Clare’s battle with Galway an audit of hurling itself

Most hurling matches are a result.

Clare’s battle with Galway an audit of hurling itself

Someone wins. Someone loses. A team advances. Pundits bark or slaver and the media caravans move on.

Tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final between Clare and Galway is another matter. Many contexts fringe this occasion, including its West of Ireland lift. Perhaps more than making the senior final is at stake. Hurling might look to this contest as an audit on itself, past and present.

The past is two counties without a winning tradition. Former Galway manager Cyril Farrell wrote powerfully on this subject in The Right to Win (1994):

It’s a simple fact of economic life in particular, that the West has always got shabbier treatment than the rest of the country. In the circumstances, it takes a great deal of inner strength to fight off an inferior complex.

Three years later, Anthony Daly produced a compelling speech as victorious Clare captain. His sentiment (“Our mission was to show that we’re no longer the whipping boys of Munster!”) offered a fierce note from the same songbook.

Right here, right now, a different tune is in the air. Galway are senior champions on merit. The summation of Western longing is The Saw Doctors’ ‘To Win Just Once’. Conscious of successive titles’ prestige, Galway want this lyric rewritten, same as they got it rewritten in 1988.

For two-thirds of the senior championship, their history centred on defeats muddling or defeats middling. Maybe serious fault lay in structures, pitching the county into an All- Ireland semi-final and occasionally straight into an All-Ireland final, but this observation only goes so far. Their NHL record, three wins between 1926 and 1975, is another take. Back to back titles, under a structure far different than obtained in 1988, would reset Galway hurling.

Those of us from Cork, Kilkenny, or Tipperary might be privy to many wins but we lose out on rich experience. The scenes where Micheál Donoghue handed the Liam MacCarthy Cup to his father last September remain unforgettable in their purity. There must be no release like the release of long disappointments.

Then again, Kilkenny is funny in this regard. Its experience with Tipperary meant, until recent times, a second tier doll rattling around within the first tier Russian doll.

Galway’s emergence during the 1980s I received mainly as the rivalry, the savage disappointments of Kilkenny defeats in 1986 and 1987. Recollections are precise. Summer of 1986, I was working on roofs with Ger Fennelly, the stylist’s stylist for club and county. We were doing up a house in Muckalee.

All week before that All-Ireland semi-final, horns beeped on the road and voices shouted out of windows: ‘Up Galway!’ They were joking because Kilkenny could not lose. Had they not grabbed the NHL final by four points with relative ease?

Galway flattened Kilkenny in Thurles by 11 points, the day of the famous ‘third midfielder’ ploy. Following week, that road was eerily quiet.

Galway… I had come to think Kevin Cashman the best writer in Ireland, not a poet, and Cashman’s summation of their running style (‘The Jennet Express’) convinced. I can still recall his remorseless two-word summary of Brendan Lynskey before the 1987 senior final: “Durable mullocker.”

But Galway won again. Heading out of Croke Park, we were like drowned god knows whats and Lynskey had his second Celtic Cross. And now you would say, from middle age, it was a distinction to which he was well entitled.

Clare cut a different groove. I have friends, still passionate Clare supporters, and some times being near the events of 1995 to 1998, through them, was like brushing off an electric fence. Living in England paradoxically concentrated the experience.

There was a time in our lives when a night out, when it came to whiskey time, was not complete unless it was also a time when we were all simultaneously quoting Ger Loughnane’s reaction to Jamesie O’Connor’s winning point in the 1997 senior final: “I can still see that ball coming. And as long as I am on this earth, I will see that ball coming.”

Jamesie O’Connor
Jamesie O’Connor

Those Clare hurlers were special because they swelled from the workmanlike combination of 1995 into the great team of 1997 and 1998. The pity is that 1998’s GUBU stuff (suspensions, appeals, refixture, garrulous priests at the Galway Races) obscured the season in which Clare played much of their best hurling.

That summer, Ollie Baker was less a midfielder than a force of nature. He seemed to be hurling in a kayak, guided by scourging currents in a game no one else was able to negotiate.

Since breakthrough in 1995, Clare have harvested three senior titles, the same amount in the same period as Cork and Tipperary. Has the dynamic shifted? You would wonder.

Clare confidence levels, same as Galway’s muster over so many years, remain brittle. The stark difference in ticket demand for the Munster final with Cork and the subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final with Wexford appeared emblematic.

All of which brings us to tomorrow as an audit on hurling’s medium term future. Most observers believe the gap between Galway and the pack has widened over the last few months.

I spoke during the week to one of Clare’s finest hurlers during the 1960s and ’70s. He was pithy on the dynamic: “We are just hoping Galway come a small bit soft and presuming, like the first day against Kilkenny. That would be Clare’s biggest chance.

Otherwise Galway are seven to eight points a better team at this stage.

The progress of champions always intrigues. This point sharpens in an era where certain Munster natives appear to believe you can hurl by algorithm, that planning and calculation can supplant experience and logic.

I had a small fancy for Wexford before the All-Ireland quarter-final. Munster final defeat glossed Clare as vulnerable. That ticket demand factor… I also thought Davy Fitzgerald as manager would have learned from Wexford’s summer no-shows in 2017. Surely he would have recalibrated preparations for 2018 in light of said flatness?

Wrong, both counts. Similarly flat, Wexford set up with seven defenders and were seven points behind at half-time. Advantaged by the breeze for the second half, they stuck with an extra defender and duly fell to Clare by seven points.

An old debate wonders whether a particular breeze is ‘a four-point one’ or ‘a six-point one’. Utilising a sweeper nullified this elemental query, demonstrating how some algorithms throw up a zero point breeze. July 14, 2018 should be the day the sweeping died.

Commonsense is forever a boon. This season, Galway have drawn on nine players who featured against Kilkenny in 2012’s senior finals, draw and replay. Equally, 15 players from the panel that lost 2015’s senior final to Kilkenny are involved in the current campaign.

Can we avoid a moral? Galway becoming senior champions derived from an organic process. They lost close matches, got scalded, addressed deficiencies by introducing some new players after 2012.

No great mystery, no swooping tactical genius.

For 2017’s victory, no new wunderkind emerged. Even Conor Whelan, their youngest player, started against Kilkenny in 2015.

Conor Whelan
Conor Whelan

Can we avoid a moral? The hallmark of this Galway success is maturation. There is nothing massively tactical about how they hurl. The most replicable aspect is an imposing half-back line clearing to an imposing half-forward line.

Limerick noted this facet and are accordingly perceived as neck and neck with Cork for Sunday’s clash. If we end up with a Galway-Limerick decider, the imperative of faddishness alone will cancel those scout patrols for sweepers and order the same searches to locate strapping candidates for half-back and half-forward.

This context might mean a departure. Would not the sovereignty of organic process drive out the maestros of algorithm, the quick fix merchants? Even if Clare lose tomorrow, Galway’s brand of power hurling will mean figures such as Conor Cleary and Cathal Malone cannot be discarded. They must be organically improved over time, because the way forward will ever more be the ‘hard work and winning your own ball’ rubric.

Here is a sliver. I went up with Ballyhale Shamrocks to Galway for the Kilbeacanty Sevens in 2015. A bucketing wet day quenched neither hospitality nor enjoyment. You could not meet friendlier or more hurling-orientated people.

That day, everyone to whom I spoke dismissed the prospect of Galway thriving with Gearóid McInerney at centre back. Last year, McInerney ended up a Hurler of the Year candidate. Is this process not much the same as Clare underwent between 1995 and 1998?

So choose your contexts, past and present. Clare and Galway are back in Croke Park and tomorrow’s meeting will deliver far more than a result to ponder.

Nothing succeeds like success, both in a given season and for seasons afterwards.

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