After recording the Irish Examiner podcast last Monday morning, I went back to Kilkee to clear my head. I’m no distance from the west Clare coast, but it was the first time I was able to travel to Kilkee after the 5km restriction had been lifted. And I couldn’t wait.
It was everything you could ask for. The weather was excellent but Kilkee was just a postcard picture of pristine beauty. The whole bay was at low-tide. People were swimming. The promenade was flooded with walkers. I set off around the breathtaking cliff walk and, as I was coming back down by the pollocks holes, I said to myself: ‘It’s no wonder so many people flock to this county every year.’
During the staycation season last year, there were unprecedented crowds in Clare. Everyone is biased towards their own, but we are so lucky here in Clare. Along with our rich culture and heritage, our coastal beauty, our traditional music, we’re immensely proud of our hurling and football in the county.
I’ve always been so proud of where I’m from. I was absolutely honoured to captain the Clare team for eight brilliant years. When the captaincy finally ended, the bould Ger Loughnane came to me one night before training and announced his intention.
‘Is that ok,’ he said to me, by the way, not really asking but more or less telling me it was happening.
‘No problem, Ger, but can I ask who the new captain is?’
‘Brian,’ he said.
‘Lohan?’ (Nobody in Clare calls him Brian).
‘Brilliant,’ I said. I went straight over to Lohan and hugged him.
That 2000 season was my last year to start a championship match. I came back in 2001 and made a savage effort to hold on to my place under Cyril Lyons. I felt I should have been selected against Tipperary, but Gerry Quinn had locked down that number 7 jersey during the league, and he started instead of me against Tipp.
I remember going to Gerry in the team hotel that morning and wishing him the absolute best. I meant it from the bottom of my heart because I wanted the best for the team. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way it has to be. Do your time. And when your time is up, hand it over and move on.
Change is just a natural cycle of life but the pace of change around Clare GAA has become so stale and static that, paradoxically, it has felt unnatural for years now. We desperately need fresh blood at county board level because, the longer some people remain in charge, the more anaemic we will become as a hurling and football county.
The bottom line is that the top table of the county board has huge questions to answer. Failure has just compounded failure, but the last five years has been a joke, especially around the mismanagement of our so-called Centre of Excellence at Caherlohan.
There has been an atmosphere of fear created around our county board. The whole country knows at this stage that we’re going backwards but we’ve tolerated it for too long.
One of the most disheartening aspects of that tolerance was the board meeting in March when, despite all these questions and innuendo circulating in the media at the time, nobody outside of Brian Torpey from Tulla asked a question.
Some delegates like Torpey and Davy Solan from Whitegate regularly stand up and challenge secretary Pat Fitzgerald but not enough do. And not enough certainly did when those questions really needed to be answered.
I’m sure Brian Lohan himself wanted a robust debate on everything which had been appearing in the media. Everyone expected there would be, but it was almost embarrassing watching the response on YouTube. The silence was deafening.
Fitzgerald himself has called Caherlohan an ‘embarrassment’ in the past. It absolutely is. At the outset, we were promised seven pitches. We got five. We were promised four floodlit pitches. We got two. There is no Astroturf pitch which to me almost immediately denies the venue Centre of Excellence status. The designers must have thought Caherlohan was some venue in Malaga or Alicante.
Everyone in Clare knows that Caherlohan is not fit for purpose. There is no medical room and there is no defibrillator. The gym can cater for 20 people. How big are inter-county panels now?
Lohan has faced one obstacle after the next since applying for the senior job.
In his interview, Lohan wasn’t even asked about the make-up of his backroom team, which was a clear signal that he wasn’t getting the job. Shortly afterwards, Lohan got a phone call to say that the board were appointing Louis Mulqueen. Lohan was out of the picture until a handful of club delegates put up their hands and shouted stop.
Nobody should have been surprised because the way Donal Moloney was treated was nothing short of a total disgrace. Donal, who had been joint-manager with Gerry O’Connor, was interested in the job but the board kept stringing him along for three months.
So, if a guy who had given his life to Clare hurling over the previous decade, joint-managing Clare to unprecedented Munster and All-Ireland success at U-21 level, and nearly guiding Clare to a senior All-Ireland, is treated that poorly, it’s easier then to form a background picture of what Lohan has had to consistently put up with.
The board clearly didn’t want to give Lohan the job but when the clubs dictated otherwise, the modus operandi then has been to put as many obstacles as possible in his way.
I know the HSE were using Cusack Park as a Covid Testing Centre but the squad seemed to have limited access to Cusack Park during last year’s championship. If Cusack Park was out of bounds, surely some accommodation could have been sought when the squad had no alternative with Caherlohan not fit for use. Lohan was reliant on the good grace of the clubs for the use of their pitches.
We’ve heard all the stories of Lohan’s multitude of emails unanswered by Fitzgerald, of Lohan having to pay S&C staff, of him paying for meals below in Wexford after a league game. How is that right? Some of the details are disputed but how is Lohan having to deal with this stuff in the first place?
I cannot understand how — in my opinion — our greatest ever player is not being supported to the hilt by the board.
On the other hand, I don’t think Clare managers have been getting a fair chance for the last five years. I saw that myself first-hand in my last year with the Limerick Academy in 2017. When we had finished up with the Limerick minors in our 8-9.30pm slot, the Clare seniors were coming onto the field afterwards to train. What time did those sessions finish? By the time lads had their food eaten, some would have been hitting for Dublin, Cork, and Galway at 11pm. How is that right?
All that wasted money spent in UL is all the more frustrating again when the most important element of any Centre of Excellence should be a floodlit Astroturf facility. It’s even more head-wrecking considering close to €5m has been spent on the facility.
If this continues, Clare are just going to be left behind. Wexford advertised this week for the position of a full-time operations manager. Why should we be playing catch-up to Wexford? They’ve won one All-Ireland in the last 26 years; we’ve won three. Fair play to Wexford, they’re thinking outside the box and are looking at the bigger picture, whereas the long-term viewpoint of the executive of the Clare County Board is so narrow that they can hardly even see out the window.
If anyone disagrees with me, I’ll refer back to this week’s board meeting. Not only was there no discussion on any plans for Clare GAA to engage in fundraising in the near future, the topic of finances wasn’t even on the agenda.
The board’s treasurer admitted last December that their finances are “in dire straits” while there has been little to no funding activity over the past two years.
In the last couple of months alone, I’ve seen countless fundraising initiatives by other counties, many of whom are in a much more secure financial state than we are in Clare. Could we not sell some of our assets, buy a house off the plans and then have a big fundraising draw like they did above in Roscommon?
Only for the huge recent drive by ‘Club Clare’, I shudder to think how our teams, at all levels, would manage this year.
The main issues never seem to get dealt with because there always seems to be another agenda at play. In the Clare Champion this week, the secretary voiced his claims of ‘a personal witch-hunt’. I’ve no interest in witch hunts. I’m just like any other genuine Clare hurling supporter — I want answers. This is nothing personal. It’s just business, and looking for our business to be run properly. So, is asking legitimate questions and seeking answers now a witch hunt?
We are going backwards. If anyone disputes that claim, I can say that when I was Clare manager between 2004-06, I had none of this hassle. Sixteen years ago, we were able to go on a five-day training camp to Portugal. I know times have changed but something is seriously wrong when, nearly two decades later, the senior hurling manager had his head melted from just trying to find a pitch to train.
When I was Clare and Dublin manager, nearly every waking moment was spent on searching for ways to get a few extra percent out of the players. All that stuff should nearly be owning your thoughts, but instead of worrying about puckout strategies, Lohan is wondering what pitch he might have to implement them.
That’s just not acceptable. Given what Donal and Gerry had to put up with as well, they totally overachieved in 2018. If more support had been provided to help them find that few extra percent, could Clare have got over the line against Galway in that 2018 replayed All-Ireland semi-final? If they had, would Clare have beaten Limerick in the final?
We could have won the All-Ireland in 2005 but I had no excuses when we didn’t. Gerry and Donal wouldn’t have looked for excuses but they had any amount of them. Lohan would be the last man to go whingeing but, if he has to keep putting up with this rubbish for much longer, we can forget about winning anything in the near future.
We’re all proud Clare people. We just want the best for our teams. We have a right to demand the best. But we’re not getting anything near that basic requirement.
When Eoin Conroy, a member of an independent review committee, a former Doora-Barefield hurler and now CEO of Titan Marketing, went on Newstalk recently, he hit the nail on the head when saying that the governance structures of Clare GAA were “broken”.
They certainly are. And fresh blood, and a new way forward, is the only way they’re going to be fixed.