Sunday 22 April 2018

In the shadow of a master

The legacy of Ger Loughnane's Clare success is a generation of strong managers, writes Dermot Crowe

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald
Ger Loughnane

Dermot Crowe

AT a Clare training session some years ago, Ger Loughnane reprimanded Davy Fitzgerald over a score he conceded, even though he knew the blame clearly lay elsewhere. The charge was a deliberate deceit, a hoax designed to draw a reaction. Fitzgerald didn't disappoint. He stormed from his goal in a rage, swearing like a sailor, as if Loughnane had breached the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The story is recalled by Jamesie O'Connor to illustrate how Loughnane could puppeteer players' emotions for a motivational purpose. After that confrontation, his goalkeeper stopped bullets. In later years, after he finished management and the baton had been passed to Anthony Daly, Loughnane lost popularity for outspoken criticism of people who had worked closely with him. They could not have been surprised by him being frank, for that was his way, but the notion was peddled that some of his television analysis was aimed to raise the team's temper and, by extension, their performance.

Gradually they became used to what Loughnane would say and paid less heed to it, and while he is still a pundit today, so much water has passed under the bridge that there is much less sensitivity at play. While his legend remains, many of the current players were kids when he was at the helm. The current manager, however, is his former goalkeeper and long-time ally. Like all the others who followed into management, Fitzgerald is influenced by Loughnane's methods and personality.

Three more of the team – Cyril Lyons, Daly and Ger O'Loughlin – have managed Clare. Two of Loughnane's selectors, Tony Considine and Mike McNamara, have been there too. Nobody has been in charge who was not directly involved in that colourful period when Clare ended a 63-year wait for a Munster title and an 81-year delay for an All-Ireland.

There have been several others who have managed club teams and Clare minor and under 21 sides, or spent time as Clare senior selectors, like Brian Lohan, Liam Doyle and Ollie Baker. The latter went further, taking over Offaly until the end of this season and giving a year as a selector to Antrim. The last six Limerick county hurling championships have been won by teams managed by Claremen, namely 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin, Considine and Seán Stack.

Only 20 years ago, Clare were in the hands of Len Gaynor, a Tipperary man, and while Stack had time with Toomevara, Clare had little impact on the management scene outside the county. There has been a steady flow outside the county borders since the All-Ireland wins in the 1990s.

Daly is currently the most notable example, having been with Dublin for the last five years. That kind of move would have seemed scarcely credible 20 years ago.

Loughnane expressed a preference for Lyons to take his place when he left after 2000. It was a big gap to fill but Lyons was an experienced hurling figure, winning an All-Ireland medal at the end of a long playing career and having considerable knowledge of coaching teams. He reached an All-Ireland final 11 years ago but Clare have struggled since to make an impact until a string of classy hurlers emerged from recent successful underage teams. Fitzgerald is fortunate in his timing but if he manages to win today he will have claims to the same pedestal as Loughnane. And the Loughnane chapter will be driven deeper into history.

Loughnane's ultra-intensive and competitive training environment helped mould a list of bespoke candidates for management, a steady line of strong leader types. They were well equipped. They had learned to overcome adversity. They knew what it was to lose and lose badly. They knew what it was like to win against the odds. They had a belief, fundamentally, that nothing was impossible. That was the message they would bring with them once their playing careers dissolved.

It hasn't all been happiness and light. The Loughnane criticism created a strain for a while during Daly's tenure and later Fitzgerald's own career fizzled out and left a rift between him and Considine, who was then in charge. As the distance since Loughnane's time lengthened, the pressure and tendency to compare also eased and managers were being judged less harshly. But it was Loughnane who Daly first called when he was asked to take over.

"The opportunity arose, you still had the Lohans, (Colin) Lynch, Baker, Jamesie, Seánie McMahon, Gillie (Niall Gilligan) and all those guys," says Daly. "First guy I rang was Ger Loughnane to ask: 'What do you think?' 'Go for it Dalo,' he said, 'you might get a year out of them'."

Daly wasn't long retired and managing former team-mates presented an unusual challenge. He told them right off that nobody would have immunity from the hard calls and that if anyone didn't understand that they should leave the room they were in right away. They all understood what was involved. Daly had a more intimate bond with the players than Loughnane but each one knew where the line was.

And the moment came, inevitably. Seventeen minutes into a bad beating from Waterford in his first championship match in 2004, Daly substituted Baker. As he puts it: "I took off my best friend, my room-mate for all that time." Baker finished his career that year and two years after he was working as a selector with Daly, which paved his way into management down the line. O'Connor, McMahon and Lohan would all see out their careers with Daly in charge.

For Daly, management would have happened anyway, with or without Loughnane. "I had a ferocious interest in it. The year we won that All-Ireland (in 1995) myself and Sparrow managed the club minor team between us to win the county title."

Fitzgerald is no surprise either. He had a spell as player-manager of his own club Sixmilebridge where they lost a championship game to Doora-Barefield after he had dropped players, including Gilligan, for missing a training session. He also became locked in a divisive management battle with Stack, ousting him in a direct contest when some felt he should have waited a year. In 1999, he was in charge of the county under 21 team beaten in the Munster final by Tipperary in Ennis, a match remembered for hostile and acrimonious scenes and, later, suspensions. He was still a vital part of the Clare senior team but he could not get enough.

Various clubs in Clare and outside have leaned on his expertise and his currency went up when he became involved in the Fitzgibbon Cup with Limerick IT. From there he was catapulted into the Waterford job, enjoying varying degrees of success, notably reaching the All-Ireland final in 2008 and winning a Munster title two years later. Daly says that Fitzgerald's fanaticism leaves even him in the shade.

"I'd say his passion was never for mathematics and Latin, it was for hurling. While I was manager we would often have conversations about puck-outs and I would have indulged him a lot that way because I felt he had a lot to offer."

While Fitzgerald was in charge of Waterford, his old mate, Sparrow, took over Clare after winning three back-to-back titles in Limerick with Adare. Sparrow is probably the quietest and least demonstrative of all the Clare managers since Lyons, but the job was on his ambition radar – just not so soon. Still, how could he let the chance pass by?

"It certainly wasn't what you would call perfect timing, taking over a team in transition," he says. "We lost couple of players to retirement. It was a tough time but it was a great learning process. I would like to think I introduced eight or nine players who are currently playing, who cut their teeth with us in the championship."

Did Loughnane influence him much? "I think he had a significant influence on everybody. His hurling training techniques were what I took most. His man-management was that each guy has to develop that by himself. He was ahead of the posse. Just the speed of his hurling. The thinking when in possession; distribution of the ball, general awareness on the field. He was probably the first to realise that the hurling in Clare was too slow. And he worked fierce hard on developing that. And fitness was the most important thing. We needed to be much fitter."

Fr Harry Bohan worked as a selector with Daly and in the 1970s served as manager of a team featuring Loughnane. "Ger was a strong leader and strong manager himself but there were very strong leaders on the field. Obviously, Anthony Daly was an extraordinary leader and I would say one of the great captains of all time. In all kinds of ways. He had a brilliant way of communicating with people who played with him. He was a great reader of the game as well. He has an extraordinary ability to connect with people.

"Davy had huge confidence in his own ability. Davy as a young fella – he has admitted this himself – was bullied and he had to work very hard on himself to get out of that and to believe in his own ability and to be able to stand up for himself. I was a selector with Daly and Davy was still hurling and he had a huge presence with the players in the dressing room and others as well."

There was no shortage of management candidates but some like Seánie McMahon, Brian Lohan and Jamesie O'Connor have filled quieter roles. O'Connor recalls the time before they played Galway in the 1995 All-Ireland semi-final, when he was after giving two strong performances in Munster, and being asked by Loughnane if he was going to laze about for the opening 20 minutes the next day. "That pulled the rug from under me."

Last week he heard players reminiscence about how Loughnane might call you "every name under the sun" for weeks before a game and in the final week declare how he had never seen you in better shape. "I don't think he always got it right," says O'Connor. "A particular type of character survives in that environment. Maybe other players need the arm round the shoulder – maybe a less brutal approach at times – but listen, for the most part his weeding-out mechanisms worked, it got players together who had similar characteristics. (Brian) Cody has a lot of similarities."

Fr Bohan says that the team of the 1970s were doing some of the things Clare were at 20 years later, like early-morning training and innovative coaching, but the delegation of responsibility to players wasn't there.

"Ger would never have been shy of course, he would always have stood out. But funny enough at that time and I am telling this against myself and people of that time, we never relied on players to talk in the dressing room. I would say Ger would have been very good at that but it wasn't part of the way we prepared at that time. I would say in the '90s he would have left players do a lot of that."

Belief was the key. "In the '70s, in the 90 years prior to that, Clare had only been in five Munster finals. Now we were in four or five in that decade that followed and won the two leagues and came very close, now we did not cross the line. But the likes of Ger came out of it. People have said to me that Clare could bottle it on Sunday. I said I think they would be the last team to bottle it, these lads are full of confidence."

Brian Lohan was involved with Clare minors and Patrickswell, but with four kids under seven, he knows management comes in different forms. He jokes how Loughnane would wax lyrical about a venue's charms and you'd end up desperate to play there even if it wasn't one of your favourite haunts. The next day he'd be talking up somewhere else. You always believed he was right though. "Dalo and Loughnane would be very entertaining and gregarious characters," he recounts, "they were absorbing characters."

Baker says Daly had a "human element" and "nothing was clouded or cloaked" as a player or manager. It was not his way, he says, to "force you into a corner and getting you to fight your way out. Which is another style we would have been accustomed to." Loughnane's.

Fitzgerald shares Loughnane's tendency to be confrontational and he has also shown himself to be innovative tactically. Some of that is grounded in caution. Daly, too, used an extra defender to frustrate opposing teams while Clare and Dublin manager. But the game has changed. "It's mind-boggling what they do now," as Fr Bohan attests.

"I don't think it is unique that a lot of our team went into management," says Baker, "but there is a lot more doing work as well. Liam Doyle's daughter won a camogie under 13 at the Community Games and he was managing the team. I think there was real appreciation we were able to play the game, but we never lost where we came from and how we got there."

That was Loughnane's legacy, essentially. The rest just followed.

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