'We're going to go in confident . . . it's whoever stands tallest on the day'
Banner forward tells Vincent Hogan that, in Davy Fitzgerald, Clare have a leader who can drag them back out of Munster wilderness
In Clare, they cling to oaths of patience with white-knuckled hands. Their hurlers come to championship implausibly young and full of golden promise, but inevitably unschooled in the hard ways demanded on this precinct.
At Semple Stadium tomorrow, they could soar or – just as feasibly – lose another important game to Waterford.
The children of the '90s are men now, searching for a golden inheritance from the Loughnane years. Two All-Ireland U-21 titles have been mined in the last four summers, decanting the peculiar madness of hope.
So, at just 24, Colin Ryan finds himself a virtual elder statesman in the group now working under Davy Fitzgerald. He grew up watching silverware pass through Newmarket-on-Fergus in the hands of near neighbours who grew into gods.
For a time in Clare, the hurling team became the air in the county's lungs.
Ryan remembers '97 especially, they captured the minor and senior double, with Newmarket's Brian McMahon wing-back on the U-18s that took out Galway. The Monday night of that homecoming, it felt as if Clare would never know another fallow summer.
Their seniors won Munster again in '98, but they haven't claimed that title since and, worse, haven't even won a senior game in the province since '08.
Ryan admits that current expectations, thus, run in conflicting lines.
"Some people maybe get too excited too early," he says. "Others tend to be, I wouldn't say cynical, but they'd be wary of it (success) until it happens. Right now, we'd have a mixture of both. There's certainly an air of positivity around. People are hopeful that something's going to happen soon. I suppose they're living for those big days in Thurles and Croke Park again where they're going to a game knowing we're in with a chance of winning it.
"But it's a fair way back to Clare's last Munster title. Fifteen years like, it's a hell of a long time when you think back to what you were doing then."
He himself was still a child in Newmarket NS, yet to embark on what felt like a hurling vocation at St Flannan's, where, in his final year, he was on an All-Ireland colleges' winning team coached by Jamesie O'Connor. Flannan's, he says, cleared any fog from his head about what it was he wanted to be.
Two of his uncles, Timmy and John, had hurled with Clare and though his dad, Martin, was a decent hurler too, this was a time in Newmarket when just making the club team amounted to a monumental challenge.
They won 13 county titles between '63 and '81 alone, streaking acres clear in the county's roll of honour with a total haul of 22. Then, completely unannounced, the Canon Hamilton Cup fell from their grasp for an age.
Ryan was man of the match last October when a 31-year gap was bridged with victory over Cratloe to secure Newmarket's long-awaited 23rd. It had been brewing for what felt a small lifetime, with three successive county U-21 titles plundered as a freakishly good crew came along together.
Ryan's face creases in a smile as he remembers the ceremonial walk from Dromoland into the village that night, bonfires burning and old neighbours lining the road with grins that blazed like beacons.
"The initial feeling had been relief," he says. "Just real, overwhelming relief. Because we'd been talked up as a young team with great potential, but, for a time, maybe didn't really have the leadership that we needed.
"We might have won a county final in '06 if we'd shown more confidence and we were probably overconfident then for the '08 final. So it was nice to finally be able to create our own history.
"I remember walking up the village with the cup thinking: 'My God, this is something ... ' To see the expressions on peoples' faces would make you very emotional. It meant so much to so many."
He sees similarities between that out-pouring of joy and the tsunami that swept across Clare in '95 when men like Davy Fitz and Jamesie were suddenly catapulted into the national consciousness by one of the greatest hurling revolutions ever seen.
Around the time Ryan was winning that colleges' title at Flannan's with O'Connor, he was also making his senior debut with Newmarket in a league game against Tubber.
He'd bounced from a Harty Cup win straight on to the Clare minors and was, subsequently, a member of the U-21s that won the All-Ireland in '09.
That triumph was, perhaps, handled better by some players than others.
He reflects: "It can he hard for fellas. It's great having that success, but there's so many U-21 hurlers who don't go on to represent Clare at senior level. Maybe they're enjoying it a bit too much and they fail to think of the bigger picture.
"Your career is short. In this day and age, with the severity of the training, you probably only get 10 years max. And if you think at U-21 that you're the be-all and end-all, you can lose your first three or four years of senior very quickly. They're years you don't get back."
The difference between under-age and senior county hurling, Ryan says, is effectively night and day.
"I think you have to have a level of maturity (for senior)," he suggests.
"U-21 hurling is generally free-flowing. You don't have that physicality you do at senior level, you don't have that tightness. It's probably more a hurling skill competition. If you can move the ball quickly enough and get around your player, you will do well.
"But then you come to senior level and it's a different ball-game. You're marking a fella who's just as quick and strong as you, just as tight. And you have to think about things differently. You can't expect the ball just to come into your hand and you can't expect that things are just going to happen.
"So you have to change the way you think and I suppose that makes the difference between a good senior hurler and a good prospect at U-21."
Perhaps that is the fundamental challenge facing Davy Fitz now, assimilating graduates from the U-21 class of 2012 into a senior team desperate for a Munster Championship victory.
In his first season, Fitzgerald did guide Clare to an All-Ireland Qualifier triumph over Anthony Daly's Dublin, but few can doubt his desire to win in Munster now, thereby lowering the colours of his old friends in Waterford.
Michael Ryan's team won last year's championship meeting with Clare narrowly and edged them again in this year's league. For Ryan, the expectation is of another game most probably settled by inches.
"Waterford have a lot of Munster Championship experience compared to us," he says flatly. "But we know this game is winnable, just as it is for them. They've no fear of us, we understand that. So, we've a lot to prove, but this game has been the be-all and the end-all of our season from a long way out.
"You set out at the start of the year with a lot of secondary goals, but your primary goal is the first round of the Munster Championship."
Clare's extra-time defeat of Cork in the National League relegation play-off game certainly hinted at a group with the mental resilience to see out a tight battle. Neither side was equivocal in their hurling that day at the Gaelic Grounds and Ryan admits that the manner of victory added to the pleasure.
"Winning a tight, tough, physical game is probably the best enjoyment you can get in hurling," he says. "That day, you still had people bombing up and down the field right to the last minute of extra-time. The fitness was incredible. After that game, it felt really satisfying to have come through.
"Because losing that game would have been a psychological blow coming into Munster. It would have dropped the morale a small bit. But that day there was the real enjoyment of having gone toe-to-toe in a must-win game and come out the right side."
Ryan himself can look back on an outstanding league campaign and credits much of his form to the influence of Fitzgerald.
"I think it's just a bit of maturity kicking in with me," he suggests. "In the past, maybe physicality wasn't the strongest part of my game. But you have to look after yourself to play the game at this level, you have to live the lifestyle 100pc. Because it's all about the small things.
"People use this expression now that, in the modern game, you must have 'a plan'. But I think it goes beyond that. You can obviously have a way of playing, but everybody has to buy into what you're doing and really want to succeed.
"Bottom line, Davy Fitzgerald wants Clare to win and we want Clare to win. We're rowing in 110pc behind the cause and Davy brings that sense of confidence to it that comes from everything being done and knowing that you've prepared well.
"We know what we're going to do and, if that brings success, well and good. But it's just massive to know you have somebody behind you who wants the exact same thing as you."
For Clare then, nothing exists in the collective mind beyond the challenge looming tomorrow in Thurles.
"I don't know if people can be satisfied with taking the Waterford Crystal and just staying in Division 1A," Ryan says of their season so far.
"But, as a team, we feel we've absolutely nothing won yet.
"We're going to go in confident against Waterford, they're going to go in confident against us. I suppose it's whoever stands up tallest on the day."
THE ALTERNATIVE INTERVIEW . . . COLIN RYAN AWAY FROM THE GAA FIELDS
Last sports event you attended as a fan?
"I was at the Olympics last year for four days. Myself, Louise (girlfriend) and another couple went to the gymnastics and the triathlon. I also went to the 2011 All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Kerry."
Favourite sports person outside the GAA?
"Has to be Ronan O'Gara (right). For a fella who gets knocked so much, who's had a kick in the a**e time and time again, he always comes back. To give the two performances he gave in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and semi-final this year after being dropped off the Irish squad showed his phenomenal self-belief."
Three favourite people to follow on Twitter?
"Kieran Devitt from Newmarket, he's in Perth. He's great craic, a goalkeeper who was unlucky to miss out last year because he emigrated for work. Domhnall O'Donovan (team-mate) because he's always posting pictures of food to the boys, croissants and everything. And Colm Parkinson would be the other one.
The best thing a fan has said to you?
"It has to be 'Thanks for bringing the Canon Hamilton back home!' Just to see how thankful people were was great."
The worst thing a fan has said to you?
"I suppose the worst thing I've heard someone say is that I didn't have the bottle for it. Maybe I wasn't physical enough and, because of that, fellas would say I'd never make it. That would drive you on. I often think of a Michael Jordan quote that goes 'To all those people that knocked me, thank you!'"
Sporting event you would most like to attend?
"The Ryder Cup, especially one in America where the galleries might be a bit rowdy."