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Hurling through a storm of bitterness

IT started with a careless smile and evolved into an evocative rivalry of blood, thunder and venom; one that enthralled us for the best part of a decade.

The 1993 Munster final was swaying towards its final act when Nicky English came on with Tipp coasting to an 18-point victory over Clare. Declan Ryan fed him a ball when he could easily have scored himself, English duly raised the flag, turned to Ryan and flashed a bashful smile.

No one realised how that grin antagonised Clare, but it would go on to become the symbol of an intense conflict between these neighbours.

English didn't see what all the fuss was about. He still can't.

In his groundbreaking autobiography Beyond the Tunnel, he reckoned the joke was on him; saying he felt like a 'cripple' handed a few scraps by a sympathetic team-mate. But Clare, unrecognised by the hurling world, were sensitive and didn't buy it.

They still don't.

A year later, the sides clashed again and that smile was re-heated to Clare's advantage; they beat Tipp, hastened the end of Babs Keating's grand reign and somewhere between those 1993 and '94 Munster championships a tense and psychological antagonism commenced.

As the counties went to battle more frequently, relationships turned brittle and then poisonous. What started out as a non-toxic mutual disregard rapidly developed into a ferocious furnace.

"I think back about it now and sometimes I laugh and other times I wince," says Davy Fitzgerald, who played a central role in that era.

"I took an awful lot of abuse standing in front of the Tipp terraces. The worst kind, really. Shocking. It was a very hostile atmosphere to play in. Tipp people still come up to me and apologise for what was said. But that's the way it was. It was hurling and that rivalry was good for the game.

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"It consumed you. You'd be thinking of nothing but the games which could throw up anything. One day I'd have Paul Shelly in on top of me, flaking and roaring. I'd flake him back twice as hard if I could get away with it. He was a funny hoor."

Fitzgerald had a lead role in the hostilities but there was no shortage of other principal characters. At the height of it, local newspapers in Tipp and Clare went to war; one selector danced on the opposition's jersey, schools taunted each other while county board officers clashed in newsprint.

And, of course, there were the games.

"The 1997 Munster and All-Ireland finals probably set the tone for it all," Fitzgerald continues. "We hung on in two close games but Tipp kept coming back at us after that. When Nicky English took charge and readied them for the 1999 championship, I don't know if the stakes were ever higher for either county."

EAMONN Corcoran made his Tipperary debut in the summer of 1999 and found himself at the epicentre of it all. He recalls the wall of noise and the flash of light as he took to the Páirc Uí Chaoimh sod for his maiden voyage.

"I'd never experienced anything like the atmosphere before then and I'd never experience anything like it again, even though I played for another 10 years," he recalls.

"I remember the first day against Clare. I was running around like a fucking eejit, so pumped up that the 10-minute warm-up killed me. My head was gone."

That clash ended in deadlock and Clare easily won the replay. From then on there was just no escaping the next-door neighbours as two tribes went to war 11 times between 1997 and 2009 in senior championship fare alone.

Just as those contests started losing some heat, petrol was once more thrown on the fire -- this time at under 21 level.

The closing stages of the 2009 Munster under 21 final were as contentious as anything the two counties ever witnessed. After taking advice from the umpire, referee Jason O'Mahony judged that Clare 'keeper Donal Tuohy stepped out of his small square on a puck-out at a crucial juncture in the match. Incredibly, a '65 was awarded to Tipp who took advantage of a rule scarcely ever enforced. Pa Bourke gratefully whizzed the winning point over before minor scuffles broke out as some of the 11,000 Cusack Park spectators invaded the pitch. Later on the winners' podium, the Tipp players, with tongues firmly in cheeks, congratulated the referee on a fine game.

New players, same tensions. Same old rivalry.

It was not forgotten by anyone that the same two teams had clashed in the same competition at the same venue a decade earlier in the most venomous of fixtures.

Back then, Clare were enjoying the upper hand at senior level but the animosity was also humming in the underage ranks. It provoked a wild and uncensored piece of theatre in Ennis.

"That was the worst night of all," one Tipp player recalls. "It was like the Republic of Ireland versus Northern Ireland at Windsor Park -- you could cut the tension with a knife. We were there to play a game but all of a sudden there seemed to be a war on."

A fracas broke out between both camps and while Clare's manager Davy Fitz had the highest profile of those involved, around 12 others were caught up. Elderly supporters had soft drinks bottles and cans hurled at them and many spectators genuinely feared for their safety. After the dust settled five people were punished by the Munster Council and both boards fined heavily.

"Okay, it was serious stuff that night, but thankfully people copped on," says Niall Gilligan who played some of his best hurling amidst this strong rivalry. "I'd have to look at the bigger picture, though. Overall, wasn't the rivalry brilliant for hurling?

"There'd be all sorts of high jinks around Killaloe and Ballina and you'd pull almost 50,000 in Cork for games between 1997 and 2002. If the tickets cost €200 you'd still fill Cork. 'Twas the buzz; I remember going from the pre-match puck-around in Douglas to the park -- you'd be lifted one minute with a Clare lad whooping you until a group of Tipp fans would give you gyp and you'd be raging again.

"We'd go out and beat Tipp one day and they'd beat us the next. They had it in for Loughnane, Dalo and Davy Fitz while Paul Shelly and John Leahy would have been top of our list," he adds.

Fitzgerald is of a similar view. "People focused just on that under 21 game and highlighted it but it was just one of a few incidents around that time," he reckons. "We saw some very bad stuff that night and it was extremely hostile, but there was lots of other stuff around then too."

The dust eventually settled and as winter loomed the 1999 Dr Harty Cup swung into action.

Nenagh CBS were motoring well at the time and hammered St Joseph's, Tulla, at Ballina, which sits right on the border. The Clare Champion newspaper was less than enamoured at what it saw from the opposition supporters and ran a report which recalled a chant their newspaper reporter heard: 'Go Home You Banner Bastards'.

The report continued: "A Nenagh mentor seemed to be acting as choir conductor. On numerous occasions he left pitch side for the hill and summoned supporters to more song. Could this be the first step on the road to hurling hooliganism?"

But a journalist from the Nenagh Guardian was also at that game and heard no such chant. Meanwhile, the CBS players also had a different take on proceedings.

"We got abuse from their supporters the moment the team bus pulled up in Ballina," recalls one. "There was a big freeze with fog everywhere -- we didn't even know if the game would go ahead.

"In the dressing room one of the lads was still thick at the abuse we got so he started singing Slievenamon. Everyone joined in. Tulla were next door so we sung all the louder. We were clearly the better side, but by half-time it seemed that everyone was wired.

"Beforehand, one of our selectors, who wasn't even from Tipp, warned us to ignore the whole rivalry, but he was completely sucked in himself. He pulled out an oul' Clare jersey at half-time, don't ask me where he got it from, and started dancing on it. Jesus, the laughing we did."

"It all got silly and something had to give," Corcoran says.

"I usually marked Jamesie O'Connor who didn't need aggression in his game, but take the '99 game -- in front of me Shelly and (Brian) Lohan were at war and when I looked behind Gilligan was on the ground with Liam Sheedy standing over him. I felt the need to be rough myself and I was never like that. PJ O'Connell came on and the look of him made me want to hit him. I put my legs out and tripped him. He just stared at me.

"I felt like an ape and said it would be the last time I'd do it. But you got caught up in the whole thing. I met PJ at weddings afterwards; the nicest gentleman you'd meet. The whole thing went silly. That first under 21 game made me uncomfortable and that's not a road for GAA people."

Prompted by the unsavoury incidents that marred that explosive '99 under 21 decider, officers from both county boards met in a gesture of goodwill. It helped settle things. They reflected on how quickly the animosity had spread.

Historically, Tipp's dominance meant there was never much past Killaloe to contend with before then -- updated records show they've played 49 times in the championship with Tipp winning 34 of those and Clare claiming 11. Traditionally, Tipp's sights were usually set on Cork and Limerick, but when the Banner roared from 1995 onwards that changed.

Unlike many a player from the county's past, Ger Loughnane was never spooked by the sight of the blue and gold jersey.

At times, he may have gone over the top, but he probably felt the need to do so.

What's most interesting about the whole saga, however, is that despite all the sideshows and hullaballoo, the matches themselves were mercifully free of spite.

It's easy to be nostalgic, but while there were some overcooked exchanges, what was mostly dished up was no-nonsense manful hurling played at an extremely high tempo. Tipp had plenty of skill but first they had to match the ferocious physical power of the Claremen who also had style but lived principally on adrenaline.

"Overall, I don't remember a really nasty stroke," Gilligan says. "They were tough games and you'd be sore for days afterwards but while things were on the edge, games were never really dirty. In the 1997 All-Ireland final, I'd got two points scored off Shelly and then found myself on Liam Sheedy. I was giving him a few darts, bragging about the scoreboard and that until Eugene O'Neill goaled for them and Sheedy gave me a thump to shut me up.

"But sure that's hurling -- you do what you have to do to win and unless it's a real sore belt you shake hands afterwards. Hurling people know that. Liam and I laugh every time we meet now. I really believe hurling benefited from the buzz and I wish that buzz was still there now.

"There are no real grudge matches anymore because the traditional powers like Tipp and Kilkenny are back on top and are more used to success. But at the time the Clare lads were wallowing in it all." Neither side was to be spared heartache along the way.

IN 1999, Clare were still the best team around, but momentum had switched by the 2001 provincial semi-final. They fell to their old foes by a point; a result that totally deflated the Banner's bubble.

"Probably the biggest regret of my career is that we didn't win that game," Gilligan admits.

"It killed us to lose 0-15 to 0-14. We were in a daze for weeks. Tipp went on to win the All-Ireland and I'd like to think we would have done the same."

From 2002 onwards tensions mellowed. In that year's Munster quarter-final, Clare adapted a stylish, more subtle gameplan but went down by two points to Tipp, but one year on they were deservedly back on top again after an easy win over Michael Doyle's team.

Since then the old order has been fully restored. Clare have languished in Division Two for the past two league seasons and unless the hierarchy decides to change the ranking system they're doomed for a third year there.

In his excellent autobiography Screaming at the Sky, Tony Griffin wrote about the frustration of robotically having to summon hate before their 2009 meeting with Tipp.

"The week before we played Tipp we were asked to hate our opponents with a great and deep hostility. The night prior to the game I looked across Lough Derg and tried to fill my body with venom," he wrote.

"Traditionally, because of complex reasons but mainly because of the counties' proximity to each other, Clare and Tipp were strong rivals. These days, though, things are moving on. Tipp are not the antagonists they once were. Clare players now look on Tipp as just another team, another jump to prepare for in the great steeplechase for All-Ireland honours.

"Most of our Clare management, though, were drawn from that period of time when the perception was that the sole function of Tipp hurling was to keep Clare down.

"So they were the enemy for the week and before we played them I tried to do what we'd been told do in training -- I looked across Lough Derg and ripped myself to pieces. 'Bastards, nothing but bastards -- that's all you are over there across the river. Bastards. That's right. You bastards will shit on top of us over here if we give you the chance'.

That was the doctrine all week. 'Hate Tipp. Hate Tipp. Stand up, lads. Be Men'."

Griffin knew the poison couldn't last -- there had to be some calm after the storm. And he's right. What's left now is a mutual respect and reverence for all those who took part in such glorious battles.

"I will shake hands with any Tipp player," Fitzgerald says.

"I was at Eoin Kelly's wedding a few months ago and hope to be a friend of his for years to come. I suppose John Leahy is the only one that might stick out for me in a negative sense. He wrote a few things about me in his column, probably because

I criticised himself and Babs for dropping Eoin and Brendan Cummins a few years ago, which is an opinion I fully stand by. I don't mind what he says; we had great battles on the field but it's sad that you'd clash over an opinion and have to keep reading about it."

The spice will never fully be lost, however. Gilligan admits that, as a player, he experienced a few hairy moments amid rival supporters over the years.

"Yeah, in the thick of it there were one or two moments alright but I firmly believe that they weren't from real hurling people, more bandwagon jumpers who wouldn't really understand the GAA. Like, if Johnny Leahy came to Sixmilebridge some lad might have a comment but a young hurling supporter would be there with his mouth open and 99 per cent of lads would have a huge welcome for him."

Although Clare won their first All-Ireland under 21 title two years ago, they've yet to make their mark at senior level. Thus, today's game, sadly, may not possess a fraction of the magic of old.

"I'd be amazed if there were even 25,000 there," Gilligan says. "At €30 a ticket there won't be many takers and even though Limerick is so close I don't think many Clare people have confidence," he adds. "You could do with another haymaker to get the whole thing going again. Get the slagging around Killaloe and Ballina going again."

It would be something to see that fervour back again and it wouldn't take much to ignite that passion once more.

It is, after all, a rivalry that itches to excite.

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