John Minogue (JM): “The U21 teams of the past few years – with which we’ve both been involved – have shown great character. They were beaten by Cork down in Thurles three years ago but that was a battle up to the end. What really brought the character out in this team though was last year, when they went down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and beat Cork. That was a rousing display, involving players like Nicky O’Connell, Donal Touhy and guys like that. We knew we had a decent bunch that evening, leaving Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Any team that can go down to Cork and come away with a win, has to feel satisfied. And fair play to Cork, they put their hands up afterwards and said well done.”
Cyril Lyons (CL): “Two things stood out about them this year – first, their level of self-confidence, then their unity within the group. Those were things they built up over the last few years. As a group they seemed to relish every challenge, they rose to it, it seemed to give them extra energy.”
TC: “Did they have great leaders on the team that brought that out in them?”
CL: “I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know if anyone stood out. I just felt they gelled particularly well as a group. It would have been very easy for them to have factions; you had six from one club, four or five from another, so you could very easily have had four teams within a team, but that never happened. Everyone got on really well, everyone gelled, there was a unity of purpose. And of course the fact that you’re winning big matches solidifies that.”
TC: “Were there guys who stand out... players who will make it at senior?”
JM: “I’m not sure you can talk in those terms. Conor McGrath, who didn’t play a whole lot is a special talent, but he’s still a minor. Every game in which he came on he made a very significant contribution. He gave a fantastic pass to Colin Ryan for the point at the end of the All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway and gave a great pass again to Cormac O’Donovan towards the end of the All-Ireland. They were both simple but well executed. His performance in the senior county final this year also marks him out as a special player. But you had a lot of others also, the O’Donovans, Cian Dillon and Eamonn Glynn who are coming back from serious injuries and Darragh Coleman – you could say that different guys were leaders at different stages, someone always stepped up to the plate at critical times.”
CL: “Who is to know what’s going to happen over the next two years? For a player to get to the very top, all systems have to be right – the player has to be right, management has to be right, facilities have to be right. Look at Limerick. They won three All-Ireland U21’s in a row and were going to be the team of the decade but it never happened for them. I would hope that in three years’ time there will be 10 players or more off this team playing senior inter-county. But I couldn’t give you those names now.”
TC: “Darach Honan?”
CL: “Well he was outstanding for us in three games this year, and then, in the All-Ireland final he was injured, and he had the flu and also he was well marked, so you have to credit his opponent for that. He’s got fantastic feet, for so big a man, he’s got a fierce shot, and of course his first instinct is to head for goal. That’s not normally what you see in a Clare forward. He got some fantastic scores – every time he gets ball in hand you can see him think, can I get a goal here? That’s fantastic to see in a forward. I would give credit also to the rest of the team in getting him the ball, and in creating the space – there is no point having an outstanding forward if you can’t get him the ball!”
TC: “And what of John Minogue and Cyril Lyons, ye’ve been involved at senior level before, and there are many in Clare who believe ye are the guys to bring these lads forward – will it happen?”
JM: “I don’t think so. We’ve given three years with the U21’s, and three years with any one setup is quite a long time. Obviously these are going to be the senior hurlers of the future, but I think those guys need a break from us, and we need a break from them. A new guy in to coach them could be positive, maybe find new positions for different players, something that happens with every new management. Whatever management is over Clare, if they can get the confidence of these guys – who are talented, there’s no question about that – and the other senior guys on the panel, there is a future there for Clare. But you can’t have the same voice preaching the same message all the time, You need a different voice. A change is good.”
CL: “If someone else came along and did that job, and did it well, I’d be thrilled – there’s nothing more enjoyable than being up in the stand and watching your own county perform well, and come out with a narrow win.”
TC: “So you definitely won’t be going back?”
CL: “Well one thing I’ve learned is ‘never say never’, but for now and the foreseeable future, I expect that we’ll be involved with the Clare U21’s. Things change so quickly, and if you say now that you’d never do it and then 12 months later you’re walking the line, you could look very foolish. All you can say is what you’re committed to doing what you’re doing for the coming year – after that, it’s not wise to say anything.
TC: “What’s next now for these guys?”
JM: There are two possibilities; they can do the same thing as so many other good U21 teams and just fade away, or they can progress. The number of guys in places like Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick, who have won All-Irelands at that level but never made it at senior, is very, very high. You see those guys later in their careers playing parish hurling and you wonder – is that the fella that won an All-Ireland U21, or a Munster? Then you have the other side, the likes of Offaly, of Waterford, and they got a great return. You’d be hoping the same thing will happen with this team. You look over the last few years, the likes of James McInerney, Gary O’Connell, four or five of them who have already made the transition. The last three U21 teams have been able to compete with the Corks, Galways, Kilkennys, which has to be positive.”
TC: “Clare got a great return from the U21 team of 1994, yet that team was beaten in a Munster final?”
CL: “Yes, but that too can work one of two ways. You can entersenior with a savage hunger because you haven’t won anything at underage, where others mightn’t have the same appetite if they have won something. Or, if you’ve won an All-Ireland, as these lads have, it can give you the self-belief to go and win again at senior level. You’re thinking – we’ve played these lads at other levels and won, we can do it again.
“You can have the fitness, you can have the skill, but self-belief is a vital ingredient – you can go on then, and as long as all the structures are in place, have a very successful senior career.”
TC: “I have to ask for your thoughts on the stand off between the senior players and management?”
JM: It’s very unfortunate, especially when there was such a great buzz around the place after the U21 All-Ireland win. In any county now where there’s a lack of success, people are very fast to look for change, but I think in Clare we have to accept that there will be bad years, years when things go wrong and you don’t have any success. We had those years in the early 90’s when we were beaten in two Munster finals, but there were good U21’s coming through, just like today, and then we won Munster senior in 95 and went on to win the All-Ireland. People are calling to sack the manager, sack this fella, sack that fella, but maybe the expectations are too high.
“A solution will be found, and hopefully sooner rather than later, it has dragged on far too long.”
CL: “I look at it at a number of levels. On a human level I feel sorry for Mike Mac, Ollie Baker and Alan Cunningham, they’ve given a huge amount to Clare hurling. It’s not nice to see your name up in lights in a situation like this; people say it comes with the job but we’re all human, we all have families, friends, and even if you’re not hurting, someone is hurting for you. I feel for those guys, I know them well. I trained under Mike and hurled with the other two. Secondly, I think the county board have done them no favours. They should have handled this a lot better, moved a lot faster, come to a decisive decision. After such a disappointing season for everyone – including the players and management – the county board should have acted last July, when Clare finished competitively. I wasn’t involved, I don’t know what happened, but looking at it from the outside it was a bad year from start to finish and required urgent addressing. For good or for bad it needed to be addressed.”