After Clare defeated Wexford in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final, I walked over to Fr Harry Bohan in the Croke Park dressingroom and made a proud pronouncement, knowing full well it would rekindle an old flame in Harry’s soul, and reignite a dormant dream the man had chased so relentlessly three decades earlier.
“Welcome,” I said, “to the All-Ireland semi-final.”
As Clare manager, Harry had led Clare to two National League titles in 1977 and 1978. Clare also agonisingly lost Munster finals in both of those years to Cork. Winning a Munster title was always Clare’s Holy Grail during the lost decades. An All-Ireland semi-final was obviously a huge by-product of winning a Munster title but that goal only ever existed on the periphery of Clare minds because so many generations never got to realise their Munster dream.
We were beaten in the 2005 Munster semi-final by Tipperary but the qualifier system saw us navigate our way back to the last four. We were always in control of that quarter-final against Wexford, eventually winning by 11 points.
I knew we were in a good place before the game but much of the lead-in to that match had still been laced with tension and anxiety.
Two weeks earlier, Clare had beaten Waterford in Cusack Park with a brilliant performance in the last round of a four-group qualifier. The prize was huge because, with all due respect, it secured Clare a quarter-final against Wexford, not Cork, who Waterford subsequently had to play.
Ennis was buzzing that night of the Waterford game. The day was a scorcher. There was that sweet sense of anticipation in the air because Clare people knew an All-Ireland semi-final was within reach. And yet, my focus immediately after that game was on fighting a war on a totally different front.
The hardest part was that the battle was against my own people. That summer, there was a five-week break between our National League final and our Munster semi-final but the club delegates chose not to play club championship in that timeframe.
The clubs expected other windows to open up over the summer but those avenues were closed off when we lost to Tipp and had to go straight into a round-robin of three matches in four weeks. So when the first round of club matches was fixed for midweek in mid July, ten days out from the Wexford match, the Clare management requested an emergency meeting with the county board less than 24 hours before the games were to be played.
My chat with Malty McDonagh, then county board chairman, got so heated that I threatened to resign unless the games were pulled. When they were, most of the clubs were up in arms with me, especially when their plans were torpedoed at such short notice.
Was I wrong to do so? Was I being grossly unfair to even my own people in Clarecastle? You could say so but my only priority was to prepare Clare in the best possible way I could at that time. If those games went ahead and we lost Seanie McMahon, Brian Lohan and Colin Lynch to injuries, what shape would that have left us in? We could have beaten Cork in that All-Ireland semi-final. If we had, I’m convinced we’d have taken Galway in the final.
The whole process is a delicate balancing act but, now that the club players have been rightly given priority over the county players for the coming months, the battle lines have already clearly been redrawn over the last week. And social media has been driving and dictating much of the agenda.
Everybody has seen, heard and read about the varying narratives; clubs could potentially be railroaded again by success-hungry county managers who want county championships wrapped up early; county players will have to undergo another tug-of-war between club and county; county players’ only priority is to get ready for the inter-county season.
That is wrong. I know county players. They’re the best of lads. Any night they’re not training with the county, most of them are below at club training pucking back balls to their team-mates. I saw that first-hand last year with Fergal Whitely, Ronan Hayes, Oisin O’Rourke, Bill O’Carroll and Caolan Conway when I was involved with Kilmacud Crokes. The county players just want the best for their club and county. It’s just hard for them to keep juggling all the balls in the air at the same time.
County managers are continually deemed the bad guys but I have to bat for them too, not just as a defence case for my own actions in the past, but as a means of trying to explain just how much pressure they are under.
The hardest days I ever put down in hurling were as a manager. One of the most difficult days of my life was my managerial debut in 2004 when Waterford leathered us by 19 points. The second half was pure torture. I never wanted a match to be over as quickly. Going down the tunnel afterwards, my head was spinning.
Mike McCartney, who works with RTÉ now but who was with Clare FM at the time, approached me. “Where did it all go wrong Anthony?” asked Mike. I couldn’t answer him. My mind was blank. My two knees were gone to jelly with the enormity of what had just unfolded.
I was all over the place for the rest of the evening. When we got back to Ennis, I attempted a pint in the West County and abandoned it. When I got home, I took a sleeping tablet and went to bed before 10. The bed was like a warm, dark cave for the night.
When I woke at 11 the following day, I just wanted the world to go away. When I went downstairs, the Sheedys, Stephen and Martin, and Tommy Howard were outside banging on the patio door. ‘Go away to hell,’ I said. The lads wouldn’t take no for an answer. We went down to my own pub, Murty Browne’s, but it took me about three hours to loosen up. I never felt as low in my life. I hardly even drank. I was back in bed by 7.
As a player losing had stuck in my throat so much that I gagged on it, even in the years when losing was all that was expected of us. When we started winning though, our drive and ambition and aggression gave us a whole new identity. As captain of the team, I knew people felt I was one of the big faces of the new Clare mentality. So when I took over as manager, everyone in Clare expected us to win. When we collapsed on my first big day as manager, I felt the weight of the whole county on my shoulders.
I had some bad days as a player but even those worst days – the Munster final hammering to Tipp in 1993, the defeat to Offaly in the second replayed All-Ireland semi-final in 1998 – were incomparable to the pain I felt after losing to Waterford in 2004. I would say the same about the 2010 loss to Antrim, and the 2012 and 2014 defeats to Kilkenny. At least when I was Dublin manager, I could run back to Clare, but there is no running away from the shame.
The shame always cuts you deeper than the pain. After losing to Waterford in 2004, I knew that going to the shop would be a struggle for my mother, that it could upset her ritual of going to 10am mass every day. She’d be meeting the diehards around the village. ‘You must be awful down, Mary,’ they’d say to her. She knew they’d be talking behind her back. Did my mother deserve that burden at that hour of her life?
That’s the unseen pressure on your families that nobody sees. It’s the same for players. It’s not me being elitist but you just cannot compare the pressure on county players compared to club players. If an inter-county corner-back fails to cut out a ball and it ends up in the net, you’ve lads like me drawing diagrams on ‘The Sunday Game’ outlining what he should have done. The same poor fella is probably being assassinated on Twitter or Instagram at the same time.
If a corner-back makes a mistake in a county final, there are probably a few murmurings about it behind his back in the pub that evening. Later that night, they’re probably above on tables dancing and singing with the same lad. By Monday they’re all talking shite and are already looking forward to next year.
The clubs see everything from a different angle but I can appreciate both perspectives. When Crokes drew with Na Fianna in our first Dublin championship game last year, I knew we were under pressure. We were playing O’Toole’s eight days later in a game we had to win.
In the meantime, our five county players were meeting up for a supposed Dublin ‘walk through’ session. It was obvious the following evening that the Dublin session was far heavier than a ‘walk through’. You could see it in lads’ legs but I wouldn’t have blamed Mattie Kenny either. I’ve been in Mattie’s position, when you’re trying to maximise the time spent with your county players.
When Mattie made a plea to the county board last year to play just one round, and not two, of the club championships last April, I could fully understand his point too - especially when we weren’t going to play again for four months.
Despite the challenges over the last few months, there’s no getting away from the inequality in the GAA. Rules are made. Rules are broken. Structures are skewed to suit your own crowd. One team always wants to get the jump on the next.
I saw this week that the Wexford county board have fixed their county hurling final for August 23rd. If that’s the way it transpires, does that mean that Davy Fitzgerald has access to his players for five weeks longer than, say Eddie Brennan in Laois, with the Laois county board having fixed their final for late September.
Is that fair? Is that system fair on the club players in Wexford, some of whom may only get a couple of games in such a small window? Yet maybe some in Wexford are happy with that arrangement, especially if it gives them the best chance to win an All-Ireland.
We were certainly happy back in Clare in the 1990s when Ger Loughnane gave the clubs limited access to the county players. The first time most of us togged out for our clubs in 1995 was the Thursday after the All-Ireland final. That’s 25 years ago so don’t tell me that this is club-county divide is a modern phenomenon. The biggest difference now is that everyone can have an opinion on social media.
Everybody just needs to take stock now, especially when the current situation is so potentially fluid, and the GAA may have licence to alter the roadmap. Managers need to be fair to the clubs but the GAA, especially the county boards,also need to be fair to the county teams. If some clubs teams are knocked out of the championship early, it makes no sense that their county players can’t collectively train with their county until mid-September.
If the GAA decide to finish off the national league before the championship, is that fair to the teams already knocked out of the league? Is there an allowance for challenge games in such a situation? Will managers be vilified if their team bombs in the championship, despite that manager only having had one full week to prepare his entire squad after a county final in early October? We all need to have a balance here. We’ve had such an incredible level of self-discipline over the last three months that it would be a sin now for everybody in the GAA to spend the rest of the year cat-calling, squabbling and in-fighting.
All over the country, the GAA have been at the forefront in this battle to flatten the curve And we are so proud of that.
I just hope now that we continue to lead that fight, in every sense. Because the last thing we all need is to start fighting against each other.