The day Kelly made earth shake in Clare
Minor miracle against Tipp in 2010 changed the managerial world of Moloney and O'Connor forever
From the huge collage of memories collected, the catalogue of great days created, all the kaleidoscopic granules of emotion spread out across five seasons, one towers above every-thing else like a landmark – May 5, 2010.
The date trips off Donal Moloney's tongue as easily as if it was a birthday or an anniversary. It is so deeply embedded in his psyche because it was the tipping point in Moloney and Gerry O'Connor's careers. The moment their sporting lives changed forever. And Clare's hurling culture changed with it.
Tipperary came to Ennis as hot favourites for a Munster minor play-off. Clare had already been heavily defeated by Waterford and their season was on the line. So was Moloney and O'Connor's project – not to mention their future Clare managerial careers. Down to 14 men, the sides were level when Tony Kelly scored the winning point on 60 minutes. The Clare crusade had been launched.
"That was the pivotal moment," says Moloney. "It could have all blown up in smoke that day, but that win broke everything open. Afterwards, we knew we were on the right track. We knew we could drive on and see how far we could bring this."
Ever since, Moloney and O'Connor have evolved their project into a model that has radically altered the culture, mindset and playing style of Clare hurling. In the last four seasons, they have co-managed Clare to successive Munster minor titles and back-to-back Munster U-21 titles. Prior to those achievements, Clare had won just two provincial minor titles and one Munster U-21 title in their history. This evening, Clare are set to win successive All-Ireland U-21 titles.
The panache and level of control the Clare seniors played with last Sunday had been a hallmark of all Moloney and O'Connor's successful underage teams. That swagger incrementally segued into the senior team. The senior team have also profited from the same template. And their primary source of confidence and belief stems from a gifted generation that know nothing else only winning.
Clare's maiden All-Ireland U-21 success in 2009 ignited the initial revolution, but the first shots of the second wave were fired prior to that success that season. Moloney and O'Connor were joint-managers of a minor team well beaten by Waterford in a Munster semi-final.
"Donal picked a bainisteoir bib off the ground and said: 'We may as well hand that back now because we will never need it again'," says O'Connor. "We felt that we had screwed up."
They knew they had to improve technically and that they were way behind in strength and conditioning terms. They realised that when they went in to the Waterford dressing-room afterwards. "Their players," says O'Connor, "were like seniors."
They requested a review meeting with the county board because they desperately craved a second chance. "We basically told them we made a balls of it," says O'Connor. "You wouldn't have blamed the board if they ran us. We weren't rated. We had no profile regarding inter-county experience. We didn't expect to get the job in the first place in 2009. The only thing we had going for us was we were interested, we knew the players and we were intent on getting better."
As soon as the board ratified them, the hard work began. They sought counsel everywhere and anywhere; Pat Flanagan, Donie Buckley, Eamon O'Shea, Richie Mulrooney. They asked Alan Cunningham to train the team, but he pointed them in the direction of Paul Kinnerk, a young Limerick footballer teaching in Shannon.
Moloney and O'Connor subsequently met Kinnerk and told him they wanted to win an All-Ireland. Kinnerk liked their presentation and came on board. As soon as he did, everything changed. For everyone.
"The first two or three nights at training were just constant rows," says O'Connor. "We wanted to play a game, but Kinnerk would say: 'We can't until we get them fit and get their touch right'. Kinnerk emphasised the importance of getting your technique absolutely right. He broke down all the different skills and applications of the skills. Players were working under intense pressure and making decisions in tight and confined spaces."
Moloney devised an aerial drill that helped take their hurling to another level. They were changing Clare's traditional style of hurling, but they were doing so to accommodate the players they had, some of which were light, pacey, classy ball-players. Their style was based on guarding possession, off-loading off the shoulder, patient build-ups and shooting from distance.
Once they got traction, they were up and running. Tackling and contact largely defined their sessions. When the minors trained before the seniors one evening in 2011, the senior players realised the minors were operating at a different level to them.
When Davy Fitzgerald took over in 2012, he recruited Kinnerk because they shared the same philosophy. The fact that the younger players were used to such a non-traditional style gave them a head-start and facilitated their transition to senior level.
Moloney and O'Connor have been two of the most influential, yet understated and humble, management figures in hurling over the last decade. Their approach has been grounded in the philosophy that defines all great teams; the importance of the group always comes before the ego of the individual. In that organic system, a pervasive and continuous culture of winning grows stronger all the time.
"We would be a bit cranky and obsessive," says O'Connor. "We send out emails with colossal attention to detail. We have organised things, but Paul Kinnerk completely changed the thinking behind Clare hurling. These young players have no baggage. No fear of any jersey. The players believe nobody works harder than them. That is down to Kinnerk, but Jimmy Browne and Mikey Kiely are just as important in our management.
"We have lots of arguments, but everybody respects each other's ability to do a job within the group. That is why it works. If you come in to our training sessions, you would be hard pressed to know who is the manager and who is the water carrier."
Moloney and O'Connor are best friends now since their paths first crossed seven years ago. Growing up, they only lived six miles apart in East Clare, Moloney from Scarriff, O'Connor from Killanaena. After both left school, they didn't see each other for 20 years. O'Connor was living in Ennis. After Moloney got married, he moved into the same housing estate.
They would often acknowledge each other in the local pub, The Halfway House, until they got properly chatting one evening. O'Connor had been manager of the Clare U-14 team and he asked Moloney if he might be interested in joining his back-room team at U-16. They have worked together ever since.
"We both had a ferocious interest, but we never envisaged this going where it has," says Moloney. "Back then, you were scratching around for any kind of a result, fighting for recognition of Clare underage teams."
They craved respect and success, but their philosophy has still always been about development. For the last two years, they have doubled up as the intermediate team's management. In the intermediates' opening game last year David McInerney played his first game at full-back for Clare. Conor Ryan was tried out at centre-back. Look at them now. McInerney has had a sensational season. Ryan was man of the match last Sunday.
"The most gratifying thing is seeing how players can develop under this system," says Moloney. "Every time Conor Ryan caught a ball last Sunday, I was standing up. There was a guy who exemplified everything we wanted to achieve."
Their approach is all-encompassing, but very holistic. Developing players' personalities and assisting them in their personal lives is as much a priority as broadening their skills. Moloney has recently spent time speaking with Irish boxing coach Billy Walsh.
"If you want to change a culture and human behaviour, it requires a lot of individual attention," says Moloney. "That takes massive time, but there has to be a huge focus on developing the person, how they carry themselves, how they manage their life outside hurling."
Moloney and O'Connor are grounded and modest, but seriously driven in all walks of life. O'Connor travels the world with his job at Mincon in Shannon. Moloney is supply chain director at DePuy Johnson & Johnson in Cork. Their time is so precious that they do most of their planning at 7.0, before work and training eats up their day.
These are still the days of their lives. It has been an epic voyage, but one port is always foremost in their mind's eye. Clare were five points up in injury-time of the 2010 Munster minor final against Waterford when Moloney and O'Connor caught each other's eye. The smiles exchanged were the ultimate expression of the journey they had travelled together. It was ultimate purity. They thought it would never happen. It just had.
Moloney and O'Connor had just set the first slabs on the path to greater glory. And they haven't stopped paving it since.
THE ALTERNATIVE INTERVIEW
Who do you follow on Twitter?
Gerry O'Connor: I'm not on Twitter.
Donal Moloney: Neither am I.
Last sports event you paid in to (apart from last Sunday)?
GOC: As a reward for winning last year's All-Ireland, we brought the U-21s over to Old Trafford in January to watch Man United v Liverpool.
DM: Same as that.
If you had the opportunity to attend one sporting event, what would it be?
GOC: 'El Clasico' between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
DM: The World Cup final in 2014 in Rio. With Brazil hopefully in it.
Favourite sports star outside the GAA?
GOC: Richie McCaw, New Zealand.
DM: Ah come on Gerry, you gotta change that, I've been talking about McCaw for years!
GOC: Ah Jeez, do I have to? 22.
DM: I don't play.
Taste in Music?
GOC: I've developed a liking for Taio Cruz, whoever the hell he is. The U-21s pick the songs going to the matches.
DM: I'm a big Springsteen and Eagles man.
Taste in books?
DM: Mostly business books and sports autobiographies.
If you could invite three people to dinner, who would they be?
GOC: McCaw, Arsene Wenger and Ger Loughnane.
DM: Loughnane, Dalo (Anthony Daly) and Jim McInerney. You wouldn't get a word in.