Tuesday 16 July 2019

'There's an expectation that our time has finally come' - Cleary

Cleary: Hoping to end long wait. Photo: Sportsfile
Cleary: Hoping to end long wait. Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Both have become accustomed to the dubious position of bridesmaid but one will finally become the bride after tomorrow's Tipperary SHC final in Semple Stadium (3.30).

There's only a certain amount of heartache which any team can endure and Nenagh Éire Óg and Clonoulty/Rossmore have both had their fair share in the last 25 years, playing second fiddle to big hitters like Toomevara and Thurles Sarsfields.

Nenagh Éire Óg and Clonoulty/Rossmore are steeped in Premier hurling heritage with a host of inter-county representatives in their history but getting their hands on the Dan Breen Cup has proved elusive to say the least.

While an all-conquering Sarsfields have continued to stretch their lead at the head of the roll of honour with 36 victories in total and a recent four-in-a-row (2014-2017), tomorrow's finalists have lived in poverty with just four titles between them.

Tipp legend Michael Cleary was part of the Nenagh side which claimed their sole Premier crown, when trained by Pad Joe Whelehan, in 1995 and never thought he'd still be waiting to see another.

The four-time All-Star - recently recognised on the GAA's team of the '90s - played in their '99 final defeat to 'Toome' before watching on through his hands as they agonisingly went down by the narrowest of margins in the '06, '13 and '15 deciders.

It was a case of once bitten, twice shy when they toppled reigning champions Thurles two weeks ago. There was no cause for wild celebrations unlike other times when imaginations ran wild after a breakthrough victory.

"No definitely not, we went onto the field after the game and that was it. Even that night, I personally didn't go out and I believe no one close to the team went out," Cleary says.

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"In the past we've celebrated semi-finals but nobody was going there this year, absolutely not. It was good in my eyes. Nobody is getting ahead of themselves, it's not won until it's won.

"There's an expectation maybe that our time has come but yet there's nobody getting carried away. There's absolutely no room for cockiness or arrogance or anything like that."

With players like Jake Morris, Andrew Coffey, Paddy Murphy and the three Heffernan brothers - Mikey, Tommy and Barry - in their ranks, John Fitzgerald's side have scorched through this year's championship unbeaten.

With the assistance of coach Darragh Droog - who was a key driver in Limerick side Na Piarsaigh's All-Ireland club success in 2016 - Cleary feels they are ready to leave the tag of "serial underachievers" behind.

"Nenagh would always be a contender for club honours and yet we've only won one county final. We feel we've a great chance this year but anything less than a good performance and we'll be beaten," he says.

"This team is on the go since 2013 and they've lost very few matches in that time. They're the ones that have pushed Thurles closest. No one else has pushed them to the absolute limit like we have.

"This team deserves a county final much more than our team did in 1995 but that doesn't guarantee anything or give them any sense of entitlement."

Clonoulty/Rossmore are also starved of silverware with three final defeats (1998, 2010-'11) since their last triumph and they boast the likes of Conor and Timmy Hammersley as well former Tipp star John O'Keeffe.

Managed by former Tipp panellist John Devane - an All-Ireland winner in 2010 under Liam Sheedy - Clonoulty let a five-point lead slip to fall narrowly when the sides clashed earlier this season and Cleary is hoping for a similar result.

Cleary, a two-time All-Ireland winner, has been waiting to pass the torch to the next generation of champions for 23 years and feels success could lead help Nenagh to break the glass ceiling and justify their status as one of the Premier's biggest clubs.

"It's a big club, the club needs success to keep it going. We're just not happy to win every now and then, we want to set the standard but we need to start winning more than we have been," he says.

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