When boyhood dreams come true

NOEL Connors can go back. Maybe not way back, but far enough. He can recall watching the Waterford hurlers in 1998, though that’s a pretty prosaic description to use. Idols would be closer.

“You’re looking at these fellas out on the field and they’re your idols, you’re thinking, ‘I’d love to be out there with them’.

“You’d be going to matches and you’d bump into them and if they noticed you and said ‘well’ to you, you’d be delighted.”

Two years ago Connors got the call to come in for a trial game with the seniors. A headline role with the De La Salle team which won its first Harty Cup was his audition piece, but he was only 18, and injured. Still...

“I couldn’t turn down that opportunity so I went in, even though I couldn’t play.

“Then I got invited in to WIT for the fitness programme and I remember pushing in the door that night and I met all these fellas who were my heroes, basically.

“It’s daunting, you meet guys like Tony Browne, who’s been on the senior panel since 1992 when I was two.”

Whoever said you should never meet your heroes wouldn’t have a seconder in Connors. The Passage man found his new colleagues inspiring.

“You’d be thinking, ‘will I be able for this’ but the likes of Brick Walsh, Clinton, Dan, Tony, they all came over to me when I started, they shook my hand and wished me the best.

“And that motivates you. You’re thinking to yourself ‘these fellas were putting in the effort when I was only six or seven putting in the blood, sweat and tears’.

“I’d burst a gut for any of them. Just being on the same team as those lads is enough motivation for me.”

John Conlon would agree, no doubt. The Clare star can trawl some memories from 1995, the Banner’s breakthrough season, and the unfortunate breakdown in negotiations in the Conlon household which accompanied the All-Ireland final win over Offaly.

“In 1995 I wasn’t allowed to go to the final. I was fairly bitter about it. I threw a bit of a tantrum, to be honest.

“I got to the game in 1997, up in the Nally Stand, but I didn’t get out on the field afterwards for the celebrations, so you could say that Plan B worked for the stewards that day.

“That was great, seeing Clare win an All-Ireland, but it also pushed you on to try to succeed, to try to bring back those great days when you got near the senior set-up yourself.”

Conlon and his peers have done their fair share to bring back the great days with their thrilling run to U21 All-Ireland success last year.

In 2008 they’d suffered a heartbreaking end to their ambitions in the grade with a controversial late free awarded against them in the provincial decider.

“I suppose the main ambition was to make the Munster final, particularly after the controversy in the previous year’s Munster final,” says Conlon.

“Everything after that was a bonus, but the crowds in Clare rowed in behind us and there was a great atmosphere at all the games and in the county itself.”

The learning curve hasn’t been entirely smooth. Defeat by Wexford in the recent Division Two League final means Clare remain in the second tier next year. Conlon advises patience.

“When we lost the league final, people were saying ‘it’ll take them a couple of years to come through’, but it hasn’t been all bad since.

“It doesn’t happen that a team gets it together overnight – you have to blend in younger and older fellas, you’ve to get used to how lads play, you have exams distracting fellas. That’s a downside to having a very young team which people probably don’t realise – one night before the league final we only had 16 training because the others were all sitting exams.”

Connors’ apprenticeship came at a slightly younger age. De La Salle’s colleges campaigns were good for the self-belief and determination.

“Hurling kind of switches off around October and so on, fellas leave the hurley off for a few months.

“But in De La Salle, at colleges level, you were more or less living with your teammates – you’re up at eight and you’re with them until four or five, whereas you might only see your parents for an hour or two.

“When we were playing Harty we all wanted to be there, we’d have looked around at our team and said ‘look, all the lads we have were involved in Waterford or Kilkenny development squads, surely we can get our act together and get on the same wavelength’.

“We’d never won the Harty before, so that was a huge boost for us. We beat Flannan’s the first year on a soaking wet day, the rain milling down, and it turned on half-time – we were kind of down at that stage coming into the dressing-room, very quiet, but once we got talking we got it into our heads that we were going to win, and we drove it on.”

Tight games. Narrow victories. Good preparation for the elite level. “You’d bring that attitude through to senior. Waterford have been coming strong towards the end of games, something Davy has been pushing a lot, if you look at the Galway game last year we were four points down with five minutes left but we had a good finish, we were able to drive it on – Dan came on and gave us a great lift at the end.”

Clare didn’t enjoy any such lift against Wexford in the Division 2 league, but Conlon says they haven’t dwelt on that defeat.

“That (league final) was a downer but the training has been very good since, and we’re hoping that maybe we’re peaking at the right time of the year as well. Waterford are obviously big favourites in the championship, we’ll be hoping to turn them over, but in terms of the league final and the league itself, it was hard to get up for some of those games.

“No disrespect to the smaller counties, but any time you see a Tipp or Kilkenny jersey you want to go through a wall to beat them, while we were probably a scalp for the smaller counties. Hopefully we’ll be able to get out of Division Two next year.” The two youngsters’ paths will cross this afternoon rather than a Sunday, but Conlon shrugs at the Monday scheduling

“It’s different, fair enough. I was speaking to Joe Canning recently and he was slagging me saying we’ve to wait the whole weekend. Fair enough, but it’s still the same. It’s still the game.” True at any age.

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