New Banner breed yet to reach their peak – Louis Mulqueen
Selector insists onus on Clare to seize moment and kickstart 'golden' era, writes Colm Keys
Sometimes Louis Mulqueen looks on in awe and wonders if these are really Clare hurlers he is witnessing. Tony Kelly bouncing the ball off the ground, Podge Collins spinning around as he did for that wonder point in the drawn All-Ireland final. The audacity of it. In Croke Park!
"I am around a long time. When in Croke Park have you seen a Clare hurler bouncing a ball off the ground and picking it up again, or flicking it over a shoulder? This is a very skilful team, and in fairness to Cork there are two skilful teams in a final," says Mulqueen .
Skill: this Clare team is dripping with it. There is no denying it; not even a Clare coach keen to damp the flames of enthusiasm leaping all around them can downplay it.
"When you look at it in the past it was the physicality of a team that tended to wear another team down. What you are seeing now is a level of skill. I haven't seen as skilful forwards in Clare for years. We were going into matches getting big scores before, but with respect to the 1995 and '97 (sides), they were grinding out frees and points," says Mulqueen.
That said Mulqueen, a selector when Clare last reached an All-Ireland final in 2002, knows the pitfalls involved. He paints an interesting picture and bristles somewhat at the notion that it has all 'happened' earlier than expected for this group, already dubbed the golden generation.
"But what has happened yet?" he asks. "Nothing 'happens' until you win. I still think if they could win the All-Ireland on Saturday we'd be talking about the golden era. But they still have to make the breakthrough and the quicker they make that breakthrough the better. They are playing with great confidence, agreed.
"But you could quite conceivably lose to Cork and be beaten by Tipperary next year and people will be baying for the heads of the manager which is what happens in GAA."
Mulqueen acknowledges, however, that this is an "exceptional" group that needs much care and attention.
"When you look at 2002 when we were beaten by Kilkenny, we had ageing legs like Brian Lohan and Seanie McMahon, who were at the tail end of super careers," he says.
"There was always going to be changeover but this crop that has come through have to be minded, respected, nurtured and cherished in Clare.
"They have been seen coming since probably 2010 or 2011 and now they are feeding in together. This is an exceptional group."
Mulqueen believes this Clare team has still to reach its peak despite scoring 25 points in the drawn final, the highest number of scores recorded by a team not to win an All-Ireland hurling decider.
"I think both teams have room for improvement. We have some fellas who would like to have done better on the day. We leaked three goals, we didn't score a goal. If you look at that in context we have serious room for improvement," he points out.
"We haven't played our ultimate game, in my view. We played well, no doubt; we played well in Croke Park with a young, developing team but there is serious room for improvement from what I know and from what we want to do.
"I didn't think Cork didn't perform. I think Cork played well the last day. You can't score 3-16 and not play well. On the limited amount of possession they had, Conor Lehane had four possessions and he got 1-1, that's some economy. Look at Pa Cronin, he had two clear possessions and he lifts the net out of it with one.
"Both teams will park the last game. You can talk about learning. This is our sixth game playing Cork this year and there hasn't been anything between us on five occasions. I still see very little between the teams."
"Winning an All-Ireland title at this stage of their development would breed massive confidence into them, while losing would place doubts that have yet to surface.
"Winning will be another extra step and the quicker they win... when you make that breakthrough you become stronger as a unit. Now if you lose, it puts a few doubts into you, doesn't it? Even though you say 'they are phenomenal, they're great, they'll be there again next year,' if you could win it there is an air of confidence."
Mulqueen admits he thought the first final was lost when Cork regained possession after Pat Horgan's point.
"Cork had a line ball, we thought it was gone. I thought they would have kept possession at that stage," he recalls.
"I thought they would have gotten it to a player to hold it. When we got the chance from the puck-out you always hope that there is something there, you never give up.
"It was a serious lift because at one stage it was cruel, it was like a knife in the stomach and it was being taken from you. It's a strange feeling. All throughout the game you are looking at the clock, trying to will it to tick down when you were four or five minutes (away)...
"I'm still convinced that if Cathal McInerney's ball had gone over instead of hitting the crossbar the game was over. We would have been six points up and would have had control of the game.
"In the space of 30 seconds the ball was stuck in our net, super goal by Conor Lehane. Podge Collins missing his kick, to me that was the turning point of the game."