I met a man on Wednesday night mad keen to chat about the old days with Clare, good and bad. Inevitably, the bad came first. “God, 1993 was some total disaster,” he said. “The hiding we got from Tipperary was something savage.”
I held my counsel for a few seconds before responding. Nearly everybody who recalls that 1993 season returns to our Munster final collapse, conveniently forgetting how we got there. We beat Limerick in Ennis before taking down Cork in the Gaelic Grounds.
Clare hadn’t beaten Cork in the championship in 12 years. We hadn’t won a championship match since beating Waterford by two points in 1988. Our next three championship defeats were by an aggregate margin of 45 points. I was involved in two of them.
“Jeez, I know you may think 1993 was a disaster,” I said to your man. “But to me, it was a great year.”
In my first year involved in 1989, Waterford thrashed us by 15 points. The late Fr Michael McNamara stood up in the dressing room afterwards and said, “The Phoenix will rise from the flame”. Nobody in that dressing room really believed that we would. I know for a fact that the four Clarecastle lads going home in the car together certainly didn’t. Limerick came along the following year and drilled us by 14 points in Ennis.
Tony Kelly had taken over that year in 1990. TK tried to bring a whole new professionalism to the setup. A female physical trainer, Norma Murphy, was brought in, which was a radical move at the time. There was no break in the training that winter. TK believed in what he was doing, and in where he was trying to take Clare, but the players he was trying to convince didn’t share his conviction. There were nights when some lads would drive past the pitch in Ballyline, head straight into Crusheen village, wait until the warm-up was over, and then pull into Ballyline. They got away with it. And they knew they were going to get away with it.
Len Gaynor blew that old negative mentality out of the water when he arrived as manager in the autumn of 1990. Gaynor had a totally different attitude but I really saw the mindset begin to change when some of the younger lads arrived into the panel around 1992 and 1993. I didn’t know guys like Brian Lohan and Jamesie O’Connor but I could sense the confidence they had in themselves. Moreover, I got a glimpse of their view of the bigger picture. It almost smacked of, “Hi, I don’t care what has happened Clare in the past, I’m going to win big during my career.”
You can’t buy that inner belief and it gradually began to show. We got beaten in another Munster final in 1994 but more new guys, with a different view of the world to the older lads, had either joined the group, or were about to enlist for the journey; Seanie McMahon, Ollie Baker, Frank Lohan, Fergal Hegarty, Colin Lynch, Stephen McNamara, Eamonn Taaffe. They had all lost a Munster U21 final to Waterford in 1994 but it didn’t bother them. They just wanted to get on to the next challenge.
Once we finally got over that big hurdle in 1995, we became new men. To win two All-Irelands and three Munster titles was beyond our wildest dreams but we believed anything was possible at that time. The whole county did. You saw that with our clubs, which won six successive Munster titles between 1995-2000, with Sixmilebridge and St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield going on to win All-Irelands.
You can’t compare what happened in Clare over 20 years ago to what is happening in Limerick now, but I do see some similarities. They haven’t won an All-Ireland senior title but you just feel something big is bubbling underneath the surface. That has already been reflected in their club dominance, with Limerick clubs having won five of the last seven Munster titles. They may have been shared by just two clubs but that kind of a grip has to mean something.
There is a confidence now amongst Limerick’s players, especially their young players, that I saw first-hand myself when I was involved with the underage academy for three years. That is particularly evident through Na Piarsaigh. Peter Casey is a really humble guy. He is the opposite of cocky but I still believe that Peter believes in his heart of hearts that there isn’t a better young corner-forward than him in the country. Conor and Jerome Boylan share that conviction too. They were never afraid of anyone.
It’s not just Na Piarsaigh fellas though. The Barry Murphy I worked with for the Limerick minors was a happy-go-lucky guy but the Barry Murphy I’m seeing now is a different animal. It’s the same with Seamus Flanagan. We didn’t get as much out of Seamus as we hoped with the minors in 2015. By all accounts he was lucky to make the 26 for the All-Ireland U21 final last September but Seamie has been a regular throughout this league at full-forward. The penny with these boys is dropping.
Even without the 10 Na Piarsaigh players, this group is evolving and growing at an impressive rate. Promotion from Division 1B is the obvious next step but there are no guarantees that will happen with an impending showdown coming against Galway next weekend.
If it doesn’t happen, and Limerick have to spend another year in 1B, the public will no doubt get antsy again. There is a mob in every county but Limerick’s always seem bigger than most. And when the mob wants a manager’s head in Limerick, they often get it.
Their history is littered with examples. Dave Keane won three All-Ireland U21 titles and he got one year in the job. Pad Joe Whelehan, who replaced Keane, lasted about five months. Heads don’t fall as quickly now but you still feel that the axe is hanging, waiting to drop after one bad result. It may take a fourth year under John Kiely and his management for it to happen for this Limerick squad, but the mob has to be prepared to possibly wait that long.
Limerick are experiencing a famine but there is no magic button to end famines. You can’t get the UN to fly in and drop parcels of All-Ireland medals over Limerick. You just have to work and grind with every player, to learn more about his personality and his beliefs to develop his confidence.
These young guys now have no psychological hang-ups. There is no dirty petrol in their system. They are being run on the best of juice. This is a well-run machine now and the Limerick public have to trust in the management who are driving it.
Everything is set up for it to happen - in time. Many of Limerick’s older players have Munster medals from 2013, which we didn’t have in Clare before we launched our crusade. Most of these young guys have at least one All-Ireland U21 medal, which none of our younger players in Clare had in the early 1990s.
Yet they believed it would happen, just like I’m sure most of these young Limerick players believe it will for them too. So if Limerick don’t get promotion next weekend against Galway, there may be some Limerick supporters reflecting on the 2018 season later this year with one particular game in mind. But it’s never about just one game. Because an incredible odyssey has so many different starting points.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved