The day of a big championship game, a fair few of the Clare lads used to think I was on another planet, that I didn’t know what nerves were, that I was so relaxed I was nearly horizontal.
I loved the big-day experience, but the perception the players had of me, the outward image I may have projected, wasn’t always accurate. Saturday was always torture, the fishing rod would be dusted off or three riveting frames of snooker played. I often struggled to sleep well that night.
Around the house the following morning, I’d be broken up with nerves and anxiety. I couldn’t wait to feel the holy water being thrown over me and the comforting last parting words of my mother: ‘don’t show the white feather’.
The stress would gradually begin to dissolve as the morning segued into afternoon. I’d feel more relaxed after strolling down Madden’s Terrace and walking into Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin’s house. Fergie ‘Tuts’ Tuohy would soon arrive and his wisecracks and wit would help puncture any lingering tension.The bus would land on from the West County to collect the six Magpies and when you saw the faces of Jamesie, Seanie, Ollie etc , you’d feel more relaxed again.
The bus would chug along down to Bunratty. The Lohan’s, Fitzy and the last of the East Clare crew would get on, faces pumped, the war-paint already daubed across their cheeks. Then Loughnane would appear, always the last to get on the bus. The big wolf had joined the pack. You knew then we were ready for war. As soon as we crossed over the border outside Limerick city, the nerves disappeared from me like a straw in the wind.
I embraced the day from then on for what it was; the time of our lives; the days we were made and built for. Eternal summer Sundays. For most of our big days out in Thurles in the 1990s, we used to base ourselves in the Cashel Palace hotel.
There wasn’t much focus on sports science or nutrition back then so the majority of us would get stuck into a large Irish breakfast, with Tony Considine insisting on me getting a side plate of Clonakilty black pudding, but it never did us any harm. While the rashers and sausages were still sitting in our bellies, we’d go up to a room for a lie-down.
I always roomed with Baker. He’d sleep through an air raid but his final words to me before he collapsed into a coma were always the same. ‘Shut your mouth now and turn off that telly’. And I thought I was laid back... oh Lord, that man took it to new extremes. While Baker would be snoring like a bear, I’d be trying to pick out a couple of bets I fancied that day. I’d always have a paper with me. I had a mobile phone from 1996 onwards. I was nearly an expert on Ulster football back then I was studying the form so much. The odd time, if I wanted to stretch my legs, I’d sneak down the town in Cashel and do an accumulator on three or four football matches.
The whole scene has changed now. You won’t see any Clare or Limerick lads strolling into a bookies three hours before tomorrow’s game but fellas still do whatever it takes to get through that early part of the day before you start zoning in on the match. I met Paul Browne on Wednesday at a fundraising event for Bruff GAA. I was slagging him about being named wing-forward, but I also asked him how he found the build-up to these games. It was same as ever. Brownie was just wishing the days away, waiting for 4pm on Sunday like it was the only time that ever mattered in this world.
In my day, Clare and Limerick was often like the end of the world. The games were massive. The tension was unbelievable. Times have changed, players know each other so well now that the build-up is never going to be as frenetic. However the lead in to this match has been so muted that I wouldn’t be surprised if Thurles explodes in a fireball of passion and excitement tomorrow. After the league, both sides are intent on doing their talking on the pitch and I’d say it will be helter-skelter with plenty of softening up early on.
There is very little between these sides, but the loss of some of Clare’s big guns is bound to have an impact on their chances. No matter how good some of these young players are, no matter how many Munster and All-Ireland U-21 medals they have, they’re still not Colm Galvin, Conor McGrath, Podge Collins or Brendan Bugler. Even something as nuanced as Galvin’s telepathy with Tony Kelly could be a factor in such a tight match.
Galvin was always a huge player for this team, a real leader for such a young player. He had an innate ability to sense big moments in big games, with the class and intelligence in his locker to make sure he and Clare capitalised on them.
McGrath is one of the best forwards Clare has produced, so his loss is deep and if, as suspected, there is a fair bit of timber flying it’s hard to calculate Bugler’s loss to the war zone. Limerick always bring huge intensity to Munster but they won’t be as tactically naive as they were when the sides last met in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final. They will have studied Clare’s performance against Kilkenny in the relegation final very closely, where Shane O’Donnell consistently broke off to the side in a one-man full-forward line.
Browne’s redeployment to wing-forward also carries a clear message. I’d be shocked if Limerick break up the Browne-‘Jim bob’ Ryan midfield partnership, which probably means Paudie O’Brien will step back in front of Gavin O’Mahony at centre-back, who will sit, with Paudie helping to shut down the channels Tony Kelly will look to attack.
I’m surprised Wayne McNamara isn’t starting because he is a proven competitor but it’s a sign too of the depth Limerick possess in their panel. If Limerick get to grips with Kelly and gain control in the middle third, O’Donnell’s possession count will also be seriously restricted, which will have a knock-on effect on how many scores Clare can actually clock. I like Colm Lyons as a very fair referee but he could have his hands full here - I wonder could this game be decided by one of the new advantage rules or a one-v-one penalty.
Limerick are probably marginal favourites but these games always come down to those little granules of composure which are so central to the end result. Clare’s experience in winning the 2013 All-Ireland should stand to them now. For all the successes Clare have had, they still haven’t won a Munster title since 1998. It might mean that little bit more to them to win Munster so I’m going for Clare.
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy every bit of the build-up, including the Sunday morning fry. The summer has landed! Happy days.
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