The first time a drop of alcohol passed my lips was on June 22, 1986. I remember the date because, like many hurling people, I can link the timeline of my life to certain matches or big hurling events. Clare were hosting Tipperary in the Munster semi-final and I decided to get in on the fiesta atmosphere by sampling some cider.
I don’t think I even had the money for the liquor, just enough cash to get into the ground. I was still only in fourth Year in St Flannan’s, but a group of us decided to make it a big day out. We walked from Clarecastle into Ennis. We didn’t even try to get a lift because the traffic was so heavy, but we didn’t want to either. We felt like our own little tribe, on our way to join the great big gathering of the Clare tribes, ready to go to war with the arch enemy.
Clare had beaten Limerick in the Munster quarter-final in Cusack Park three weeks earlier. I had been in the Park in 1985 too when Clare and Tipp drew, 1-8 apiece, in a Munster quarter-final. Yet that afternoon in 1986 felt different. Clare had been impressive six-point winners against Limerick. Tipp weren’t any great shakes at the time. And we could all sense the great opportunity to reach a Munster final for the first time in five years.
The whole of Clare seemed to be thinking that way because the Park was absolutely wedged, with over 22,000 turning up. We were behind the goal, where the terrace was a grass bank at the time, squashed in like sardines and — like everyone else — at huge risk if the crowd swayed and somebody slipped.
Even now, I have great memories of the day. Johnny Callanan, who we all looked up to in Clarecastle, had a great game. Tipp appeared to be running away with the game but Clare stormed back, and goals from Tommy Guilfoyle and Gerry ‘Magow’ McInerney secured a precious win.
Tipperary were still over 12 months away from ending their Munster famine and, by the time we started running into them more regularly during the early-to-mid part of my career, the dynamic of the relationship was radically different, and was spiked with a much more acidic and toxic tone.
When we met in a key league game in the Park in 1997, all hell broke loose. Ger Loughnane said in his book that it was the dirtiest game he ever saw. The 1999 Munster U21 final between the counties was even more controversial. The relationship is thankfully nowhere near as bad now, but it will still always be laced with some degree of cordite.
Tipp coming to the Park for a championship match for the first time since 1986 will have the Clare crowd on high alert. As a player, we always fed off the Park being that fortress we needed it to be. I know the Park and how quickly the beast can turn — and I felt its wrath as Dublin manager in 2012.
We were six points up in a qualifier in the second half. Clare had been reduced to 14 men but they hit six unanswered points before the place really exploded when a young Tony Kelly rattled a 20-metre free to the net. I could feel it building, but there was nothing we could do to stop the waves rolling over us. We tried everything — moving fellas around, guys trying to feign injuries — but we just couldn’t halt that surge of momentum. And it eventually smothered Dublin.
It’s almost impossible to beat those waves back when the Clare crowd whip up that storm. As good as Tipperary have looked in this championship to date, we’ll definitely know much more about them after tomorrow. If they can come to Ennis and do what they did to Cork and Waterford, well then they can really claim to be serious All-Ireland contenders. Because coming to the Park will provide a whole different kind of challenge.
It’s almost more the Park than the actual full-on threat of Clare because the team still wouldn’t frighten anyone, especially Tipp. Getting a result in Walsh Park was a massive statement, but the late fade-out, when Waterford stormed back, was another indication of a worrying trend stretching back over a couple of summers. If that happens tomorrow, Tipperary have the firepower to ruthlessly punish any lapses.
I’m sure that has been a huge focus over the last three weeks. If I was Gerry O’Connor or Donal Moloney, I’d have asked the group to come up with a buzzword for everyone to shout if they sensed that lull coming, something to act as a positive mental trigger to snap themselves out of any torpor.
With two games still to play after tomorrow, Clare aren’t under massive pressure to win, but that thought won’t have even entered the players or management’s heads for a second. Every game in this championship has to be treated as do-or-die because impending death is never too far away in such a cut-throat arena.
On current form, you’d have to fancy Tipp — but Ennis is Ennis. This will be hot and heavy and we’ll really see what Tipp are made of, and if they are able to withstand the heat of the Cusack Park inferno. I don’t think they will, and I fancy Clare to secure the two points.
I was chatting to Dónal Óg Cusack recently about this craic of trying to predict who is going to win these round-robin games, which is never an easy task. “We shouldn’t be tipping anyone in these matches,” he said. “We’re not a tipping service.”
It’s easy to feel that pressure when it’s so hard to know what’s going to happen. You’d expect Limerick to bounce back after losing to Cork, but there are so many variables with the home and away set-up that not even God has a clue about what might happen.
Apart from this being the last-chance saloon for Waterford, they also have to prove that Walsh Park was worth fighting for. I’m sure there was a lot of hard talking done on that subject alone over the last two weeks. Hard questions had to be asked: ‘Are we codding our own people? Are we going to give them something to shout about after them waiting so long to host Munster Championship matches?’
There is also the risk that Waterford’s support could be outnumbered by Limerick’s. Extra trains have been organised to transport down the Limerick hordes because they’re still fully behind the team and management.
Waterford are surely aware of that risk of being outnumbered, especially when their own are starting to doubt the team now. They will be highly charged, but the loss of Philip Mahony to injury has further depleted Waterford’s chances of a response, especially with Limerick’s need just as great.
I believe that training has gone up a few levels in the last few weeks. Players would naturally say that anyway when the circumstances demand that kind of a response, but Limerick were bound to be stung by the manner in which Cork picked them apart.
I also think that Walsh Park might suit Limerick more than Waterford, especially in how they set up and in how they try to make that middle third a warzone. Conversely, Waterford have to be ready to go to absolute war, while they have to have learned a great deal from how Limerick railroaded them in the league final.
That defeat, along with losing at home to Clare and then getting blitzed by Tipperary in the second half, makes it easy to conclude that Waterford’s graph has been on a steady decline. Yet Clare played some great stuff and the sending-off of Conor Gleeson had a massive impact in their failure to hold back the rampant Tipp tide late on.
I’m sure Waterford will have studied the game between Cork and Limerick very closely too and I expect to see a far more structured and organised side tomorrow. Similar to Cork, they’ll surely look to put Limerick under pressure in the air, especially the Limerick half-back line. Waterford will fight on their backs, but I still expect Limerick to win.
Given how Leinster has worked out to date, and with four teams desperately scrapping for three places, much of the narrative from now on will focus on scoring difference, and how much distance Dublin and Wexford can put between themselves and everyone else through hiking up their digits against Carlow.
I’d imagine Sean Moran will be pushed higher up the field tomorrow in Dr Cullen Park, and that Dublin will be looking to light up the scoreboard. Carlow won’t have the same hang-ups with the Dubs that they would have had with Kilkenny or Galway.
They’ll also have been targeting a home game against Dublin as their only genuine chance of taking a scalp. Colm Bonnar will have his side really fired up. This may not be as straightforward as many think, but Dublin should still get the job done.