'You had young players there to play a game and all of a sudden there seemed to be a war on. It was time to call a halt'
The much anticipated meeting of Clare and Tipperary in Ennis on Sunday comes almost 20 years after their rivalry experienced its most intense heat - and almost careered out of control.
The tipping point came in a Munster under-21 final in August, 1999, at Cusack Park, with Clare eager to win the title for the first time after ten provincial decider defeats.
But the broader context was an already rising tension between Clare and Tipp on the senior hurling circuit which had started with a runaway Tipp win in the Munster final of 1993 and escalated through repeated meetings from there.
During the 1990s, as Clare’s emergence was decorated with senior championship wins over Tipp in ’94, ’97 (twice), and again in ’99 (after a replay), the relationship became increasingly hostile and acrimonious, frequently spilling over into controversy.
Tipp’s 18-point win in the 1993 Munster final, and a perceived show of disrespect when a smiling Nicky English came off the bench to get on the scoresheet, lit the fuse. Tipp protested their innocence but Clare used to it motivate themselves and dramatically reversed the result in the next year’s Munster Championship, eliminating Tipp in a shock victory that ended Babs Keating’s management career.
When they met again, three years later, Clare were after winning the All-Ireland for the first time in 81 years and intent on regaining it. In the Munster final they defeated Tipp which had never happened before and they repeated the feat by turning them over in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park. By the time they met again in ’99 Nicky English was Tipp manager. His side should have beaten Clare the first day but let a lead slip, Davy Fitzgerald’s late penalty sending the match to a replay. Clare won the rematch convincingly.
And it was that year (Tipp would turn the tables the following season, finally defeating Clare in Munster) when the tension reached a dangerous fever pitch during the Munster under-21 clash between the counties in Cusack Park.
"That was the worst night of all," recalled Len Gaynor, who managed both counties at senior level, some years later. He was a spectator on the night. ”You could cut the tension with a knife and that shouldn't happen. You had young players there to play a game and all of a sudden there seemed to be a war on. It was time to call a halt.”
In the first half, with Tipp leading, Brian McMahon of Clare had to leave the pitch with an eye injury, leading to a booking for his opponent. The incident inflamed the crowd and Clare roared back into the game to lead by half time. In the second half Eoin Kelly, still a minor, was introduced and scored three points which helped Tipp win back control. The turning point came when future Tipp football star Declan Browne scored a crucial goal. They held on to win by three points.
At the end there were ugly scenes and scuffles broke out, with several Gardai having to intervene. Davy Fitzgerald, a member of the Clare management team, became embroiled in some of the incidents.
A report on the match in the Nenagh Guardian contained the following passage:
‘Many of the Tipperary supporters spoke of their ordeal in the stands and terraces with many vowing never to return to Ennis because of the tirade of abuse they had been subjected to by certain elements of the Clare followers.”
Relations were sufficiently low to persuade officers from both county boards to meet soon afterwards to help tackle the problem and set better example. "I would say very little would have touched off a riot that night," said Len Gaynor. "I think people realised after that it was gone beyond a joke.”
When Anthony Daly declared that Clare were no longer the whipping boys of Munster after winning the Munster final of ’97 it provoked a response from Tipperary that extended into spats between local newspapers in both counties.
Ger Loughnane wrote a condemnatory open letter to Tipp PRO Liz Howard in the Clare Champion taking issue with objections she’d raised in a programme article to Daly’s whipping boy remarks.
In all of this Gaynor, who had managed Clare when they were hammered in the ’93 Munster final by Tipp, and later Tipp when they lost twice to Clare in ’97, kept an impressive reserve. "I always felt - and I played the game all my life - that there was a certain dignity about hurling whether you win or lose," he said. "I always had great respect for my opponents."
By 2000 Tipp were in the ascendancy and, again managed by English, they won a Munster Championship meeting with eight points to spare. Loughnane left in the wake of that loss and immediately the tension reduced. Tipp defeated Clare again in ’01 and ’02 before losing in ’03. By then the bite was gone with neither a major force.