Although Clarecastle had contested the county final in 1989, we failed to come out of the group in the 1990 championship.
We lost to Kilmaley and Scarriff but, in typically defiant fashion, we beat Éire Óg in our last match.
Éire Óg went on to win the championship but, out of pure temper, we wouldn’t let the townies beat us.
With our season done by August, we travelled up to the play Kilmacud 7s on the Saturday before the 1990 All-Ireland final.
We made no headway in the competition and, while some of the lads made their way home afterwards, a group of us remained on in Dublin, staying with Bobby Power, who was in college in the capital at the time.
We were told in advance that we wouldn’t have a bed, but that we’d have a floor to rest our heads. I wasn’t a Premier League drinker at the time so I wasn’t able to keep pace with the boys who were mugging porter from early Saturday afternoon until early Sunday morning.
I was long home and in a deep sleep on the floor by the time the crew arrived back in Kimmage in a sorry state.
We had tickets for the Canal End the following day, which was mostly taken up with Galway supporters.
That suited us fine because we were rooting for Galway.
Clare people always shouted for Galway. There was never the same bitter rivalry with our neighbours because they were in a different province but the counties always had a close relationship.
We shared that natural west-of-Ireland affinity, but Galway were always our second team for three reasons; they were the sound neighbours; they were the champions of the underclass; and Galway represented everything we strived for, and someday hoped to achieve.
I remember jumping up and down around the sitting room at home when Galway won successive All-Irelands in 1987 and 1988.
Even though Galway were the reigning champions and Tipperary hadn’t won an All-Ireland in 17 years, all of our family, and the next door neighbours in the house watching that 1988 final, were roaring for Galway.
I remember being disappointed in the car on the way home to Clare after Galway were beaten that day in 1990.
I also remember asking the lads in the car one particular question: “Not that we’d ever be in an All-Ireland final, but if that was Clare, would we have left Jim Cashman on Joe Cooney when he was being cleaned out in the first half?”
It was a rhetorical question because we all knew what the answer would have been — Jim would have been hauled off and on the bench after 20 minutes.
But Cork being Cork, they, and Jim, had that belief in themselves that they would tough it out. Joe’s first half display was out of this world but Jim was a Cashman, he was a Rockie. And he came good in the second half.
That kind of fireproof confidence and belief Cork had in themselves was almost seen as something we weren’t entitled to have in Clare. How could we? I’d already been on the Clare panel for two years by then and all I had known was abject misery and disappointment.
The players had no hope. My club-mate Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin asked me a question in the car on the way home from Thurles after Waterford walloped us in 1989: “Did you see me waving?” I asked him who he was saluting in the crowd. “I waved goodbye to the old Stand in Thurles for the last time,” said the bould Ger.
‘Sparrow’ was still young at the time but that was his first retirement announcement. He was already talking about the nostalgia of the “glory years” of Clare hurling, as if he’d lived through some halcyon period decades earlier.
The “glory years” was getting to a Munster final in 1986 (when ‘Sparrow’ was on the training panel), reaching the league final in 1987, and drawing with Tipp in that year’s Championship, before being annihilated in the replay.
Between 1987-1990, Clare lost four Championship matches by an aggregate margin of 66 points.
You’d think we were playing cricket. There was zero ambition anywhere. After our 1989 league campaign concluded in mid-March, we were told to go back our clubs for seven weeks, to keep our fitness up, and that we’d reconvene again as a panel on May 1.
We had a couple of challenge games against Wexford and Tipp in April but it was no wonder Waterford annihilated us on May 21.
At most, we probably trained collectively nine times in 10 weeks. Sean Hehir, our manager at the time, was probably raging with that hiatus after the league campaign but the only reason I could see for that enforced break was the county board wanted to cut costs.
Our own crowd had no faith in us. We had nothing to aspire to. We beat Offaly with a last-minute goal to come out of Division 2 in 1990 but Wexford beat us in a quarter-final by four points.
THREE weeks later, the Division 2 and 3 champions met in a play-off with the winners playing London. Kerry beat us by two points.
It was nearly worse than losing a Championship match because we lost out on the trip to London.
The late Eamonn Long, who was only buried a few months back, was a selector around that time, and I remember him saying that we had to at least try and put some pride back in the jersey.
That resonated with me but when Len Gaynor arrived from Tipp in the autumn of 1990, he said he had no interest in putting pride back in the jersey — he was in Clare to win a Munster Championship.
That immediately set a fire inside of me. Gaynor was telling me what I wanted to hear, but what nobody in Clare had the conviction to think, or the courage to say.
We all had to start standing up for ourselves, to start believing in ourselves more.
How long were we going to continue to take these hammerings?
I was already beginning to rage against that old attitude. When we played Wexford in that 1990 league quarter-final, I was marking Tom Dempsey.
He took me for three points and after his second one, I gave him a dig of the hurley. “Ah, a Clare man getting saucy,”he said to me. “Where are all yere All-Irelands?” I’d have had less of an issue listening to that off a Cork, Tipp, or Kilkenny fella but I wasn’t going to take that talk off a Wexford hurler. “What would ye know about All-Irelands down there?” I bellowed back.
Tom and I have often laughed since about that exchange but All-Irelands only existed on the far side of the abyss for us back then. I remember before that game saying to my brother Martin: “If we could only reach a league final.” He was nearly sniggering down the phone to me. “That’s a long way off anyway, Anthony.”
Thirty years on, it’s a different time, different landscape. Offaly won three successive Leinster titles between 1988-’90 but, while they have faded, every other county has got stronger.
Clare, Galway, and Limerick have ended their famines. Dublin won Leinster in 2013. They beat Galway last year. Waterford should have won an All-Ireland in the last decade, while they almost won one in 2017. Wexford were Leinster champions last year and won’t be far off this year’s All-Ireland. Three decades on from when they ruled the hurling world, Cork are now seeking to end their famine.
Yet, with all due respect to Laois, every other county, including Cork, in the Liam MacCarthy have serious ambitions of winning an All-Ireland.
When I was with Dublin, I had Michael Carruth, the Olympic boxing champion of 1992 with us as a masseur. But I’d often get Mikey to speak to the lads. “Youse are no longer pretenders,” he would say. “Youse are contenders now.”
Thirty years on, the pretenders are long gone.
Putting pride back in the jersey is no longer acceptable.
Because the race now is full of contenders.