Monday 16 December 2019

Champions on drive to shape their own legacy

Clare are hungry for more and a league title is the next stage of their grand plan, writes Damian Lawlor

'The session was set for 7.30, but Fitzgerald clocked in at 5.30 to see if any of his players would lay down a marker. Colin Ryan arrived at 6.00.' Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
'The session was set for 7.30, but Fitzgerald clocked in at 5.30 to see if any of his players would lay down a marker. Colin Ryan arrived at 6.00.' Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Damian Lawlor

Shortly after Christmas, when the Clare team had completed the last leg of their holiday in New York, selector Louis Mulqueen logged on to their WhatsApp group.

The cover picture featured a sandy beach with palm trees, depicting a team still in holiday mode. But just hours after they touched down at Shannon Airport, Mulqueen changed that picture to a snap of the Liam MacCarthy Cup sitting on the dashboard of the team bus. Holiday time was over.

Towards the end of January, on their first night back at serious training, Davy Fitzgerald waited in a dressing room in UL. The session was set for 7.30, but Fitzgerald clocked in at 5.30, waiting to see if any of his players would lay down a marker. Colin Ryan arrived at 6.0. That night, in an internal game, a player had his fingers broken. If the manager wanted a sign that his men were back at work, he got it that night.

Little wonder then that Clare are firmly in the groove again, aiming for a title they haven't won since 1978. After the events of last year, most observers thought they would be happy to survive in this year's league.

"Well, I think the first target was to maintain Division 1 status and take it from there," says Sean O'Halloran, the former Bord na nóg chairman who implemented Clare's dynamic underage structures which have helped yield the county's recent successes. "But results have kind of flowed and while reaching a semi-final has been a bonus, you can tell from the fellas that they want more – semi-finals are for winning. So now there's another big push on.

"Would I have expected them to be in the hunt for the league? No. But it's the type of fellas they are. Gifted hurlers with a superb attitude. Did I expect them to come right back down to earth after the All-Ireland? Yes. They know there is no grey area when it comes to discipline. Davy laid that marker down at the very start. If they mess, they are out. But they don't. They are a super bunch. We are very lucky to have them. And Davy knows that too."

They never worried too much about these guys taking their foot off the pedal as over the winter, the players behaved themselves impeccably as All-Ireland winners. Some abstained from alcohol at the post-final banquet, preferring to wait until they returned to Ennis with the cup. Most spent the next few days meeting friends and family. They did take a week to themselves to let their hair down, but after that it was back with their clubs.

In New York, the day before they flew home from their break, the players and partners took in some last-minute shopping. Back at the team hotel a Clare man living in the city arrived with a bunch of kids looking for a few hurleys and shirts to be signed. The entire squad was downtown in Manhattan at this stage, but Mulqueen issued an SOS looking for some of them to return and help. Within an hour Brendan Bugler was back at the hotel, happy to oblige.

Once home, they brought the cup far and wide but never forgot there was a purpose to what they were doing. They hit over 100 schools in a month, leaving leaflets promoting the importance of proper nutrition, and anti-bullying. "They didn't just go to schools with the cup," says one camp member. "They went with a purpose."

There has been no problem coming back down from the incredible high of last September because they never got too carried away. Within weeks of resuming hard training, they were back logging every detail of their sporting and private lives on the team's Metrofit system. Injuries were logged, weight sessions were registered and rated and players resumed the process of seeking advice on nutrition, right down to the best brands of organic porridge available.

Last week, full-back David McInerney attended a media event at Croke Park and confirmed what we suspected – these lads are not just content to bask in the warm afterglow of an amazing championship win. They are intent on ensuring a legacy, perhaps like Kilkenny who have managed five league and championship doubles under Brian Cody.

"I'm a good bit hungrier in training this year but there's a brilliant squad there," McInerney said. "I think there's going to be a few changes. We've used 27 or 28 lads over the course of the league and I've seen some of them – like Jack Browne, Paul Flanagan, Cathal McInerney and David Reidy – really stepping up. There's a lot of tough decisions to be made by Davy Fitz."

The league to date has seen some roadblocks, but those were surely inevitable. They beat Kilkenny, lost to Dublin, destroyed Waterford, drew with Galway and ran rings around Tipp before being pushed hard by Division 1B side Laois in the quarter-finals.

O'Halloran, currently the Clare PRO, says he's impressed with how the squad has reacted to winning the All-Ireland. "They are 100 per cent committed and willing to live the life required apart from being blessed with unbelievable talent and speed."

They are continuing to change hurling's landscape as well, with even the likes of Laois, coming from a lower division, visibly trying to play the ball intelligently out of defence rather than lump it high and long.

To a large extent the game has changed anyway and is no longer centred on big physical men – more about skill, speed, movement. Of course there will still be physicality but these days more teams are looking to place the ball or move into space, rather than contesting a 50-50 in the air.

Will Clare get that space and freedom against Tipperary today after cleaning their defence last time out? Or Kilkenny if they happen to meet again in a league final? Unlikely. But if Fitzgerald had six game plans last year, you can bet he will have more this year to stay ahead of the posse. They can go with six forwards or just three. They can go man to man on a full-back and isolate him, like they did to Tipp's Paddy Stapleton. They can refine their game plan at short notice because most of the squad can play in a number of positions.

Another big advantage is that many of the squad are based locally. Better still, there is a chunk of teachers and students which ensures they can almost devote their summer to the cause. John Conlon and Cian Dillon, for instance, are primary teachers, Colin Ryan and Brendan Bugler are secondary teachers and others are in Mary I in training. As a squad, as players graduate and find work elsewhere, they won't always have it so easy, however. Those are the among challenges ahead.

Remember that when Fitzgerald took over, Clare were in Division 1B and hadn't won a championship game in Munster for years. "What has happened here since 2009 at underage level has been immense," O'Halloran adds. "When I went looking for volunteers back in 2000 they were hard to find. A lot of people wouldn't commit. We were slated for not capitalising on the 1997 All-Ireland win, but a few people were working very hard. The problem was it was the same old few. I believe a lot of work was being done but we didn't get a break or have the required talent. We have it now with this exceptional bunch; a team we may never have again. But not so long ago there was a lot of apathy out there and people were just not prepared to give the time. We didn't have the support networks but we do now."

These are glorious times for Clare hurling, and they are still nowhere near the end destination.

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