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Banner will suffer pain before the gain

On the night of Clare's victory in the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 final, Paul Flynn said on 'The Sunday Game' that he hoped the Banner would learn from Waterford's experience of a similar breakthrough in 1992.

The 15 Waterford players who started that All-Ireland U-21 final replay against Offaly in 1992 all played senior hurling at some level over the following few years. Yet, when Waterford finally made their first breakthrough in 1998 -- reaching the Munster senior final -- only three of that U-21 side were in the starting 15.

Flynn said that Waterford promoted too many of those players too soon and that Clare should be wary of going down the same road.

History has shown that avoiding that trend can be difficult, especially in counties that are unused to underage hurling success.

After Limerick won their first All-Ireland U-21 title in 1987, 13 players from that team eventually appeared in the senior championship. But by the time Limerick reached an All-Ireland senior final in 1994, just four of the 1987 U-21s were left; in their next senior final two years later, that quota had been reduced to two, even though all of the 1987 generation would have been 30 or less.

Expecting too much from one successful U-21 team can be dangerous, especially when compared to the strong counties. Four of the Kilkenny U-21 side which lost the 2009 All-Ireland U-21 final to Clare have since gone on to play senior championship.

Similarly, of the Galway U-21 side which narrowly lost that year's epic All-Ireland semi-final, five have played senior championship in the last two seasons.


However, Clare's U-21 team of 2009 has basically been transplanted into the senior team ever since. By tomorrow evening, it's likely that 13 of the players who featured in that U-21 final will have played senior championship hurling.

Flynn said two years ago that Clare should "blend those young players in slowly and give them time to find their feet." However, that luxury hasn't been available.

Clare manager Ger O'Loughlin and his management team had expressed a desire to rebuild the team as soon as they took over in 2010, but much of that reconstruction was forced upon them. Of the 20 players who played against Tipperary in the 2008 Munster final, 13 are no longer on the panel.

That turnover has been even more seismic given the experience Clare have lost in the meantime. The leadership deficit left by Frank Lohan, Colin Lynch, Niall Gilligan, Brian O'Connell, Gerry O'Grady, Tony Griffin and Tony Carmody has been the critical factor in Clare's struggles over the last two seasons.

As with Waterford in the early and mid-1990s, young players arrived into a struggling senior team and were expected to carry most of the burden.

And any team that promotes a rich stock of decorated young players at senior level requires the guidance and leadership of more established players to facilitate the transition.

Nine of the Cork team that started the 1999 All-Ireland senior final were under 22, most of whom had been part of the successful All-Ireland U-21 winning teams of 1997 and '98.

Similarly, six of the Tipperary side that featured in last year's All-Ireland senior final won All-Ireland U-21 medals six days later.

Yet, both those senior sides had significant pillars of leadership and experience around those young players.

It could also be argued that Clare followed a similar pattern back in 1995. The previous year, a hugely under-rated Clare U-21 team narrowly lost a Munster final to Waterford. Yet 14 months later, six of that team -- Seán McMahon, Ollie Baker, Stephen McNamara, Fergal Hegarty, Lohan and Eamonn Taaffe -- played in the All-Ireland senior final.

McMahon was the only player from that U-21 group with senior experience prior to that 1995 season, but that senior team was loaded with battle-hardened warriors who had lost successive Munster finals in '93 and '94.

Rebuilding now with so many young players was always going to require careful husbandry.

Clare have some established senior players at the moment, but only two have played in a full championship game prior to 2007. Those senior players still have to show the leadership qualities and serrated edge of the successful team of the 1990s, but this side is also lacking the physicality which defined that team.

Playing in Division 2 for the last two seasons has stalled momentum and stunted progress, but the county has produced its most talented crop of underage players in nearly two decades.

The best gauge of that potential was the 2010 classic Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final between NUI Galway and Limerick IT. Fourteen of the players who started that match were from Clare, while Caimin Morey -- who hit NUIG's game-breaking goal in the final -- would have started but for injury.

In the previous 50 years of the competition, there

were only two occasions when one county provided as many players for a big Fitzgibbon Cup tie.

Although results have been poor and morale around the county is low, the bright lights of the future are certainly reflected through the new generation. Clare reached three Munster U-21 finals in a row between 2008 and 2010 and the two finals they lost were narrow defeats to crack Tipperary teams.

They won a Munster minor title last year for the first time in 21 years and were unlucky to lose the All-Ireland final to Kilkenny. That team had some brilliant players and outstanding leaders and it's entirely possible that Clare will get more from that team in the long term than they will from the 2009 U-21 squad.

Three excellent young players -- Patrick O'Connor, Conor McGrath and Cathal McInerney -- make their debuts tomorrow and more fine young players will make that step up to senior hurling in the coming years -- Tony Kelly, Stephen O'Halloran, Jamie Shanahan, Davy O'Halloran, Colm Galvin, Dáire Keane, Seadna Morey and Paul Flanagan. All really good players.

More importantly, the whole coaching and development squad's programme has been radically overhauled by four former players in the last two years.

When Ger Loughnane addressed an U-15 squad in April 2010, he said the current underage coaching apparatus was what he had "dreamed of 10 years ago."

The county are producing, and will continue to produce, a new breed of player. The U-21 and minor sides of the last few years have almost been untypical Clare sides; highly skilful and pacy, with some beautiful ball-players and excellent forwards.

The potential is certainly there. During the week, Dublin manager Anthony Daly, a former Banner star, said that he had "no doubt that Clare will win Munster championships in the coming years."

When Loughnane presented the Munster medals to the victorious minor panel last December, he had an even grander vision.

"We now stand at the cusp of our next potentially successful team with Clare," Loughnane said in his presentation speech.

"In the next three or four years, a chance to win an All-Ireland for Clare is going to come. That is an absolute certainty.

"We will be nothing in Clare until we win another All-Ireland. We have got to win one in this decade and you are the people. You have everything. But in three years' time, will you be able to contest the ball in the air and in the tight? Will your hurling, left and right, have improved? If it has, you will be on your way.

"We will be in the Square in Ennis sometime in 2015 or 2016 with the MacCarthy Cup back. Then, and only then, will Clare have respect as a real hurling force."

Clare's young players won't have any truck with Tipperary tomorrow. But for now, and the near future, they'll have to experience a degree of pain and hardship. This is still a hurling county going places. It's just going to take time.

Irish Independent