Thursday 14 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: JBM spooking Banner

Cork boss has history with Clare, sparking fears his confidence could dent composure of Fitz's young side

Davy Fitzgerald celebrates after Clare’s victory in the Munster SHC final of 1998. A year later it was sweet revenge for Cork and Jimmy Barry-Murphy
Davy Fitzgerald celebrates after Clare’s victory in the Munster SHC final of 1998. A year later it was sweet revenge for Cork and Jimmy Barry-Murphy
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Before the '95 All-Ireland hurling final, Jimmy Barry-Murphy called into the Clare dressing-room. He had just overseen Cork minors' destruction of Kilkenny in the curtain-raiser and, accompanied by Dr Con Murphy, wanted to wish the new Munster champions well against Offaly.

It was a gesture appreciated by Clare's management team and one reflecting the broad goodwill of hurling people towards Clare.

They were in their first final since 1932 and, pitted against the defending champions, enjoying a strong tailwind of neutral support.

Later that year, Barry-Murphy would be appointed Cork senior manager, setting in train a journey that would eventually bring him into the crosshairs of hurling's new subversives.

When Cork won the National League in '98, pundits all but placed an asterisk under the achievement, given Clare's peculiar inertia during an 11-point semi-final defeat to Barry-Murphy's men.


Wild rumour began to hiss afterwards, ranging from talk of a hard Sunday morning training session in Templemore to murmurs of a three-hour trek undertaken across the Devil's Bit, bearing rucksacks filled with stones.

Seven weeks after that game, Clare beat Cork by eight points in the Munster championship.

They did so with the unapologetic air of a school bully. Ger Loughnane had named a 'dummy' team to start and, coming down the home straight of that game, their physicality was simply too much for Cork to contain.

On the line, Barry-Murphy didn't much like what he had seen. Now two-time All-Ireland champions, Clare's innocence was gone. They were lippy and feverishly aggressive. Their mentors would take turns standing in front of the opposition dug-out.

Clare carried themselves provocatively, like men who believed they had adjusted hurling's co-ordinates to a private setting.

Few defeats galled Barry-Murphy quite like that loss in '98. Accordingly, few victories gave him greater pleasure than the '99 Munster final. Clare never once led in that game, Cork finally meeting the elemental nature of their challenge to win by four points.

It seems remarkable that, almost a decade and a half later, Barry-Murphy is now back, again, charged with solving the Rubik's Cube of another Clare hurling team. And within the Banner County, his presence evokes a quiet worry. For he represents an innate Cork confidence that, today, shines up out of the south like a naked light bulb.

Theoretically, Clare come to this final with the more persuasive momentum.

They look certain to harvest a third All-Ireland U-21 title in five years next Saturday at Semple Stadium, and allied to the emboldened personality of a senior team with its average age of just 24, the impression grows of a potential dynasty beginning to build.

Comparisons with '95 have, thus, been evoked as a kind of comfort blanket this week.

The absence, once again, of any married men from tomorrow's starting 15. The freakishly hot summer, only now beginning to taper. The renewed sense of young lives being lived exclusively to win hurling games.

For Davy Fitzgerald, there is no knowing how such giddiness might infiltrate young minds.

He has worked in recent weeks on reining it in, on schooling his players into some kind of understanding that the occasion and the game are two separate entities, only one of which should concern them. Ostensibly, this should be easier than it proved in '95.

Back then, Clare were compelled to do a tour of the county after winning Munster for the first time in 63 years, a victory accordingly deemed by Loughnane to have been achieved in "unusual circumstances".

Clare's management took energy from that madness. They gave the players a week off training, essentially, to engage with their people. To this day, that Munster victory has a status in the county that transcends anything that followed.

Fitzgerald's Clare, though, have won nothing beyond a relegation play-off against tomorrow's opponents and the piece of Waterford Crystal that came their way during pre-season last February. This, he will remind them, is the reality of their year.

Lose tomorrow and winter promises few consolations.

On the contrary, Fitzgerald knows there will be plenty within the county just biding their time to cast stones in his direction. His personality divides people. He is clearly one of hurling's brightest, most innovative coaches, yet an All-Ireland final defeat would, most likely, decant some local vitriol.

When he took the Clare reins at the end of 2011, the county's record in Munster championship hurling since that '99 defeat by Barry-Murphy's Cork read: played 15, lost 12. Three victories in 12 seasons. Despite the U-21s' All-Ireland victory of '09, there was little palpable evidence of a Clare rising as he took over.

Their last two championship outings under his immediate predecessor, Ger O'Loughlin, brought defeats of nine and 17 points against Tipperary and Galway respectively.

So Fitzgerald will be a shameless gunslinger next to Barry-Murphy's Bond-like calm tomorrow and the conflicting body language will perfectly articulate the two counties' respective psyches.

For if Cork carry the inner glow of men who believe these games get settled in the womb, Clare are sure to see snipers perched on every hill. The bookies understand this, pitching Barry-Murphy's men as marginal favourites.

Clare may be young and fearless, but the hurling world wonders about their composure to slay an old adversary. They have history with JBM.

And the challenge for Davy Fitz is redirecting it to a new page.

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