When Clarecastle met Newmarket-on-Fergus in the 1992 championship, we went into the game as raging hot favourites, not just because we were reigning county champions, but because of the way the modern tradition between the clubs had been emphatically turned on its head.
Newmarket had routinely pistol-whipped our ancestors around the hurling fields of Clare before we, and everyone else, turned the gun on them. Clarecastle had won three of the previous six county titles while Newmarket had been in the doldrums since 1981. It should have been our chance to trample more dirt down on top of the shallow grave Newmarket found themselves in. But when we lost, half of Clarecastle wanted to dig a big hole and bury us inside in it.
They wanted to decapitate me first because I was skank bad. I was walking down the village a few days later when I saluted a man I knew. He turned his head the other way, as if I was a leper.
By that stage, the word had got out. The week before the match, the Clare footballers had won their first Munster title in 75 years and myself and another couple of Clarecastle players went back to Doonbeg on the Monday night to join in the celebrations.
We drank a few pints because we just wanted to soak in the atmosphere of what winning a Munster hurling title would be like for us. But some fella spotted us and when we lost to Newmarket five days later, it provided rocket fuel for those in Clarecastle looking for scapegoats.
The following week, my poor mother was coming up from the shop with her groceries when a woman shouted across to her: "Tell him to go back to Doonbeg and burn his hurley in the bonfire."
It was classic Clarecastle because the character of the place is largely formed and framed in how we all look at one another. Most of the people in Clarecastle would fight to the death for each other, but then some of us turn on each other when they believe we don’t fight valiantly enough for the cause.
Of course we always want more, like most successful clubs do. I have five county medals but — and it isn’t cockiness — I, and a lot more of us, feel we should have more. I played at a time when the Clare club championship was one of the most competitive in the country but we still had teams good enough to win successive county titles, something we never managed during my Clarecastle career.
What’s more, we bombed during those years when we were chasing that elusive back-to-back. In 1992, 1995 and 1998, we won just one match — by one point — in those three seasons. To make it all the more galling again, we couldn’t summon the badness within us against two of our greatest rivals — Newmarket in 1992 and Éire Óg in 1998 — to put them to the sword when we were still county champions.
We almost needed a real edge, or to have a cause, nearly every day we went out. Anytime we did, we usually prevailed. Some of the managers we had in Clarecastle over the years were ferocious disciplinarians, but they still couldn’t prevent that insidious disease of complacency from infiltrating our mindset and contaminating our preparations.
I’m not for a second comparing us in Clarecastle to Tipperary — we already have enough enemies, we don’t want any more — but I’ve often noticed similarities between us. We’ve had some incredibly talented teams over the last five decades but we still haven’t won as much as we’d have liked, or expected to. And we only won successive county titles once in our history.
I’ve often wondered why we couldn’t do back-to-back so I can only imagine how much soul searching has gone on in Tipp around the same topic. As a Clare man, it’s much easier for me to understand why a Clare, Galway, Limerick, or anyone else outside the big three, would struggle to win successive All-Irelands. But the mystery is all the greater again for Tipp when Kilkenny have been doing it for fun over the last three decades, while Cork always found it much easier than Tipp to win successive titles over the last half century.
It’s a hard question to answer but, despite their rich tradition and innate confidence, did Tipp lose something unique to their DNA after 1971? When they spent the next decade and a half often struggling to win a championship match, was winning one All-Ireland suddenly enough to sate them?
It can’t have been easy for Tipp over the years to be fighting battles on every front — they share a border with Clare, Galway, Offaly, Limerick, Cork, Waterford, Laois and Kilkenny. For most of those counties, especially within Munster, Tipp are their biggest rivals. And then, their biggest nemesis of all are just down the road in another province.
Tipp have to be up for the fight every time they take to the battlefield. They’re a hurling-mad county but it’s a huge county too. Has that been a factor in trying to keep an eye on everybody, during those long winters of celebrations?
Tipp certainly haven’t helped themselves in the past with their natural hubris when they win one All-Ireland. They expect to win more, like their predecessors did, but how their supporters portray that ambition has often rubbed people up the wrong way.
Players have naturally got caught up in that mood too. You definitely got that impression after 2010 when Tipp stopped Kilkenny’s drive-for-five. Then again, we all got swept up in that massive tidal wave of expectation, and the projections we made for that golden generation.
I remember co-commentating for RTÉ Radio 1 the night Tipp annihilated Galway in the 2010 All-Ireland U-21 final, six days after they’d won the senior final. Maybe it was the jingoism and hysteria around the place but I said something along the lines of, while Kilkenny had failed to win the five-in-a-row, Tipperary might be able to do so. What planet was I on? But if I was saying it as an outside observer, what were those players listening to from their own crowd?
The projections weren’t as ludicrously outlandish or ambitious after Tipp whipped Kilkenny in the 2016 All-Ireland final but they still looked on the right course in early 2017. They were cock-a-hoop entering the league final and then Galway walloped them by 16 points.
Often when Tipp have looked at their strongest, that’s when they have been at their weakest. After they annihilated us in the 1993 Munster final, they were hot favourites to win the All-Ireland. Then Galway arrived and knocked them for six. After looking unbreakable beforehand, Tipp were in smithereens by the end.
That Tipperary team of the late 1980s and early 1990s was one of their greatest ever but even they couldn’t win back-to-back titles. Then Kilkenny, who hadn’t won an All-Ireland in almost a decade, arrived out of the blue with a new side and bagged two-in-a-row in 1992 and 1993.
When Brian Cody took over at the end of the decade, he built a culture stronger than oak, fostering a level of expectation that always demands more. And that culture always seemed in sharp contrast with their neighbours.
Jackie Tyrrell told a great story in his book that encapsulated the difference between Kilkenny and Tipperary. The Wednesday after the 2011 All-Ireland final, Jackie and a raft of the Kilkenny lads found themselves drinking in Quinn’s pub on the Drumcondra Road. A recording of the match was playing on the TV. Jackie was happy and merry but, with Croke Park in his sightline as he looked out the window, Jackie already found himself thinking about the 2012 championship. While Tipp, and everyone else, wait until January to refocus on the following season, Kilkenny give themselves three days.
Cody has driven that culture but it doesn’t just exist within the squad. When I was Dublin manager, my brother Michael travelled around the country following us. He was always taken aback by the ferocity of the Kilkenny supporters anytime Dublin played them.
“They were always one of my favourite teams until I started going to their matches,” Michael said to me one time. “Never mind them slating you coming up from Clare, or giving it to the Dublin Jackeens, they’re vicious to their own players.”
I wonder is that sort of — for want of a better word — savagery in Tipperary? Then again, maybe that savagery is just in Kilkenny, and not in everyone else, never mind Tipp. In my first year as Dublin manager in 2009, we had a press day ahead of the Leinster final. One of the tabloid papers sent this model to the event, who arrived in this sky-blue mini-dress, for a photo-shoot with the players. I don’t want to appear sexist but, it was probably natural that a group of young players, in their athletic prime, would find the girl attractive, and that her appearance at the event would seem novel and distracting.
I sent a couple of the subs over to the girl for the photo. She was draped across them as they were holding her up like you’d unload a coffin out of a hearse. I’ve always believed in treating players as responsible adults but, in my own mind, I was still thinking 'how did I allow this to happen? Cody or Loughnane certainly wouldn’t.’ But, when you’re not used to success, this kind of stuff is harder to control.
One very noticeable trait of Kilkenny and the Dublin footballers' modern success is how much they have controlled that environment. We’ve all seen Jim Gavin at multiple All-Ireland winning banquets when it seems more like he’s won the Walsh Cup than the Sam Maguire. I certainly wouldn’t want to be Brian or Jim ( not that there’s a thing wrong with either man). But maybe that’s the reason Gavin and Cody won all those All-Irelands as a manager, and why I don’t have any.
In the first of a series, you can watch the 1997 Cork SFC final between Beara and Castlehaven at 7.30pm tonight, on the Irish Examiner Sport Facebook page.