On the evening of the Clare-Wexford game two weeks ago, I left Cork and headed straight to Whitegate, the last outpost in east Clare, right on the Galway border.
The club were having a benefit night and anyone who was in Cork, and was just back, was in great form.
And many of those who hadn’t been in Cork, but had watched the match in a pub, were in even better form.
Cyril Farrell, whose club, Tommy Larkins (the same one as Jason Flynn), which sits just over the border in Woodford, was on stage alongside Eddie Brennan and myself.
Coming from Clarecastle, those of us in mid-Clare have always been sheltered from what border rivalries really mean to those people on the frontier.
The Clare-Limerick rivalry always carried more of an edge for the Cratloe, Clonlara, Meelick and Parteen people, while the Clare-Tipperary rivalry meant more in Killaloe than anywhere else, especially with the bridge there over the river Shannon connecting the two counties.
There is a longer border between Clare and Galway but the hurling rivalry between the counties is only really apparent in three Clare clubs — Whitegate, Tubber and Crusheen.
When we travelled around the county with the Munster Cup after our breakthrough win in 1995, Tubber was the last stop on day one of the tour.
We had no notions of All-Irelands at that stage and we were absolutely milking the success.
John Russell, the former Clare player, once said to me that if we ever won Munster, we’d be lucky to have a team for an All-Ireland semi-final.
But when we got to Tubber, Enda O’Connor, the former Clare great, wasn’t long in reminding us of how important theupcoming All-Ireland semi-final against Galway was for Tubber people. “Do you see that hill over there,” he said, “that’s Galway.”
When Ger Loughnane got us back in the following week for training, he wasn’t long getting us ready for Galway.
We were fired up but we weren’t wired to the moon either because Clare always had a healthy relationship with Galway.
For us, that had primarily stemmed from the 1980s when Galway were winning All-Irelands and Clare were loyal supporters to the Galway cause, vicariously basking in the success of our close neighbours, success which we often felt was unattainable to us.
I remember going to those All-Ireland finals in 1987 and 1988 and shouting for Galway. They were always our second team.
I wouldn’t have minded seeing Waterford win last year’s All-Ireland final but if I was really pushed, I’d have preferred Galway to win.
We didn’t have that bitter provincial relationship like we had with our other neighbours, Limerick and Tipperary.
There was a completely different dynamic to the Clare-Galway relationship, a much closer personality connection.
Maybe it was that similar west-of-Ireland relaxed nature but I also felt that both counties could always relate to each other, especially after the heartbreak we had both suffered for so long.
There wasn’t a scent of animosity or badness when we clashed with Galway in that 1995 All-Ireland semi-final.
The first time I ever came across a scintilla of it was when we met in the league that November.
Kevin Broderick was soloing through with a ball, after breezing past me, and Frank Lohan came out and absolutely nailed him with a shoulder.
Broderick had been a minor in 1995 and Mattie Murphy, then Galway manager, had a few choice words with Frank.
Mattie was at the helm again in 1999 when we met Galway for the second time, in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Mattie had been manager of Éire Óg the previous year and he’d poached Fergus Flynn, who transferred to Abbey-Duniry so that he could play senior inter-county hurling across the border.
Before that drawn quarter-final, I had a few words with Gussy. “It’s an awful shame you’re not in the Clare jersey Fergus,” I said to him. “We could do with you. It’s a desperate pity.”
The mind games certainly didn’t work. Flynn had two points bagged from midfield before half-time. He was one of Galway’s best players on the day. Before the replay, Ollie Baker and Colin Lynch approached me.
“Hi”’ they said “leave the talking to us this time.” I did and two boys took care of business.
Galway had a few big men back then but they were mostly a team of young, small, fast, nippy players that would burn you for speed.
It was often a reference point for Loughnane before league games.
“Do ye want those small fellas running in under yere legs,” he would say.
Galway are a completely different beast now, huge, powerful men, most of whom are classy players too. Galway always attack the puckout but Clare did really well in that area against Wexford.
They will need to physically engage Galway again in a similar capacity but, apart from having the John Conlon out-ball option now, Clare can’t really afford go route-one outside of aiming exocets at Conlon.
Clare will need to spread it wide, and play it short, if they are to avoid getting ensnared in Galway’s defensive web.
Aaron Shanagher, who tore his cruciate last October, is back and reportedly flying in training.
He gives Clare another long ball option, because he is a strong aerial ball-winner. Clare may pitch him in at some stage against those Galway man-mountains but that option has to be a risk with Shanagher having so little game-time under his belt in over nine months.
Peter Duggan will surely be an option on puckouts on Aidan Harte but Harte has shown — like I did, because I was never good in the air — a way to cope.
Clare have got to box clever and always look to be hitting moving targets, especially Tony Kelly.
One of the big concerns for Clare is that they seem to lull in every game for 10 minutes, which would be fatal against a team of this class and power.
Clare paid a devastating price for that lull in the third quarter of the Munster final but they still played some brilliant stuff in that match. And if they can reproduce that quality for the 70 minutes today, I fancy them.
The start will be huge. This could come down to something as basic as the first ball between Conlon and Daithí Burke.
If John could catch it, nail a score or draw a free, Clare could take huge confidence and inspiration from that kind of a play, especially against one of Galway’s totems.
Similarly, if Burke was to outfield John and launch the ball down the field, the Galway lads could feed off that energy and power on.
One ball isn’t going to define any game but I think Clare can do it if they peak. Forensically assessing Galway this
year, how good are they? That might seem a strange claim but they struggled against Kilkenny in the drawn Leinster final. They were brilliant at stages of the replay but they still coughed up a huge lead.
If Clare can stay in the game, and fully express themselves in what Clare people see (rationally or not) as this team’s natural home in Croke Park, Clare can cause a huge upset.
Limerick will also go to Croke Park tomorrow with an element of freedom and liberation after beating Kilkenny for the first time in 45 years.
They will want to really express themselves now. I’m sure they will but so will Cork, who certainly won’t want to lose successive games at this stage of the competition, and a third All-Ireland semi-final in five years.
I expect the Cork attack to ignite and do some serious damage. Patrick Horgan and Seamus Harnedy were superb against Clare but if Conor Lehane can find a similar vein of form — which he has struggled to discover — I couldn’t see Cork being outscored.
This will probably be a higher-scoring game than today’s semi-final.
It was a shootout when the sides met in June but, even though Limerick played 40 minutes with 14 men, Cork were playing a third game in 13 days and they looked flat and tired. And yet they still hit 1-25.
Seamus Flanagan was brilliant that day but he hasn’t produced anything like that form since. Flanagan went to town on Damien Cahalane that day so it will be interesting now to see what Cork will do with Cahalane.
It’s possible that they could switch him with Colm Spillane, putting Cahalane on Aaron Gillane.
Limerick’s movement up front against Kilkenny was slick and classy but Cork also saw the damage they inflicted against them in June.
Daniel Kearney came out that evening and played around the middle to try and shut Limerick down in that sector but I’m sure the Cork half-back line will sit even deeper again tomorrow to try and cut down that space in front of their full-back line.
It could be a shootout from distance but if it is, you’d always fancy Cork in that type of a game.
Psychologically, Limerick will really believe anything is possible now with the way they beat Kilkenny.
From talking to a few Limerick fellas, even they admitted that the heads would have dropped in the past after a sucker-punch goal like Richie Hogan’s.
But it didn’t seem to knock a stir out of the players. They scored directly from the puckout. And drove on to win the match.
Limerick have been excellent. Apart from the blip against Clare, they have made huge progress this summer.
Limerick will take great heart from drawing with Cork with 14 men two months ago but I think that Cork have moved on a lot more since then.
That Limerick match was also a big wake-up call for Cork and I think they’ll be far more fired up, and ready, for this game. And I fancy them to win it.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved