Martin Breheny: Banner following Cats' template
FOR the first time since 2005, there will be no black-and-amber at Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, but the systems that helped make Kilkenny the most dominant force hurling has ever seen will be partially represented by the saffron and blue of Clare.
Irrespective of how Davy Fitzgerald's ambitious adventurers fare against Cork, there is a feeling in Bannerland that a solid platform has been bolted into position, which will secure the county's fortunes long into the future. Clare are also 1/66 to win the All-Ireland U-21 title for a second successive year when they play Antrim in the final on Saturday week.
It's a long way from a decade ago when it was feared that the legacy of the 1995 All-Ireland breakthrough had been wasted. The seniors, still anchored by several of the history-makers, remained competitive but not much appeared to be happening at underage level.
Gradually, however, things changed. Driven by the likes of Sean O Halloran, who chaired Clare's Bord na nOg for several years, greater attention was given to coaching youngsters from the time they were able to take it in.
As with all lasting programmes in any county, the main energy came from the clubs, who worked hard to ensure that by the time players reached their teenage years their skill levels could match the best anywhere.
That's where Kilkenny came into the equation. Clare studied their development systems and combined them with their own to create a whole new dynamic in the county. Seanie McMahon, James O'Connor, Jim McInerney and Brian Quinn were among those driving the development squad initiative, which is now regarded as one of the main supports underpinning the success story.
They visited Kilkenny to study their systems and were delighted to find a genuine welcome. Inter-county rivalry may be intense but the hurling family everywhere recognises the importance of strengthening the game across as many counties as possible, so Kilkenny were quite happy to share their experience with Clare, even if it might one day backfire on them.
Clare looked in on other counties too to study their models, adapting the best aspects to suit their particular requirements. It took some time to yield the first harvest but it finally arrived in 2009 when Clare won the Munster and All-Ireland U-21 titles.
Munster minor titles followed in 2010 and 2011, followed in 2012 by Munster and All-Ireland U-21 titles. They retained the Munster U-21 title this year and are near certainties to claim the All-Ireland two-in-a-row.
It has been quite a revolution and while the eventual target was to return to being a major force at senior level, few thought that the opportunity would arise so soon. Even Fitzgerald set modest targets when he took over as manager at the end of 2011.
He insisted that Clare were ranked 10th in the country at the time – an assessment which was difficult to challenge based on their results over the previous two seasons – and that it would take time to get them into the top six, let alone become serious All-Ireland contenders.
However, he has led them to the final in only his second season in charge, harnessing the fine young talent which has come through on the highly efficient conveyor belts.
There has been a major shift of emphasis in terms of the clubs providing the new talent compared to those which backboned the 1995 and '97 All-Ireland winners. Back then, Clarecastle, Sixmilebridge, Wolfe Tones and St Joseph's were the main providers but now it's Cratloe and Clonlara who lead the way with six each on the panel.
So successful have Clare been in streamlining their systems that other counties are now paying them the ultimate compliment by coming in to examine their structures. That's quite a change from some years ago when there were worries in Clare that it would be a very long time before they were back as big-time challengers.
Instead, they will play two All-Ireland finals in six days. And with so much positivity in Clare over the general wellbeing throughout the county, there's a real sense of expectation that the Banner could be on the verge of a splendid era.
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