The first eye-opener for me was at Limerick train station; two buses, one for the players, one for the backroom staff. It spoke to me of a level of professionalism that we would normally associate with Manchester United or some such team.
The first port of call was my own native club, Cratloe, and from there, on to Clonlara. When I think back to ’95 and ’97 there was no one from either of those clubs on that team; on Saturday last they provided nearly half the starting 15 between them, three players each (Domhnall O’Donovan, Colm Galvin, John Conlon of Clonlara and Conor Ryan, Podge Collins and Conor McGrath from Cratloe, plus selector Michael Deegan) along with several subs.
That in itself is a major change in the last decade, a power shift to south-east Clare.
There were echoes of the ’90s, however, albeit from a different code — remember that chant, ‘Ooh, Aah, Paul McGrath’? We heard an updated version in Cratloe, ‘Ooh, Aah, Conor McGrath!’
Next port of call was Sixmilebridge, a club with whom Cratloe has always had a great rivalry, two neighbouring parishes that actually encroach on each other’s turf – you wouldn’t have thought so on Sunday evening!
Sixmilebridge is Davy Fitzgerald’s native place and he got a well-deserved rousing reception.
Of course there was great banter too over the change in fortunes in recent years, just one man from the ’Bridge on the panel, the flying Seadna Morey.
From there the convoy headed for the arch-enemy of Sixmilebridge, Newmarket-on-Fergus. Newmarket is the snob club in Clare, see themselves as the aristocrats and of course with good reason, all those titles. Only one rep on this team but Newmarket were reminding us all just how important Colin Ryan was to the team, top scorer overall in this year’s championship.
There was a visit also to the Carrigoran Nursing Home, a fantastic touch, appreciation shown to the warriors of old.
Then it was on to the arch-enemies of Newmarket-on-Fergus, Clarecastle, a club with aristocratic pretensions of their own. And they weren’t long reminding people of where the captain of ’95 and ’97 hailed from! Throughout it all though, great craic, great humour.
From there to the biggest reception of all, the Fair Green in Ennis where 30,000 people waited, old and young. From them, the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for one of their own — hat-trick hero Shane O’Donnell. And of course the All-Ireland U21-winning team was also being honoured, Davy O’Halloran, hero of the U21 final. Running through it all, the music, lots of music.
Overall though, and the make-up of the team apart, I’d say the celebrations were very different to ’95 and ’97.
The main reason, I think, is that then we were looking back, decade after decade of heartbreak; last Sunday we were looking forward and, as someone said to me: “We could get very used to this!”
So many times Clare lost to Cork and Tipperary in Munster, the big two; now we can say, we’ve never lost an All-Ireland final to either of them. I must mention too that in fairness to both those counties, they were well represented in Clare on Sunday, enjoying the craic and taking the slagging with their usual good humour.
The reaction of the players was also very interesting. I’ve seen players on many a celebration stage and usually they look very much the worse for wear — not those guys. They looked like they were determined to soak in the atmosphere rather than the booze.
They’re winners and they know it, have that assurance about themselves. I think there’s a general recognition of this nationally also.
From the post-match interviews, people can see how mature those guys are, how intelligent and articulate. It bodes well for the future but now they have a new challenge, not just to equal what the team of the ’90s did, but to better it. They have the ability.