the story about to be told. And only the fourth senior All-Ireland win in Clare's history would lead to some startlingly broad conclusions drawn in the world of punditry that autumn.

The most startling being that they had, essentially, redrawn hurling's terms of engagement. Their running game, their use of space, their tactical intelligence had left Clare's predecessors as champions, Kilkenny, grappling with out-dated practices.

Five years later, it comes back now as a time of romantic victory unzipping over-zealous imaginations.

To be fair, none of the hysteria came from Davy Fitz who, instantly, predicted a difficult 2014 for a team with an average age of 23. Yet even he could scarcely have envisaged that it would take this long for Clare hurlers to be re-acquainted with Croke Park.

On Saturday, they face Galway in their first championship game at headquarters since the 2013 All-Ireland final replay. And we all know what became of that revolution.

Kilkenny won the next two All-Irelands and Tipperary the one after that. Hurling's supposed new order was quickly deferring again to the old as everything we thought we knew turned out to be bunkum.

So why did Clare win in 2013?

Probably for no more profound a reason than they had good young hurlers who were wisely managed and hit upon a few lucky breaks. Not much different to most other champions, in other words. The forest runs? The military exercises? No doubt they served a purpose for Davy in exploring individual personalities. But, when it came to winning an All-Ireland, Clare got there through their hurling.

Some Galway hurlers could write books about that practice of trying to reach into minds through physical sacrifice. After all, until last year, they'd long become the game's poster-boys for whimsy.

The theory that Galway were soft found endless purchase in their inability to transfer underage success into a senior team to be feared.

Two years before he tried managing them himself, Ger Loughnane wrote in his newspaper column that Galway lacked "leaders and big men of substance".

He'd watched his old friend Mike MacNamara go in previously as physical trainer on Noel Lane's management team only to find that no end of physical suffering could solve the Galway puzzle.

Yet, Loughnane would fail completely by doing the same thing again. He wintered the players on a sand gallop near Tubber and, when they finally got to the training field, his drills were designed to bring them close to exhaustion.

That certainly identified the most physically resilient in the group, but revealed little about the collective psyche. In his two years at the helm ('07 and '08), Galway's only championship victories would be against Laois and Antrim.

Loughnane had gone to Galway with the idea that their hurlers were weak-minded and, accordingly, his experience with them served only to deepen that prejudice.

It re-surfaced two years ago after they'd been beaten by Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Loughnane declaring that Galway were "made of absolutely nothing" and had "no guts whatsoever". As it happens, their next opponents would be Clare in a game that became Davy Fitz's last at the helm of his native county.

For Fitzgerald, whose preparation for that game would involve an overnight in St Vincent's Private Hospital after undergoing minor cardiac surgery, his old manager's apparent ridiculing of Galway and their new boss Micheál Donoghue, was untimely and unhelpful. The Tribesmen, after all, had reached two of the previous four All-Ireland finals.

They might have been many things, but they weren't exactly men of straw.

Galway would win that game by two goals before exiting the championship with a one-point defeat to eventual champions Tipperary.

That 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles, the most recent competitive Galway-Clare game, was their first in the championship since Clare's quarter-final victory in July of 2013.

To a degree, those '13 and '16 games had revelatory status for the victors.

The '13 contest offered a first high-profile introduction to the so-called sweeper system that Fitzgerald would deploy with such success en route to that year's final, Patrick Donnellan thriving in the role behind Conor Ryan who was picking up Johnny Glynn on the 'forty'.

Clare had an incorrigible quality that day, men like Colm Galvin, Colin Ryan and Podge Collins putting in massive performances against a Galway team that never came close to setting the standards that had carried them to the previous year's All-Ireland final against Kilkenny.

And that kept up an unenviable record of Galway flat-spotting the year immediately after a September appearance in Croke Park. Precisely the same fate had befallen them after the finals of '01 and '05, the Clare defeat thus registering as a fifth consecutive failure at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.

Indeed both Galway goals that day were of the giveaway quality too, the team in sufficient crisis by half-time for Anthony Cunningham to replace three of his starting 15. Three years later, Cunningham had been squeezed out by the will of the players, perhaps leaving them open to a degree of public vitriol that was never going to be entirely rational or fair.

Immediately after half-time in their game with Clare, Joe Canning's goal pushed them 10 points clear and, though the Banner (who'd won their first National League title since '78) rallied, it was clear that the balance between the two teams had shifted.

How?

In 2016, Donoghue started just six of the players Cunningham had started in 2013 as it became clear that he was already well down the road to re-inventing Galway as a formidably physical force.

They are the biggest team in hurling today, yet it would be hopelessly simplistic to suggest that size alone is what makes this Galway story different. En route to the county's first All-Ireland win since '88 last year, they consistently looked the most composed, best-balanced team.

And yet, in our rush to re-imagine people, it became all too easy to over-state the physical authority they now held over the rest of the game.

Consecutive league defeats to Limerick and Wexford in March softened that narrative and, of course, the drawn Leinster final against Kilkenny on July 1 made them look resolutely human too. Ostensibly, what we witnessed one week later just muddied the water. But did it?

Unstoppable to begin with, Galway pulverised the Cats in a way they are seldom pulverised to open a 12-point lead only to find that margin then pared down to a single point by Richie Hogan's 55th-minute goal.

Yet, their response to that crisis became everything that old caricature decreed to be routinely beyond a team in maroon. At the very moment Kilkenny smelt weakness, Galway took them by the lapel, marching them off the premises.

They won the remainder 0-8 to 0-2, both of Kilkenny's scores from frees. It felt a declaration of something.

And Clare?

There's been the hint of an enigma about them this year, winning their opening three games in the National League against all the old oligarchs - Tipp, Kilkenny and Cork - then losing the next three to Wexford, Waterford and Limerick. The latter, admittedly, proved a dusk marathon, settled in the end by frees.

But, if Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor wanted momentum after an underwhelming first year, the 2018 league promised only to deceive.

They then lost their Munster Championship opener to Cork, had the good fortune to encounter a Waterford team cursed by more bad luck than a season of Homer Simpson's next day out.

Appetite

And after that? O'Connor has suggested that if Clare had been knocked out of the championship at the provincial stage, neither he nor Moloney would have had the appetite to continue.

And their Thurles clash with Tipp would turn dramatically on Jake Morris's shot hitting a post at one end and 20 seconds later, Ian Galvin nailing a vital Clare goal at the other.

Clare then hammered a much vaunted Limerick in Ennis before blowing an eight-point lead in the Munster final against Cork.

Last weekend's quarter-final victory against Wexford didn't exactly set the pulses racing, given the flatness of the opposition. So Clare remain unreadable in a sense. A team given to bouts of brilliance and the most peculiar zone-outs.

And yet, for all that, they are back in Croke Park for the first time in 50 months. Ready to face down the champions who, themselves, have overcome the din of doubters.

What happens from here can change lives, many of the players lining out next Saturday are already proof of that.

Towards the end of 'Behind the Banner' a grinning Shane O'Donnell tries to make sense of his new-found status. "I don't even know what normal is anymore!" he says.

Strong minds are important, of course. But the better hurlers usually win.

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