At the end of 1997, the Clare squad were at another All-Ireland function when I approached a few of the boys, posing a question where the potential answer was certainly a concern deep in the recesses of my mind.
“Hi, your man (Ger Loughnane) is kinda delaying his commitment to staying on,” I said. I was anxious for an answer so I only saw one way of getting it. “We’ll go down and doorstep him,” I said. “We’ll ask him straight out.”
A few days later, Brian Lohan, Jamesie O’Connor, Seánie McMahon and myself arrived down to Loughnane’s house in Shannon. I’d rang him shortly beforehand to let him we were coming.
As soon as we arrived, Loughnane began testing us as much as we were testing him. He had driven us so hard to win that second All-Ireland that, maybe any doubts he had were framed by doubts we may have had.
Did we have the same hunger and commitment? Loughnane put it straight up to me: “Where are you at Dalo? You’re after lifting the Liam MacCarthy twice. Do you want to lift it again?”
I was firm in my reply. “I’m still only 28 Ger. I think I’ve at least another couple of good years left in me. We’ll never have it as good as we have it now. We’ll never have as good a management.”
We all desperately wanted Ger back, even though we knew what that entailed; we were going to be tortured later that winter; we were going to be abused high up and low down. I could already hear his comments in my own head: “Milk would turn faster than you. Some lad from Tipp will make an ape out of you again. The whole country will be laughing at you.”
I still wanted Loughnane so badly because I believed so much in him, and in his way of getting the job done. When I looked back on it all afterwards, Loughnane’s delay in committing to coming back was his way of shining a torch into our minds. He was probing to gauge our levels of leadership and hunger. How badly did we want to go through the pain again? And Mike Mac certainly doled out the torture in spades.
I was lucky that I missed most of the hardship that winter-spring because Clarecastle were involved in an All-Ireland club semi-final against Birr. I only played in Clare’s last league game, a defeat to Galway in Ennis. We won just three games that spring — against Antrim, Dublin and Offaly — but we somehow ended up in a semi-final against Cork.
We were flat on the day and Cork gave us a right hiding. When we went back to Power’s pub in Clarecastle that night, a handful of customers gave it to us between the eyes. “Hi Dalo, ye might let us know the next time ye’re not going to bother yere arses, so we might save a few quid going to Thurles.”
Loughnane was equally as disgusted with us. We were struggling for form but when Loughnane rang me the following day, the May Bank Holiday Monday, I had no interest in getting in to the minutiae of the performance. ‘Ger,’ I said, ‘get me a few quid and a bus because we’re going drinking up the coast.’ ‘What the ...?’ ‘Ger, just get me a few pounds and a mini-bus and I promise you we'll be right for the next seven weeks.”
Loughnane agreed. We had a few beers in Lahinch before heading up around the Cliffs of Moher and back down to Liscannor to McHugh’s pub, which was owned at the time by Davy Fitz and ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin. I remember asking Jamesie and Colin Lynch, who didn’t drink, to drive up and meet us there at 9pm.
We went into a side room and I addressed the group. “Lads, I’m as fond of a pint as any man in this room but I won’t be touching one drop again after tonight until we bate that shower.”
There was a decent crowd in the pub that same evening. I’m sure some of them were thinking ‘Look at this shower, they were a disgrace yesterday and now they’re sinking pints. They’re going nowhere.”
I didn’t care what anyone else thought and neither did Loughnane. That was the beauty of our manager-captain relationship; he trusted me. If I said I was going to go down a certain route, Loughnane would back my plan to the hilt if he agreed with it.
Cork had to play Limerick in a Munster quarter-final but we knew it would be Cork that we’d be facing. We felt aggrieved. We had a point to prove. And that mentality set the tone for our summer.
We trained like savages in the lead up to that Cork game. At one stage, we did 20 nights out of 22. When we met Cork again, we were like wild animals. As I was leading the lads out the tunnel, I nearly mowed down Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Dr Con Murphy. “Get out of my fucking way,” I roared at them. They did. So did Cork.
At one stage of the game, the TV cameras caught me hissing in the face of Fergal McCormack like a wild cat. In hiscolumn the following week, Kevin Cashman, the old Cork hurling writer, depicted me as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, how Clare had come to wage war and destruction on all good hurling folk, how my snarling face was enough to turn the stomachs of all those good hurling people.
I got a great kick out of reading that piece. This was where I always wanted to be. I grew up looking at Cork and Tipp walking all over teams. I wanted to be like those guys.
One of the lines in that Cashman piece more or less said “if that’s the price of success for Clare, it isn’t worth it”. What? If he was writing about hurling back in the 1960s, I’d love to see what Cashman wrote about Tipp’s ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. Or what he said about Christy Ring after some of those Cork-Tipp battles. Ring was a genius, but he was saucy too and well able to look after himself. Ring had to be when the other crowd were trying to cut the head off him.
I laughed reading that Cashman piece. The wheel had really turned full circle. Before 1995, we were labelled as the greatest chokers that ever took to a hurling field. Three years later, we were depicted as a ruthless bunch of exterminators, burning and razing and killing all before us.
That deep confidence within ourselves, and how we projected it, was something we’d always only dreamed of having in Clare. The way in which we ruthlessly buried Cork late on lifted us all on to a new high. The feeling was like a narcotic charging through our blood stream.
Even Loughnane was as high as a kite the same day. Towards the end of the match, he marched down towards the Killinan End Terrace like a proud general before his adoring army. It stirred the crowd into a craze. Every Clare supporter in the ground were on their feet as the noise built to a crescendo. When Loughnane pumped his fist up to the terrace, Semple Stadium exploded.
Everyone felt the reverberations. I had one eye on the ball and one eye on Loughnane. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck like spikes. If I was thinking ‘This is payback for 1977, 1978 and 1986’, I can’t imagine what must have been going through Loughnane’s mind, especially after he had played in those Munster finals.
A lot of the Clare crowd were drunk on the delirium, intoxicated from the absolute satisfaction of having trimmed Cork. Again. That win in 1998 was Clare’s fourth time beating Cork in the championship in six years.
It’s not in our nature for Clare people to get carried away but it was inevitable that some people would. I remember my brother Martin telling me some of the stuff Clare supporters were saying to Cork people as they left the ground early that afternoon. “Lads, make sure ye don’t send up the minor team again next year.” (That fairly came back to bite us).
When Loughnane even got caught up in the jingoistic mood of the afternoon, we all felt a little untouchable. There was definitely a sense that evening around the county, ‘Ah, we’ll have no problem taking care of Waterford in the final.’ I won’t say we felt invincible, but we had an aura about us at the time. We felt bullet-proof but that can be dangerous when you don’t have a history of repelling bullets.
Gerald McCarthy and Waterford knew that we’d probably lost the run of ourselves. They had some brilliant players but Waterford were also fully aware that if they could match us for aggression, that they would take away some of our power, that they would strip away some of that mystique around us.
Waterford certainly did. We felt they were the aggressors, both on the pitch and on the sideline. We were only hanging on for a finish. Paul Flynn had a late free to win the game.
Dan Shanahan took me for three points. I was kinda embarrassed with my performance. I didn’t feel I deserved to address the players but when we went back to Syl Addley’s hotel in Killaloe afterwards I asked Loughnane if I could speak to them before he did. I took the lads out to the conservatory, which was baking hot, and told them of a nasty personal comment that had been said to me. I was deeply rattled because it was like poison on the tip of a blade twisted hard into my gut.
Loughnane never asked me what I said to the players but I told him anyway the following night at training. He didn’t need that comment to stoke the fire burning inside him because he was like a volcano about to erupt with a vengeance of more than just lava and black ash. All it did for Loughnane was reaffirm how we, both the players and management, had been bullied all day by Waterford. He was like a nutcase.
We all knew what was coming before we even arrived into training. Our heads were down. We knew Loughnane was going to savage us, but we knew we deserved it too. After Loughnane ate us alive, Mike Mac walloped us with hard running as a form of punishment beating.
On the Wednesday, we played a 40-minute match in training that was absolutely filthy. There were fights breaking out all over the field, lads leathering one another with hurleys and fists. ‘Now,’ Loughnane roared, ‘we’re ready.’
On the Friday night, he brought us in to the goal at the bottom of Cusack Park and had us in the palm of his hand. We were mesmerised, almost hypnotised by the craze in Loughnane’s eyes. We were never going to be bullied again. We were never going to dishonour Clare again. Loughnane had wound lads up into a ball of viciousness, especially Colin Lynch, who he had been picking on and goading all week long.
On the Sunday, we would have nearly belted each other in the dressingroom if Loughnane didn’t let us out when he did. I didn’t say too much but I remember going into the shower area with Davy Fitz and the defenders beforehand. ‘I can guarantee ye all, what happened to me the last day won’t happen today,’ I said. ‘A lot of talking has been done all week but by Jesus the talking is over now. We’ll do whatever we have to do out on that field.’ Both sides went at it like pitched warfare, but we were like men possessed.
Waterford hadn’t much of a chance.