Ger Loughnane had loads of piseogs. One of them was to tog out beside me. When I returned to my place in the dressing room after the replayed 1998 Munster final, Loughnane hugged me. I could feel the madness coming off him like kinetic energy.
On the Monday, we were having a few pints in Navin’s in Clarecastle when one of the lads asked me what Loughnane said to me. “Nothing,” I said.
“What do you mean nothing,” came the reply. “I saw him hugging you.”
“He said nothing. Loughnane just caught me by the jersey and snarled at me. ‘Aaagggghhhh.’”
How would you describe it? It was like the reaction of an aggressive dog when another dog would arrive into its territory. To me ‘Aaaggggghhhh’ had a very simple translation: ‘When you try and take us on, you’re the dog that gets savaged.’”
Back then, journalists were allowed to come in to the dressing room after matches. The press pack had assembled about a metre from Loughnane, waiting for the cue to approach him and open their line of questioning. Loughnane was fully aware of their presence but he acted as if they were invisible.
"We showed those fuckers, Dalo," he said to me, the delight and disdain in his voice clearly audible.
I was nearly pretending not to hear him, half hoping that the pack of journalists would think Loughnane was raving and rambling away to himself. I don’t know whether they thought Loughnane had actually gone stone mad, or were afraid to approach him. A couple of minutes later, after I’d emerged from the showers, with a towel around me, the press pack made their way over to me.
I knew from the first question that they weren’t impressed with our performance and attitude. I was diplomatic in my response. One fella asked if I thought we went over the top. Before I could answer him, I could hear Loughnane in a fit of laughing in the background, with only his underpants on. ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, wait ‘til you see the Sunday Game tonight Dalo.’ Holy Jesus. The way he was acting I thought he had lost it. When the journalists eventually built up the courage to approach Loughnane, he went off on a rant about nut-jobs ringing up Dessie Cahill’s radio show the following evening. He laughed off any accusations of over-the-top-tactics.
On the Monday, we all went in to the lounge in Navin’s to listen to Dessie Cahill’s radio show. I remember this fella from Waterford coming on. "I’ll tell ya now boi, I’ll never go to a Clare game again boi. I’ll never bring my young fella to a Clare game again boi. They’re only a pack of thugs. If you saw the belting their backs were doing to our forwards before the game began, it was out of order boi."
I remember saying to one of the lads: "Did he not see what Brian Greene was doing to Jamesie down at the other end?" You knew then that the heat was going to ratchet up. Brian Lohan was going to be suspended for the All-Ireland semi-final but there was also a case building around Colin Lynch, who had been involved in the throw-in incident with Tony Browne.
And still, it didn’t really bother me. I kinda felt we were nearly invincible. If we were dialed in and at full throttle, as we had been for the Munster semi-final, and replayed final, I didn’t think any team out there could live with us.
I knew we were facing some heat down the line, but my attitude was the same as Loughnane’s. ‘Bring it on.’ And on it came. You couldn’t have made up what happened next. Lynch’s three-month suspension on hearsay evidence that wouldn’t have stood up in a kangaroo court in Uganda. Marty Morrissey hiding in the back of an RTÉ van as Loughnane angrily went looking for Morrissey for stating on live TV that Lynch’s grandmother was dead when she was still alive. A prominent Clare county board official overhearing three priests calling Loughnane and the Clare team a crowd of tramps that had it coming to them. We were supposedly all on drugs.
Loughnane was also suspended from the sideline for the All-Ireland semi-final. When Loughnane issued his state-of-the-nation address to Colm O’Connor (now of this parish) on Clare FM shortly before the semi-final, the whole of Clare stopped like 9/11.
The circus was only gathering pace but if Loughnane had told me at the time to run naked to Dublin, I’d have stripped off and immediately ran.
Mike Mac said after training one night that he didn’t care what the whole country thought about us as long as there was a Clare flag flying out of every window in the county. (It was a spine-tingling speech by big Mike). We believed exactly what we heard and what Loughnane believed we needed to hear. So did the Clare people at that time. We felt, I’m sure, how the Galway players and public did during the ‘Tony Keady Affair’ in 1989. Back then, we had huge sympathy for Galway, who believed they were the subject of a conspiracy designed to stop them winning three All-Irelands in a row.
A decade on, Clare believed they were in the same position as Galway; the upstarts who defied tradition, and who were now threatening to become the tradition, had to be stopped.
We had developed a siege mentality but, as had been proven with Galway in 1989 — especially when you’re down key players — it can be hard to control that emotion. On top of all that, we had been lulled into a false sense of security when Offaly appeared to be in total crisis before our All-Ireland semi-final. ‘Babs’ Keating had walked away after the Leinster final over the fallout of comparing Offaly to ‘sheep in a heap’.
The circus continued right into that first Offaly game. Loughnane wasn’t supposed to be near the pitch but when he tore around the place during the puckaround, the Clare crowd screamed and shouted as if Jesus had suddenly risen from the dead.
At one stage, I went out to hit a sideline at the Cusack Stand side and nearly pissed myself when I glanced in to the crowd. I noticed Jim Collins and his son holding up this huge banner. ‘Be Frank Ger, who is the Don’. Jim, like a lot of Clare people, felt that Cork’s Frank Murphy was the Don Corleone figure Loughnane had referred to as the guy leading the assassination team trying to gun us down. ‘Deadly banner Jim,’ I thought before I took the sideline.
At the time, I genuinely wasn’t distracted. In my mind, Lynch’s suspension had given us another cause. I was defiant. So were plenty of others, but I also knew that the whole circus wasn’t helpful to some lads on the team. We had enough distractions at that stage and were lucky to get out of jail that first day against Offaly.
We should have buried them in that first replay. We definitely would have if Jimmy Cooney had sent off my great pal Michael Duignan for blatantly striking David Forde with the hurley. We still were three points up on Offaly but then Jimmy blew up two minutes early and all hell broke loose.
I often felt partly responsible for Jimmy’s decision. A couple of minutes before he prematurely ended the game, I ran up alongside him. "The time is up Jimmy, blow it up."
"Two minutes Anthony," Jimmy replied.
When the game did end early, I swapped jerseys with Gary Hanniffy and headed for the dressing rooms. Brian Whelehan came running after me, desperately trying to get my attention. "Dalo, it’s not over, it’s not over."
I didn’t entertain him for a second. The Offaly jersey on my back provided my answer. "What do you want me to do Brian, play the rest of the match for ye? Sorry, but I’ll see you around."
By the time we reconvened to the players’ lounge upstairs, we looked down and saw the sea of Offaly supporters swaying on the pitch. Johnny Pilkington was observing the brewing storm as he sipped a beer on his own. I strolled over. "What do you make of that craic?" I asked.
"Would you think they’d just fuck off home," the bould Johnny replied. "Have they nowhere to go?"
Then Michael Bond arrived and half-scolded Johnny. "Go handy on those," he said. "We could be out again next week."
Johnny just necked back what was left of the bottle as he ogled the couple of beers resting on the window sill. "We were beaten fair and square, Mike," he said to Bond. "We’ll take our beating now."
Bond reiterated his words of caution, even to me. I only laughed at him. "Sure, look Mikey, we might see you again next year."
When we got back to the Burlington Hotel, we ate a bit and then headed into the bar. I drank another four or five pints. When Loughnane arrived back at 10pm, he said that he had to go to a meeting in the morning and that we could be facing a replay. When Loughnane asked me what I thought, I was emphatic. "If we have to play it, we’ll play it. I’d rather risk it than winning an All-Ireland and have them saying we didn’t do it honestly. And anyway, we’ll beat them next week."
We were told to meet in the lobby at 10 the following morning. If anything, we should have been heading to the 40 Foot for a recovery session but Mike Mac dragged us out to Belfield and proceeded to murder lads. He just unleashed his venom on everyone else. "How fucking dare ye throw away an 11-point lead."
When we got back, Loughnane appeared from Croke Park and said that a second replay had been fixed for Saturday. I tore into him about giving Mac the licence to flog guys. Loughnane said he knew nothing about the nature of the session.
Mac was thick with me and I was bull thick with him. The mood had clearly been contaminated. The sombre silence on the bus journey home confirmed as much. We were flat. There was very little spark in training that week. We struggled to find an ember in our collective heart to stoke the fireplace in our souls and get it raging again. By Saturday, the fire reignited but it never had the same heat which had burned so many other teams over the previous two years. After a summer of madness, the fire finally went out.
In Clare, people still say we rolled over too easily, and handed Offaly an All-Ireland that should have been ours. Many say that Loughnane should have demanded Lynch’s suspension be cut before agreeing to a second replay. If anything, Loughnane should have requested another week off before that game. (That could have been achieved easily with an appeal). It could have been another bargaining tool for Lynch because, by that stage, the team was on its knees with injuries and suspensions.
Loughnane should have also demanded we play in Croke Park. Offaly were giving out about having to go to a Munster venue but Thurles had far more bad memories for us than Croke Park, where we’d never lost. Going back to Thurles felt like being back in a Munster final, when we’d already moved on from that stage.
To this day, people still come up to me and say: "It must kill you that you didn’t get that third All-Ireland". It honestly doesn’t. It is a regret but what haunts me most about 1998 was losing my brother Paschal, who passed away suddenly the morning of the All-Ireland final.
Loughnane and I have often spoken about it. Ger said he would have told me that morning that Paschal had died. Would I have played? No way. I’d have been saying to Loughnane ‘Get me a driver and get me to Clarecastle'. Losing your brother, especially at the age of just 40, is far bigger than hurling.
So any time I think of 1998 now, I don’t remember it as a lost opportunity, of fallen glory and missing out on the chance to captain Clare to a third All-Ireland; I think of it as the year I lost my brother.
We in Clare still believe that team could have won that third All-Ireland, but you can always tangle yourself up in regret and recrimination. We didn’t lift Liam MacCarthy, but it was still a priceless year in so many other ways. It was the fiercest summer imaginable but also the most suspense-laden and Hitchcockian drama-filled GAA championship in history.
I’ve often thought that there was surely an opening for the Irish Film Board to make a best-selling movie out of the 1998 hurling championship. And if they were looking for actors, Conor Moore — of Conor’s Sketches — could surely play Davy, myself or Loughnane.