The first time I managed Dublin against my own county, in 2009, we had the chance to officially relegate Clare from Division 1.
Mike Mac was manager of that team. Ollie Baker and Alan Cunningham were part of his backroom team, just as they had been part of mine a few years earlier in Clare. A lot of the players who had played under me were still around.
Johnny Callinan texted me with a reference to Denis Law, the Manchester United legend, whose back-heeled goal for Manchester City in 1974 appeared to have relegated United, although they would have gone down anyway.
There were always more angles than a compass to those matches. On the week we played Clare in a qualifier clash in 2010, I did a photoshoot with Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin — a childhood friend and close neighbour — who was then Clare manager. Coming to Ennis for a qualifier in 2012 though, was a whole different ordeal. I knew I was facing into an emotional tornado. And I walked into the teeth of it.
We based ourselves in the Temple Gate hotel, right in the middle of Ennis, which rests on the site of a 19th Century Convent of Mercy. When my father played in county finals for Clarecastle between 45-56, the teams togged off in the Convent before being marched up side by side to Cusack Park.
That was something I wanted to invoke but I emptied everything out of my locker that day. I was facing down my own people. When we spoke in the Temple Gate beforehand, I told the players that my late father had graced the same place before a big game, he had made the same journey that we were going to make now.
We were going to march up through the town, through my own people. It was not in my DNA to bring a team to Clare to go to war against them.
But I told the players, “By God, I am willing to do this for ye.”
When we left the hotel to make that journey by foot, I led the posse. Some people were half shocked as I passed them. I was charged up on a cocktail of emotion and tension. Martin Flanagan, the former groundsman in Cusack Park told me afterwards that the hairs stood on the back of his neck when he saw me leading the Dublin lads in the gate. I was so emotional, there were nearly tears running down my face. When we got into the dressing room, I had to compose myself for five minutes.
Facing down your own is never easy and Davy Fitzgerald will have to deal with that challenge this afternoon. He has been in this position before — he managed Waterford against Clare in the 2010 championship — while he has already come up against Clare in this year’s league.
But facing your own in championship, especially when you have previously managed the team, and when you know so many of those players so well, is definitely not an easy task.
You just have to try and dislocate yourself from the opposition, to try, if you can, to completely suspend the huge emotion involved. That day in 2012, the Dublin players got the train from the capital to Limerick Junction. I met them in a nearby hotel before we got the bus to the Temple Gate hotel.
Before we left, I tried to discharge the heightened emotion that was building around the occasion, which was primarily created around me. I was clear and upfront about everything because I had brought so many Clare traits to Dublin, ranging from my accent to how I carried myself. There was no point in trying to hide that I was a Clareman, that everything was very personal for me. I was of Clare but that had nothing to do with the Dublin players.
“This is a hard one for me but let me deal with all of that stuff,” I said. “Ye forget about it.”
I’m sure Fitzy will be adopting a similar approach now because it’s easy to create a circus around this stuff. There was never any rivalry between Clare and Dublin but it was easy to concoct an instant rivalry when I was over the team. Clare never had any beef with Wexford but it’s the same with Fitzy now.
If anything, he will do everything he can to turn that familiarity into an advantage. Knowing the Clare players, and their mentality, gives Davy, and the Wexford players, an invaluable insight but I’m sure he will stick to his guns and play the same style he has patented with Wexford. And the Clare boys know that system only too well too from having experienced it with Davy throughout 2015 and 2016.
Clare have seen how well Galway dismantled that game last year, and in June, so Clare will seek to get workers into the middle and spray the ball wide. And they also have the option of going long to John Conlon on the edge of the square although Liam Ryan will be the best of the last trio he faced.
Wexford could have been in the Leinster final. They were in control of the Kilkenny match before they let it slip. They played some super stuff in the first half that evening but I’d be disappointed with how they performed overall in Leinster. Clare have certainly been operating at a higher level throughout this summer.
In fairness, Wexford’s schedule was pretty merciless. Clare did have the advantage of having a break in the middle of their four games, a luxury that only one other team — Dublin — enjoyed, because all the other teams in Munster and Leinster had to play at least three weeks in a row. Fitzy had to manage the difficulty of playing four games in 20 days but he has effectively had five weeks now to get ready for this match. And I’m sure he will have his players primed.
This is a huge game for both managements. An All-Ireland semi-final would probably have been targeted as a baseline requirement after both teams contested provincial finals, and reached All-Ireland quarter-finals, last year. Going at least one step further this year was a whole lot harder in the new system but now that both are within touching distance of getting back to Croke Park, the fall for the losers will be far steeper than 12 months ago. Both managements are in Year 2. Expectation levels are so much higher now that I think the losers will struggle to recover from the setback.
I fancy Clare just about (although I’m praying the team released is a dummy one). Some of their big guns need to step up now but a lot of Wexford’s main men haven’t produced anything decent yet this summer.
If Clare perform like they did against Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick, and the first half of the Munster final against Cork, they will win. Being allowed to play that way won’t be easy against Wexford but I still think that Clare will get the job done.
Meanwhile in Thurles tomorrow, all the talk is of how big a game this is for Limerick. But it’s equally as big for Kilkenny, who won’t want to lose a third match in one championship season. That reality won’t be easy to avoid now for Kilkenny, especially with this being their third tough game in just 14 days.
That does hand Limerick a significant advantage but, after running Kilkenny so close last year, Limerick need to get the job done now. They lacked the real killer instinct in that game and, while they have shown that assassin’s edge against Tipperary, Cork, and Waterford this summer, tomorrow will provide the clearest indication yet as to how much Limerick have sharpened that blade.
Kilkenny’s flesh is more exposed with their gruelling schedule but if any team in Irish sport can overcome that kind of a challenge, it’s Brian Cody’s men. One of the biggest questions Cody has to answer this week is whether to start Colin Fennelly and Richie Hogan, or hold them in reserve again.
Both made a huge impact when being introduced at half-time last Sunday. They scored 1-1 each but Hogan could have bagged 1-4 because he had three wides. More than anything though, Hogan turned the game with how he continually drifted and became the orchestrator in that space.
The big question for Cody is this: is he better off bringing Hogan and Fennelly on when they’re nine points down, or maybe having to haul them off when they’re five points up? I’d certainly be going for the latter but only Cody knows whether Hogan’s body is able for 70 minutes, or if Fennelly’s hurling is sharp enough for a full game.
Kilkenny’s greater experience was decisive last year but Michael Fennelly was immense that evening and he is no longer around. Limerick left that match behind them but they have definitely kicked on.
They have a different team now. That may include more younger players but they have had an invaluable grounding this summer.
And I expect Limerick to record a first championship win against Kilkenny since 1973.
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